Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

General education and the life of the mind

I sympathize with some of what Mark Oppenheimer says here, but take issue with more of it.

Here’s a snippet:

Our students have lost the space in which to act with purpose, which I think of as narrow but deep attention, not quite obsession but a healthier version of it. The ideal is now versatility, four years of learned attention deficit disorder (except in sports, where the three-sport dilettante has been replaced by the highly directed thoroughbred one-sport stud). As activities have multiplied, the curriculum has diversified, which is both a cause and an effect. Choosing from a menu of activities – academics, sports, student government, community service, etc. – students spend less time on academics, and what time they do spend is forcibly divided among various disciplines or “distribution groups.”

Yes, our students often behave as if they have attention deficit disorder, but the culprit is not the requirement that they be liberally educated as well as specialized. Oppenheimer’s strictures apply to cafeteria-style distribution requirements that have no organizing principle for any student other than scheduling convenience, the relative easiness of the material, or the popularity of the professor.
Katie Newmark is right when she observes about her own experience that

Duke’s gen ed requirements, which the students pejoratively refer to as "The Matrix," are designed to give students breadth of knowledge. But many people regard The Matrix as a burden; they look for the easiest classes that will fulfill the requirements, taking them not out of intellectual curiosity but just to meet the requirement, and they don’t take these Matrix classes seriously.

But students can come to appreciate a coherent core curriculum, where they achieve depth over time, amounting to what we at Oglethorpe sometimes call "a second major." Yes, an intellectually serious experience of specialization is a good thing, but by itself--without the perspective afforded by a coherent, genuinely liberal education--it is stultifying, illiberal, and ultimately subject to the kind of lampooning Nietzsche offers in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he describes Zarathustra’s encounter with the man who is an expert on the brain of the leech.

Discussions - 5 Comments

Two points:

General education at the university level only makes sense because our high schools are so poor. A student with a solid high school background (e.g., International Baccaluareate) is ready to specialize if he chooses.

Many general education courses taken to meet distribution requirements are a joke. Some reasons: the need to retain students, lack of integrity in the academic disciplines involved, student disinterest.

I realize that many "gen ed" courses leave a lot to be desired, but even smart products of IB programs can profit from a continued and continuing encounter with, say, "Great Books." Why? They raise questions that either cannot be or are not raised well in the high school context. Stated most simply, as we mature, we grow in our ability to think through issues, especially those dealing with social and political responsibility. Thus, for example, in Plato’s Statesman the young interlocutors, who are gifted mathematicians, have only the most abstract sense of what it means to engage in political life. I’m not saying that there’s some magical difference between 18 and 19 or, heaven forbid, between June and September of the same year. The settings are different, and many (but not all) are on their own for the first time, both of which count for something.

I’ll overstate my own position for the sake of clarity here: specialization occurs soon enough if it occurs in graduate school.

My high school students, after reading a number of Federalist Papers, Common Sense, Lincoln’s speeches, Washington’s Farewell, a number of Supreme Court decisions, Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ dialogues, Frederick Douglass, Churchill, Reagan, and between thirty and forty books, might take offense at the above.

Mr. Williams,

Do you mean to argue that they would not profit from further probing of the issues raised in your classes? That someone who has been actively observing political life for, say, three or four years might not have deeper and better informed insights than someone who has just begun? That someone who has been living on his or her own for a couple of years might not regard some questions as more consequential, and hence treat them more seriously, than someone who is sill deeply embedded in the bosom of his or her family? Experience and maturity count for something here, not just intelligence.

I would of course never argue that one should not begin these inquiries before one gets to college. But I am arguing that one’s liberal education is not completed by graduating from even the most rigorous secondary school. I’m not talking about the native intelligence of students or teachers, or of the credentials of the teachers. I am talking about setting, experience, and maturity. I am also willing to concede that there are extraordinary individuals to whom my strictures may not apply. But even very bright high school students taught by very bright and well-prepared teachers will profit from four years of "liberal education." My seniors, even those who are the products of very good high schools (no snide remarks about the South, please), will, I think agree.

In fact, I’ll go pose that question to a class in just a few minutes. (It’s not off topic, inasmuch as it’s a seminar on liberal education and political philosophy. Today’s reading: Leo Strauss’s "Liberal Education and Responsibility."

Joe, I meant nothing of the kind and wasn’t actually trying to pick a fight. I was simply saying that students in high school can raise profound questions about the nature of man, the human person, and the best government. Clearly, experience and further study in a liberal arts education will continue the learning that hopefully never really ends. But, I hope the process begins in high school and hopefully in middle school for that matter.

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