By John von Heyking, February 18, 2010 in What is Education?
Plato’s Meno and Newman’s The Idea of a University are classic texts of liberal education. But what are the best books written recently? Is the recent history of liberal education one of decline? Is the mission of the university doomed in a culture of crass utility and political correctness. There are bright spots, and cause for hope, in my top 5 list of the best books on liberal education of the past 35 years. These best books are written by individuals who are great thinkers and great teachers, and in conversation about the highest human things with the greatest minds of the past. But they also demonstrate why being a good teacher involves seeing the highest things in our everyday experience of reality, and in community.
1. Voice of Liberal Learning by Michael Oakeshott (1989, 2001)
We can thank Timothy Fuller for pulling together Oakeshott’s essays into a single and remarkably well-unified volume on liberal education. Three main themes unify this volume: the university as a place of learning, the nature of education, and the relationship of liberal education to political education. Starting with the nature of education, we see here an explanation of education in terms of “conversation,” and the necessary habits of mind and heart to keep the conversation going. The task of the teacher is to impart a language of learning to the student in his specific area of study, but, more importantly, to serve as a model of the activity of learning. The point of education is to cultivate judgment and discernment, which is more important than learning facts although judgment and discernment rest on facts. Particularly vivid is Oakeshott’s account of the mannerisms of the teacher. This is important because the university, the place of learning, is the corporate body in which learners and teachers live in permanent proximity to one another in moral practice best described as friendship. Learning is embodied and communal. This does not look much like the contemporary research university, and Oakeshott points to the human goods we have lost.
2. Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987)
While some of the particular debates in the modern university have changed since this book was published, Bloom’s analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the crisis remains sound. His account of the souls of students is one of the best ways to get students debating the larger themes of the book. It’s been my experience that he exaggerates the flatness of their souls, but at least he forces them to confront the potential for this flatness. His focus on eros at the forefront of liberal education has rarely been bettered. The brief history of political philosophy he provides in Parts Two and Three is also a brief history of philosophical eros. His concluding remarks on liberal education as activity conducted by friends has stuck with me since I read this book as an undergraduate student.
3. Paradoxes of Education in a Republic by Eva Brann (1979)
The former dean of St. John’s College (Annapolis), the great-text college, provides the most thoughtful defense of her school’s useless curriculum in a society that tends to judge everything in terms of utility. It turns out liberal education is not so useless, but, paradoxically, it points beyond utility. It is particularly useful in a republic where self-government requires a citizenry habituated to the use of their intellects. They need to practice the arts of rational persuasion, demonstration, and so on. Liberal education is specially placed to provide this. A college devoted to liberal education is the place to provide this learning. The college is a little republic.
4. Everyone a Teacher, edited by Mark Schwehn (2000)
Ok, I’m fudging a bit by including an edited volume containing some of the great texts of liberal learning, including Plato’s Meno and Augustine’s De Magistro. However, even the organization of this volume reflects the penetrating mind of the teacher who edited it. We learn about the very purpose of teaching, in its heights and depths, from Mark Twain, the Bible, to the authors of the Joy of Cooking. We see the difference between Plato and Augustine’s notion of teaching as showing from modern conceptions of “telling” (i.e., Gilbert Ryle and Philip W. Jackson) . We read teachers in action, including some great statesmen teaching the souls of citizens (i.e., Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” and Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”). We can compare the highest forms of civic, religious, and liberal education with the education of the very young, including kindergarten students. The heights and depths of teaching, and what it means to be a human being, get revealed in the juxtaposition of the texts chosen for this remarkable volume. Indeed, we are reminded of our calling not only as university professors, but as human beings, and that “everyone a teacher.”
5. The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking by James V. Schall (2006)
Georgetown University’s legendary teacher of political philosophy, Father James Schall, is also a terrific teacher of teachers. This volume is a summation of his thinking on thinking, and his teaching on teaching. Thinking is the quintessential human activity. It is difficult, but it is also delightful in the deepest way. Because of this, thinking engages our entire personality. He even explains why walking conduces to thinking. Schall engages our personality, and along the way he reminds us that as human beings we belong to a community of being in which we are all learners. He discusses the concerns of both Plato and of Charlie Brown, and why their concerns are also our concerns. His list of books to awaken the mind includes titles by Eric Voegelin as well as Louis L’Amour. A mark of his greatness as a teacher is that he easily moves from the everyday to the profound, and why these two categories are really identical.