By Gerson Moreno-Riano, July 5, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
Two tensions have characterized American higher education – one focuses on education as the craft of shaping the soul while the other focuses on education as the passive process of facilitating natural development. The first has been advanced by the likes of Plato, Augustine, Thomas Jefferson, Leo Strauss, and Allan Bloom. It is rooted in the ancient Greeks, the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the Enlightenment. The second has been championed by the likes of Rousseau, Schelling, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dewey. It is rooted in European Romanticism and its American acceptance.
Both of these tensions are with us today. The first emphasizes strong intellectual content, a body of knowledge, dialectic, and hard work. The second focuses on process, methods, and self-discovery.
How are these tensions perceived by today’s students? How do they affect a student’s perception of education? Which of these tensions attract students the most?
These are difficult questions to answer and I am sure we could find students that fit into either of these approaches to education as well as everything in between. But consider for a moment the following anecdote. In a recent discussion with a student, he informed me that he was tired of the bookish approach to learning. By this I understood him to say that he simply found the education as soul craft approach as boring, irrelevant, and obfuscating. Instead, this young man proclaimed to me that he wanted to travel, get lost in the world, and through this journey become “wise.” In short, he was advocating the virtues of educational romanticism. Before we are too harsh on this student consider the fact that one of today’s bestselling authors – Elizabeth Gilbert – has done the same thing and written two best selling works about this experience of self-discovery: Eat, Pray, and Love (Viking, 2006) and Committed (Viking, 2010).
This made me think as to whether or not some of the characteristics of education as soul craft can have the tendency to mute the soul’s desire for self-discovery, experimentation, and liberty. And, consequently, whether it would be wise to ensure that the education as soul craft approach provide enough experiences and room for such voyages of self-discovery and the pursuit of wisdom through alternative means. Perhaps this is heresy to some. But it is important that our concepts of education are continually evaluated both on the basis of principles but also on the basis of human nature and human experience.
If education is the craft of shaping the soul, then the entire soul is at stake and should be considered. Over emphasizing one aspect at the expense of the others often leads to underdeveloped souls. Likewise, over emphasizing the virtues of one approach to education at the expense of the other may cause us to ignore important observations and principles that can be used for a holistic educational approach. Prudent and discerning pedagogy are the key.