16 September 2007

On Liberty and Education

An article in the Wall Street Journal (from 11 days ago - I apologize for staleness) by Peter Berkowitz restates a familiar Straussian argument: America's colleges have abandoned the values of a liberal education and as a result are failing their graduates and society as a whole. Though the argument may be familiar, brief as it is the article deserves to be read in full - far more so, at any rate, than my response.

Berkowitz's Straussian chops are established by his academic texts, including one on Beyond Good and Evil which I had the misfortune of attempting to read for a seminar last year (misfortune not because of the quality of Berkowitz's text, but the lack of quality of my comprehension). And liberals (that's what we Canadians must call ourselves here in America) will perhaps shudder at his Hoover Institution / George Mason pedigree as well as the appearance of this commentary in the Wall Street Journal.

No matter. As graduate students we are strongly predisposed to reflect on our particular educations and thus on education in general. The Straussian perspective presents, at the very least, a powerful foil.

The common ground of the members of the Hoboken Group, I'm happy to say, is a liberal education at a (privileged) Toronto private school and diverging, unstructured, self-chosen programs at the University of Toronto. Because we partook in most aspects of the classically-grounded core which Berkowitz espouses prior to college, any malformation from the lack of a liberal education in university was mitigated. We are thus more properly positioned to reflect and argue on the value of liberal education than your typical Harvard graduate - according to Berkowitz's position, at least.

If it is true that the program at such a prestigious college as Harvard leaves graduates rudderless and lacking in the essentials of an education, it is doubly true for graduates in the arts and sciences at public Canadian universities such as the University of Toronto. Breadth requirements are a joke - specifically tailored courses in the humanities for science students and vice versa. "The Magic of Physics" is not the worst of it - your philosophy major can get away with taking a philosophy of science (generally considered, to the best of my understanding, a subfield of philosophy) credit to fulfill the science requirement. Apart from one's undergraduate major, there are no required courses - no foundations, no core. This freedom, which Berkowitz implies "uneducated" undergraduates cannot responsibly use, can lead to extreme specialization (say, 3/4 of one's courses taken in Political Science) or lack of direction (a degree cobbled together from specialized but unrelated courses).

Of course, for those devoted to a life in academia, the absence of a core or generalist program - even without a liberal education in high school - is perhaps not such a bad thing. We who are damned to low salaries and onerous research production requirements shall have the opportunity to read and learn far and wide for the rest of our lives.

These two elements from my own experience - a liberal education in secondary school and the prospect of lifelong education - shed some light on the problems with Berkowitz's argument, even if one accepts (as I mostly do, with minor reservation) the value of a canonical, generalist liberal education.

First, why assume that the typical undergraduate (at Harvard or elsewhere) enters college as a blank slate, requiring a broad education to gain the essential knowledge that every educated person possesses? It may be true that today North American secondary schools fail their students even more egregiously than universities do, but to build this assumption into an argument on education seems to give up too much ground. Many high school graduates don't make it to college; many of those who do cannot afford the luxury of four years of generalist learning. If there is an essential "educated person," ideally a good chunk of that essential education should take place in high school. If this essential education is invaluable to liberal democracy, it needs to be available to most of the democracy's citizens - and that means starting and mostly finishing with secondary school.

Second, and similarly, why assume that the role of colleges is to produce well-educated, responsible citizens, who then spend their lives prior to retirement not reading much? Lifelong learning can't and shouldn't be the exclusive domain of graduate students and well-heeled, leisurely elites. If one semester of foreign language training does not an educated person make, four semesters of training should not an educated person satisfy, nor should just four years of broad-based reading and discovery. An argument that restricts education to four years of college denies education to those who don't or can't attend college and to those who are finished with their formal learning. It denies that education can be viewed as a good-in-itself.

I agree with Berkowitz that a well-functioning liberal democracy requires the possession and exercise of responsible reason by far more than a small minority. But the exercise of reason fades soon in those who have stopped learning and cannot exist if liberal education does not begin far prior to one's college years.


sossux said...

Are you sure that you shouldn't be majoring in Journalism Aldous? That was a pretty decent op-ed.

Luke said...

Surely if any school in the United States would be able to select students with an outstanding traditional liberal arts education, it would be Harvard?

As such, Peter Berkowitz can't really complain that the school's new curriculum puts the cart before the horse, since the Admissions Office can ensure that new students are already in the saddle, figuratively and sometimes literally!

But I digress...of course we need a higher caliber of high school education, though I think, Aldous, that presenting this idea as a solution only shifts the question of what makes up an appropriate curriculum from one level of educational bureaucracy to another, one that happens to be underfunded, over politicized and polarized to the hilt.

However, on a broader level, the "West" needs to embrace its own internal diversity; live up to its often crummy past while insisting on (and then proving, not assuming) its importance to the future; and deal with the mess it spawned through globalisation. And so a Western liberal arts education has to do all those things, too.

How? I think that'll be the subject of an upcoming post...

Colin M said...

I’m trying to speak as somebody who hasn’t had a great experience encountering great ideas thanks to teachers or professors, either in high school (I struggled and nearly dropped out while at UTS) or in university (where my degree as an English Specialist with a hodge-podge collection of introductory courses in about 6 disciplines seems to be one variant of the nightmare contemporary degree that everybody’s getting so worked up about).

None of that makes me feel like I’m not getting the part of a “classical liberal education” that I think we agree is useful, and I may be avoiding undeserved elitism by suggesting that my experience has been as good as it gets. I don’t have a coherent sense of what just happened to me over the past 10 years, but I really don’t think it matters, as I'll try to explain why.

Your piece seems to me to exaggerate how difficult it is to think for oneself and see the world through multiple lenses, and work through contradictions or limited perspectives, towards a more firmly settled viewpoint, rather than simply going with a fashion or one’s first instinct, or carrying around a mixed bag of impressions. At least it makes too much of the role of institutions in that process.

What it is that you’re asking for university to provide citizens with, is to my mind more of a habit of mind and mental activity than the product of 10 years of pristine academic training. It’s something that you can get intimations of when a priest gives an Easter sermon that questions whether the Ressurection should be read literally and decides that he doesn’t really need to know, when you hear a song with the lyrics “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”, or listen to an interview with Mike Harris and are struck by his dedication to public service....when you migrate and have all kinds of assumptions about your support systems and the relevance of your own abilities challenged, when something unexpected and horrible happens to people you care about, when you watch Saturday Night Live or Dave Chapelle....and countless other ways to build your own way of seeing the world.

All kinds of people have access to these experiences, not just teachers and classrooms. The values of a “classical liberal education” have infiltrated our culture and are part of our culture to a greater degree than you give credit.

Rather than arguing for a return to classical liberal education, as though institutional reform is the best strategy, why not instead address ordinary people, and just suggest they have the confidence to be informed about what they think deserves their attention, and to determine their own viewpoint on matters with or without having rigorously engaged Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Le Corbusier, Darwin, Shakespeare, Judith Thompson, Bertrand Russell, Plato, Strauss, Said, or whoever you mean. I don’t think that clear language, the skills to do extensive research, and experience with difficult, impressive ideas, while often fascinatingly unexpected, is entirely what’s at the heart of a classic liberal education, nor something you don’t already do every day even if you “miss out”.

Especially with more Canadians going to university than ever before, why try to belittle their viewpoint because it’s not enough like that great ol’ UTS? Because they never bothered with Latin, because they spent high school going to concerts and watching TV, or playing sports, because they go clubbing and drink rather than going to the sometimes edifyingly boring elitist lectures....Even if they’re the worst UofT student you can imagine, can you be so sure they’re not capable of participating in democracy, in having the virtues that you insist are tied to a liberal arts education?

UofT students who aren’t going on to pursue graduate education nevertheless need to be able to appreciate the things they come up against through life with an informed, intelligent, sensible viewpoint, and to care deeply about living well. Without these, democracy and society will suffer. So try to keep an eye on the degree to which floundering through a UofT degree can be as eye-opening as soaring through it, and provides as much of a key to reading and acting in the rest of one’s life – rather than always focussing on formal educational institutions as your addressee, and the way to cure social ills. Plus, I mean good luck reforming either high school or university to your vision of it... it's better maybe to just address people directly.

In my mind, the main problem that we’re trying to confront here is apathy, and its sidekick -incoherent thinking. In my view, the main causes of apathy are not so much ignorance or inexperience, as a lack of desire and a lack of confidence. It’s talk of a “classical liberal education from a private school” that will turn off graduates of North Toronto Collegiate Institute, or Malvern or Central Tech, who may succeed, or may struggle, in their studies at UofT, from participating in society at large – will sap their sense of inclusion and confidence that are necessary to a better political culture.

Anyway, I’ve been a bit sloppy, and realize I'm echoing your own take on Berkowitz at points. Hopefully my two cents offers something of interest. I really enjoy the website, it’s great to see you all doing so well for yourselves. Best of luck!

Colin Morgan