Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Liberal education: telling the story

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had university presidential candidates on campus. They’ve told us that one of the things we need to do is tell our story compellingly, making the contemporary case for liberal education in a traditional residential liberal arts college setting. I’ve been on something of a tear about this myself, co-leading an honors seminar on liberal education, offering a senior seminar on liberal education and political philosophy, and writing a couple of articles prompted by John Seery’s fine and fun America Goes to College. Seery, by the way, will be speaking at Berry College on March 31st and here at Oglethorpe on April 1st (no jokes please). I’m also gearing up to lead a faculty development seminar on liberal education this summer. So I’ve been thinking about how to tell our story.

In that connection, yesterday’s senior seminar was interesting. Our text was Alan Ryan’s Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education, which I find frustratingly diffuse in its argumentation. Ryan makes a distinction between liberal education as education for life in a liberal society and "liberal-education," understood as the classical education of gentlemen for leisure and leadership (what Bruce Kimball would call liberal education in the "oratorical" tradition). Ryan argues that while the latter has no necessary connection to the former (that is, traditional liberal education is just as consistent with life in a religiously-tinged aristocracy), it nevertheless is the case that some form of it--producing Benjamin Barber’s "aristocracy of everyone"--is appropriate for a pluralistic liberal society.

Here’s the argument in a nutshell. Liberal education (in Ryan’s sense) is supposed to teach "toleration, open-mindedness, and an ability to argue for [students’] own views without resorting to coercive measures," all of which are (arguably) attributes we’d like to see in our fellow citizens. This can be accomplished, it would seem, more by the manner of presenting a curriculum than by any particular curricular content. You need seminars, rather than lectures, and a relatively small collegiate community, so that students encounter one another on multiple occasions and in multiple settings, rather than being able to hide behind the anonymity of large classes and a large campus population. Seery, by the way, would probably assent to a large portion of this, adding an emphasis on the importance of understanding this community in a non-instrumental fashion and a recognition that there are also extracurricular settings in which these virtues are developed (his favorites seem to be intramural basketball teams and jazz bands).

But Ryan does offer this concession to the advocates of "liberal-education":

There is perhaps...a case for insisting that everyone should take a program of general studies focused on history, literature, philosophy, and science.... I have some doubt whether colleges and universities can do very much to instill virtues that parents have failed to instill, but it is possible that they can do something to get students to perceive the implications of the moral ideals they have acquired. It would at the very least do something to reduce the number of young people who appear to live wholly solipsistically, utterly unanchored in their own time and place.

What he seems to have in mind here is the feature of democratic life that Tocqueville called "individualism," the withdrawal of individuals into small domestic circles largely unconnected and unconcerned with the wider world around them. Our students display great cleverness, technical facility, and native intelligence. They can address or solve any task or problem we put before them, as Ross Douthat suggests was true of his fellow Harvard undergraduates. But there is no sense that they have a history, a tradition, a larger time and place to which they belong (and of which they are the unacknowledged and unself-conscious products). If they are not inducted into a tradition of compelling questions and compelling answers, if they are not helped to see the larger whole of which they are but a small part, they are only accidentally members of any particular community. Without this sort of education, they are not capable of giving what we call "informed consent" to their membership and hence they’re not really free.

So Ryan is right: "liberal-education" is particularly appropriate as a preparation for life in what he understands to be a liberal society, but there’s more. Genuine liberation, which is the intellectual result of this sort of education (when it "takes"), is possible at any time and in any place. (Consider, in this connection, Reading Lolita in Tehran.)

Update: Welcome, Conservative Philosopher and Insider Higher Ed readers! Take a look at some of the other posts on this lively (and, in my case only, long-winded) site.

Discussions - 3 Comments

The late English Catholic intellectual and priest John Henry Cardinal Newman in his work, The Idea of a University, covers similar themes with great depth and insight.

Newman writes that a proper liberal education is about "real cultivation of mind." And integral to this cultivation is to gain an appropriate awareness and appreciation of place within one’s culture and history. To have a narrow-minded vision that is blind to the broader cultural and historical realities within which one lives is to lack something of seminal importance for the goal of becoming a truly educated person.

Hope I can be indulged in a few relevant excerpts from Idea as a sample of this work (which I highly recommend reading in full). . .

Our desideratum is . . . the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.

This is real cultivation of mind; and I do not deny that the characteristic excellences of a gentleman are included in it. . . Certainly a liberal education does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form,--for the mind is like the body. Boys outgrow their shape and their strength; their limbs have to be knit together, and their constitution needs tone. Mistaking animal spirits for vigour, and overconfident in their health, ignorant what they can bear and how to manage themselves, they are immoderate and extravagant; and fall into sharp sicknesses. This is an emblem of their minds; at first they have no principles laid down within them as a foundation for the intellect to build upon; they have no discriminiating convictions, and no grasp of consequences. And therefore they talk at random, if they talk much, and cannot help being flippant, or what is emphatically called "young." They are merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are. (above from Newman’s Preface to The Idea)

And later, Discourse V ("Knowledge Its Own End") of the section on University Teaching contains these gems:

There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others. . . . The drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. . . . Though they [students] cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. . . . He [the student] apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal." A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, euitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.

Newman says that this "special Philosophy, . . . consist[s] in a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values."

Toward the end of the same discourse he writes, "Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence."

Please forgive me if I am getting too carried away here and straining people’s patiences . . . I hope readers will benefit from a few snippets from Discourse VI, "Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning." In this Discourse Newman fleshes out in more detail what he means by the perfection of the intellect which is the aim of a liberal education. A person engaged in this process, he says, "has a consciousness of mental enlargement; he does not stand where he did, he has a new centre, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger."

And expanding on this idea of education bringing about a certain mental enlargement, Newman writes

The enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number if ideas hitherto unknown to it, but the the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it. It is the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements; it is a making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without this no enlargement is said to follow. There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them. We feel our minds to be growing and expanding then, when we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already. It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of the mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates. And therefore a truly great intellect . . . is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.

And finally,

The intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands and how its path lies from one point to another.

My apologies for the length (I admire Newman very much on this topic), and also if I’ve simply brought up things that have already been covered here. This is my first foray into this blog.

Yikes; my apologies again. I did not intend the above post to be one big run-on paragraph. As I wrote it I put in paragraph divisions per the usual method--using the key. I didn’t realize that in this system you must click "new paragraph" to in fact establish separate paragraphs.

This was an excellent first post.

"The enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number if ideas hitherto unknown to it, but the the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it. It is the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements; it is a making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without this no enlargement is said to follow. There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them."

This systematizing of ideas, this what I would call the building of a framework. Without a framework we bounce aimlessly among data. While frameworks are very important, they are not the unique product of higher education. Everyone opperates on some sort of framework, the product of higher education is simply to make explicit the frameworks into which evidence is pieced together to form a conclusion. The role of higher education is to make people self-aware of the opperative ideas that form them. The choice is between being conscious or unconscious.

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