The Ends of Learning

Yesterday I posted a link to a column by Stanley Fish in which he suggested that a return to something resembling the classical model of education might be just what our educational system needed.  Fish cited three recent books from three very different authors who nonetheless complimented one another in arguing for educational practices invested in the humanities and the  traditions of classical education. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by philosopher Martha Nussbaum was one of the three titles briefly reviewed by Fish.  Today, while reviewing some recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement, I stumbled upon an excerpt from Not for Profit in the April 30th issue under the title “Skills for life:  Why cuts in humanities teaching pose a threat to democracy itself.”  Keith Thomas’ essay, “What are universities for?” followed in the same pages the following week.  Predictably, letters to the editor protesting Nussbaum and Thomas’ antiquarian and elitist advocacy of the humanities followed.  Regrettably only subscribers may access either essay online.

Nussbaum and Thomas both write in response to cuts in public funding for departments of humanities, Nussbaum focusing on the American academic scene and Thomas on the British, but both with an eye to the global situation.  More specifically, Nussbaum worries that universities myopically focused on national economic growth will fail to form responsible citizens:

… nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful, docile, technically trained machines, rather than complete citizens  who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.

As a result,

… democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built on respect and concern, and these in turn are built on the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.

Nussbaum goes on to argue particularly for the Socratic method and the arts as the means for fostering the critical thinking and empathy essential to the citizens of a healthy democracy.  Education for economic growth rather than for democratic citizenship threatens both Socratic teaching and the arts.  Moreover, she argues that education for economic growth will be innately hostile to a Socratic education grounded in the arts:

The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained obedient  workers to carry out the plans of elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technological development …. but educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts.  They will fear them.  For cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programmes of economic development that ignore inequality.

As sympathetic as I am to Nussbaum’s position, I found myself underwhelmed by her essay and perhaps even a bit unsettled.  Something did not sit quite right.  I have little reason to question her diagnosis of the present crisis, but it seemed to me that her commendation of the cure was not all that it could have been.  One letter to the editor came close to naming my uneasiness:  “Nussbaum’s passionate defence of the humanities falls flat because, in the end, she is not defending the humanities but rather a method of teaching.”  I believe in the Socratic method and in my own teaching I strive to implement it as much as possible.  However, there was something about Nussbaum’s case for the Socratic method that seemed off; perhaps it was the anti-traditionalist emphasis, or maybe it was the nod toward “global citizenship.”  Or, more likely, it was both together.

The ability to “criticize tradition” or mold individuals who “argue for themselves, rather than simply deferring to tradition” are recurring elements in Nussbaum’s advocacy of the humanities.  There is of course something right and noble about this, yet Nussbaum’s emphasis seems to eclipse the possibility that the humanities are not aimed simply at the cultivation of a skill, but also at the discovery of truth — truth that may in the end be embodied in a tradition.  After all, would it be unreasonable to speak of something like the Socratic tradition?  Isn’t there a sense in which Nussbaum herself is defending a practice now embedded in a particular tradition of thought?  At the very least it seems to me that the practice and the tradition of thought that has built up around it are mutually dependent.  There ought to be good reasons why the Socratic practice is to be commended and these reasons will form a tradition of thought.  Nussbaum, however, betrays something of her unease with tradition when she writes that the

arts, by generating pleasure in connection with acts of understanding, subversion and cultural reflection, produce an endurable and even attractive dialogue with the prejudices of the past, rather than one fraught with fear and defensiveness.

This is in some sense a gesture toward engagement with the past, yet one wonders why it need be so potentially angst ridden.  That the dialogue needs to be rendered “endurable” suggests that Nussbaum may not ordinarily be inclined to join it; or perhaps she simply assumes that this will be the disposition of the modern reader.  After all, given her past scholarship, no one can justly accuse Nussbaum of being disengaged from the western tradition.

Furthermore, awareness of our “global interdependency” and the resultant need for something like a notion of “global citizenship” makes a certain sense.  Yet, combined with the latent hostility toward tradition this finally leaves me thinking that the products of Nussbaum’s liberal education may become detached and cynical citizens of nowhere, enamored of abstractions, experts of criticism, yet without a sense belonging and unable to love the particular and the concrete.

On both counts I was reminded of an essay by Mark T. Mitchell that appeared last fall at the Front Porch Republic titled “Liberal Education, Stewardship, and the Cosmopolitan Temptation.” Mitchell praises many of the same virtues of a liberal education that Nussbaum commends, but at the same time he guards against the formation of people who are “at home anywhere, yet actually, concretely, making a home nowhere.”  Addressing the kind of Socratic, anti-traditionalism that one notes in Nussbuam Mitchell writes,

when we speak of liberal education in terms of stewardship, this implies that there is a specific content to liberal education …. in asserting that there is a specific content at the center of liberal education, I am claiming that the first disposition is not dubiety or suspicion but submission and trust. One must submit to the authority of a master in order to fully appreciate the subject matter at hand. One must enter into the world of the past in order to understand it, and to enter the past is to submit, at least temporarily and provisionally, to its prejudices and demands. Understanding requires, in the first instance, sympathy. Criticism comes later, after sympathetic understanding has been achieved.

Speaking to the notion of “global citizenship” Mitchell has this to say:

… the mind given to abstract universal concepts will readily gravitate toward saving “the world” or “ending hunger” but will find it less natural to consider how to preserve a local community or care for the poor widow around the corner …. In other words, a liberal education should teach students how to be human beings and how to live in some particular place. If a course of education cultivates a hatred for home, it has failed. If it cultivates a dissatisfaction with the local, particular, and the provincial in favor of distant, abstract places where cosmopolitanism drowns out the loveliness and uniqueness of local customs, practices, stories, and songs, then the education has failed. To be well-educated is to be educated to live well in a particular place.

In the end, perhaps it is the utilitarian or pragmatic slant that Nussbaum takes which leaves me less than satisfied.  Not surprisingly John Dewey is among the philosophers of education that she sites approvingly.  For Dewey, as for Nussbaum, the end of education was to produce productive citizens for the democratic order.  But what happens when the democratic order decides that what it wants are consumers for the growth economy?  It is not that I would necessarily advocate art for art’s sake; the humanities and something like a classical education may not quite be ends in themselves.  Yet, do they have no higher end than the cultivation of responsible citizens?

Keith Thomas’ essay at points slips toward a similar utilitarianism, but on the whole tracks closer to the heart of the issue.  He too links the humanities to the health of the democratic order, but while Nussbaum focuses on the skills of critical discernment enhanced by the Socratic method, Thomas seems to have more of the content of the humanities in mind when he writes,

The humanities offer an indispensable antidote to the vices which inevitably afflict a democratic, capitalist society.  They counter the dumbing down of the media by asserting the complexity of things; and they challenge the evasiveness and mendacity of politicians by placing a premium on intellectual honesty.

With Nussbaum he likewise laments the onset of the economic model which overtook the British universities in the 1980’s:

No one talked any longer of the free movement of ideas, or recalled the medieval adage that knowledge was a gift of God which should not be sold.

And again with Nussbaum, he bemoans the managerial regime of assessment and measurement that has afflicted modern education:

Universities ceased to be governed by communities of academics.  Instead there developed a managerial class led by vice-chancellors who saw themselves as thrusting business executives rather than self-effacing ancillaries, and paid themselves accordingly, typically three or four times as much as a professor.

Perhaps most admirably, Thomas affirms the central place of teaching, not just research, to the life of a university:

Only a minority of academics can hope to achieve any real advance in their discipline, but all have the possibility of making an enduring “impact” on the minds of their pupils.  Yet the present system encourages them to spend as little time as possible on teaching …. We need scholars to resist the annihilation of our intellectual inheritance, to expose myths and to remind us that there are other ways of thinking and acting than those with which we are familiar.  Not all such work can be described as “research”  …. A better word for this is “scholarship”, with its emphasis less on new knowledge than on fresh understanding.

Thomas is clearly aware of the changes and adaptations that the university has undergone, sometimes unwillingly, since it first appeared in England over 800 years ago.  Some will see the changes taking place at present as just one more necessary transformation in the ongoing evolution of the university.  Thomas, however, urges caution and self-restraint and above all attention to “what the purpose of a university is.”  In closing, he cites the English scholar and poet of the turn of the last century, A. E. Housman who wrote

A life spent, however victoriously, in securing the necessaries of life is no more than elaborate furnishing and decoration of apartments for the reception of a guest who is never to come.

Thomas simply adds,

We cannot determine the purpose of the universities without first asking, “What is the purpose of life?”

This moves us in the right direction.  Whatever conclusions we reach about the humanities, the university, or the purpose of education they will need to be grounded in something deeper than the health of a particular economic or political order.  They will need to be grounded in some understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to flourish as a human being.  And these are the very sorts of questions which the humanities have been addressing in their own peculiar way for a very long time.

2 thoughts on “The Ends of Learning

  1. “What is the purpose of life?” is a great question to ask with regard to the modern educational system and reform. However, my experience so far strongly suggests that it is a long time coming, if at all. Maybe we can get to that point by simply looking back at the etymology of terms used within the system, namely “university” and “humanities.” I should hope there is enough enlightenment nested in those words to lead us toward the original question.

    Nussbaum may not like that approach.

  2. I agree. I think Thomas identified the critical question. Large universities will struggle in the same way that large pluralists societies struggle — foundations for educational and cultural excellence need to rest on some shared vision in response to that question. But what to do when there is so little agreement on even the basic contours of the response? Something like the tendency toward an unsatisfying mean seems to evolve instead.

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