Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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MacIntyre on liberal education

Our friend John von Heyking sent me this essay by Alasdair MacIntyre, which offers an excellent critique of contemporary higher education and a well-articulated proposal for reform. Here’s a snippet:

First, what students learn in their major, whatever the discipline, has more and more become what they need to learn, if they are to become specialists in that particular discipline. The major has too often become a prologue to graduate school and the undergraduates most praised are those most open to being transformed into the likeness of their professors, an outcome that would be comic, if it were not tragic. Second, students are compelled to make more or less irrevocable choices at a stage when, even if they already know what they want to learn-and many do not-they do not as yet know what they need to learn. What they do know is that their career prospects will be harmed if their grade point average is not high and therefore they have a strong motive not to take courses in which, at least at first, they may not do well. As a result, risk taking is out, for them as for their teachers, and those who most need, for example, to learn certain parts of mathematics and science, are likely to avoid taking just the courses that they most need. Moreover, their teachers depend on them for their teaching evaluations, and teachers who insist on giving students what they need rather than what they want are apt to be penalized in those evaluations. So it becomes inevitable that many students’ needs go unmet, even while their desire for As is gratified.


Third, whatever pattern of courses is taken by an individual, it is unlikely to be more than a collection of bits and pieces, a specialist’s grasp of this, a semispecialist’s partial understanding of that, an introductory survey of something else. The question of how these bits and pieces might be related to one another, of whether they are or are not parts that contribute to some whole, of what, if anything, it all adds up to, not merely commonly goes unanswered, it almost always goes unasked. And how indeed could it be otherwise when every course, even when introductory, is a course in a specialized discipline taught by a teacher who may be vastly ignorant of everything outside her or his own discipline? Each part of the curriculum is someone’s responsibility, but no one has a responsibility for making the connections between the parts. To whom should this matter?


It should matter to anyone who thinks it important what conception of human nature and the human condition students have arrived at by the time they enter the adult workplace....

Read the whole thing.    

Discussions - 4 Comments

Something weird is happening with the Commonweal site right now. The link works only intermittently. Try going to main site and linking from the front page.

The link seems to have been fixed.

Thank you, Joe. That was good.

It’s a significant essay. At PMC I’ve taken a longer look at MacIntyre’s argument for intercultural education. At the Tocqueville Forum a lot of hay was made over the (profound, by now obvious) problems with multiculturalism. But there’s an approach to civic education that understands the need to properly comprehend a world of multiple civilizations and cultures -- in order to successfully orient the self in the space of one’s own culture. And thereby to make informed decisions among certain incommensurable norms. There are cosmpolitanisms that are not quite universalist-individualist masquerades. Right?

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