Monday, February 16, 2009


We might begin by defining two approaches to education. In the first, education serves to teach skills of immediate and practical application in the workforce - the vocational approach to education. In the second, the purpose of education is to produce students who can think clearly, reflect before they act, find answers to questions on their own, and whose broader and more informed outlook affords them greater empathy for others and therefore serves as a basis for a moral worldview. When it is centered on the study of literature, art, music, philosophy, and history, this second model is often referred to as a liberal education, by which is meant liberal in the classical sense of the word. In antiquity, it was an education fit for the free individual, while the specialized skills imparted by a vocational education were intended for slaves.

There has always been tension between the first and second models, and we see it today in every blustering politician or exasperated parent who asks "what good is a degree in English?" We see it, too, increasingly, and, in my view, distressingly, from administrators within the universities themselves. Consider John Sperling, the billionaire founder of the vocationally-oriented University of Phoenix. "Coming here is not a rite of passage," he says. "We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that "expand their minds" nonsense." Notice that Sperling is not merely indicating his preference for vocationally-oriented postsecondary education - but a contempt for any other kind. More recently, Margaret Wente (always good for a smug and condescending quotation) wrote in The Globe and Mail: "A vast proportion of the student body neither wants nor needs a traditional liberal education anyway. They have no desire to sit at the feet of cloistered masters debating truth and beauty." I'll ignore Wente's presumption that she actually has any idea what the "vast proportion" of the student body wants (and indeed the idea that a typical academic, probably polylingual, well-travelled, and politically active, is somehow "cloistered") and instead observe that the ability to consider questions of truth and beauty is vocationally important. Can anyone examine the behaviour of corporate America in the past few years and say that a healthy dose of moral philosophy hasn't been required?

We must be cautious, however, in assuming a liberal education will always or necessarily yield a more moral and empathetic worldview. In The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz offers chilling examples of liberal education gone terrifyingly askew. In the case of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, to cite just one example, a lifetime's pursuit of the truth — he had studied theology and then philosophy — served as the basis for a moral and intellectual absolutism that led him to embrace a political and racial ideology that represented the point of absolute negativity in human affairs. For those who believe that a liberal education is a defense against precisely the kind of bigotry and thuggery that the Nazis embodied, the thought of men, listening to Beethoven and Schumann while discussing Kant and Goethe long into the night, and then going forth the next day to operate the bureaucratic machinery of the Holocaust, is particularly chilling. Heidegger himself, who played no direct role in the genocide, but who was an ardent, enthusiastic, and largely unapologetic Nazi, was an acknowledged expert on one of richest and deepest contributions to moral philosophy: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

It is no easy matter to say what, precisely, went wrong, not just with Heidegger but with hundreds of thousands of people like him. Some Marxist cultural critics have argued that Nazism was the terminus of the Enlightenment project - that the 18th century celebration of reason evolved into a 20th century tyranny of reason - though reason of a particularly perverse sort. Koonz offers the more hopeful suggestion that it represented a failure or even an explicit rejection of the Enlightenment program, but either the way the fact that it emerged in the most educated nation in Europe should give us a moment of pause.

But if an education in the liberal arts is no guarantee that a more generous, understanding, and moral outlook on life will result, it remains the best mechanism we have for producing one. (I exclude religious instruction here, since it is demonstrably true that not all religious denominations teach lessons than can be called "moral" in any sense of the word.) The point is not that professors will always have answers, nor that they should give them even if they do (recall Gotthold Lessing's famous observation that, given the opportunity, he would refuse God's gift of truth in favour of a lifetime of groping for the truth). Rather, the point is to aid students in thinking intelligently about how the curriculum they are learning will aid them in answering the difficult moral and ethical questions that they will be faced with in their lives.

In my professional discipline, the format of many courses provides us little opportunity to pause to consider such matters. I personally pay lip service to the idea that we study history because it offers lessons about how to live well in the present, but I spend very little time actually helping students to understand what those lessons might be. But how could it be otherwise, when I have 400 years of history to teach in about 70 classroom hours, and when the students are evaluated in large measure on the accuracy with which they can reproduce lecture notes on tests and exams?

What is needed is not so much new ideas about how an undergraduate education should be organized, but a resurrection of very old ideas that have faltered under pressure and prejudice.

1 comment:

Graham Broad said...

This is the first of several columns I intend to write over the coming months on the subject of teaching. The artwork is "the Seven Liberal Arts" from the 12th century Hortus Deliciarum.