By Patrick M. Ford, July 7, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Outside the Classroom
Some recent posts and comments offer useful insights about the nature of liberal learning and the obstacles to genuine liberality in the classroom. Responding to the post "Heresy on the liberal arts?", one commenter is correct to remind us that teachers should challenge all students, and not just the "promising" ones, to take up the difficult but preeminently fulfilling pursuit of truth, and hope that each one will answer the challenge.
But the original author's observation that "[r]elatively few individuals may ever develop the philosophic habit of mind" seems indisputably true. At what point in history was the educational world brimming with students whose only concern was the unencumbered pursuit of truth? Socrates had his sophists (who made a living off their "art"); Adams's "Golden Age" was flush with students for whom education was a path to relative security as doctors, lawyers, and clerics, or for whom the disputatio was a game to be won rather than a tool of true philosophy; the crown jewel of civilized 19th-century education, the English university, was, as Newman seems to confirm, often a holding cell or club for young socialites—a place to produce not a liberal mind, but an English gentleman.
Today, the university is filled with 1) a host of students who are there for they know not what reason, beyond four parent-funded years of decadence; 2) young pragmatists, for whom college is the springboard to financial and social success; and 3) a handful of students with genuine intellectual curiosity. The teacher's hope, as a commenter points out, is that a love of truth can be awakened in students from the first two groups. And most professors, I think, could provide anecdotal evidence that the hope is not unfounded.
It is interesting, though, to consider the differences between our current situation and those of previous eras. Our society has developed in such a way that a college education is now open to an unprecedented number of people—indeed, is the default path that all but the worst young students are expected to follow (it is a "right," after all!). The result is, quite probably, a much higher proportion of slackers and ne'er-do-wells than previously in history; I suspect, though I am much less certain, that there is also a higher proportion of students whose main concern is to turn their education into increased post-college income and social capital. All things considered, I'm not sure it is worthwhile to spend too much energy lamenting the presence of these pragmatists.
All things being equal, the best way to deal with the first of those groups (the slackers) would be to force a choice upon them: work hard, prove that you have grappled with the assigned materials, and write decent papers, or fail out. Unfortunately, all things are not equal, and professors are beholden to students/parents (the paying customer), the administration (who often are more concerned with a bottom line than education in se), and their own career and family concerns (i.e., tenure). The result, of course, is widespread grade inflation and, unintentionally, the perpetuation of a fraud which sees huge numbers of students who have no place in college because of apathy or lack of ability given false certification through bachelor's degrees, which as a result have become almost meaningless. Even those professors with the purest motives are, I think, often forced to compromise their principles to some degree. When one is forced to choose between making the "C" the new "F" or losing their job. . . .
As it is, a professor must hope to challenge these students as much as possible while fanning that spark of love for truth and the good, however small and however deeply buried, that surely resides in every one of these students. Similarly, the way to appeal to the second group (the pragmatists) is to work hard to show them Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and hope they join the third group (the genuinely curious).
Finally, as the post's author suggests, it is worthwhile to ask what conditions are most conducive to genuine liberal learning. How much, if at all, does a good, effectively delivered and received liberal education depend on a strong core curriculum? On a particular crop of students or faculty? On individual pedagogic style? On the type of institution (liberal arts college vs. do-it-all university)? On an institution's priorities? (E.g., how does running a college like any other business, where the paying customer must be satisfied, affect the learning environment? The situation sketched above regarding grade inflation, etc., suggests that this may be a significant contributing factor.)
ISI's College Guides are a fine, if limited, attempt to do what the post's author and another commenter suggest we do; more exhaustive projects are being discussed. But a number of factors that surely contribute to the creation of a particular learning environment—such as pedagogical styles, individual course structure, various interests among diverse student groups—are very difficult to gauge and probably insusceptible of empirical measurement.
The Lehrman American Studies Center website, however, is a potentially powerful tool in acquiring the kind of information these professors seek. What better way to learn about effective course structures and pedagogical technique, about the other conditions contributing to a strong learning environment, about how to navigate the extra-curricular or administrative demands of academic life, than to hear from fellow professors who have had personal successes in these areas? This personal communication and comparison of notes is inimitable by any large-scale and more impersonal efforts ISI might undertake. The Summer Institute has proven immensely popular for providing this kind of professor-to-professor contact; the website is designed to perpetuate and extend that contact. Of course, it will never become the tool it could be without a critical mass of participants. I, for one, see extraordinary possibilities, and I hope that through our efforts, and perhaps more critically through your own, we will see the project bear much fruit.
Should I have raised any suspicions with these last lines, I assert categorically that this is no mere salesmanship! My post led me to this conclusion quite naturally. I truly cannot think of any better large scale method for collecting and sharing the kind of information that the post's author and several commenters have indicated they would like ISI to provide. Let us all hope we can generate the kind of momentum we need to make this endeavor work.