By Gerson Moreno-Riano, June 24, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
For the past few weeks I have engaged in a lot of soul searching concerning the mission of higher education and of us faculty. What is the mission of higher education? What is the purpose of faculty? Amidst my reflections, I have come across some thought-provoking observations that are important to consider. Here are just a few:
First, there is Stanley Fish’s claim that the only mission of higher education is that of “passing on knowledge and conferring [analytical] skills.” As Fish argues in his book Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford, 2008), “Anyone who asks for more has enlisted in the “we-are-going-to-save-the world” army…faculty cannot…fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper [because to do so means that] they abandon the responsibilities that belong to them… in order to take up responsibilities that belong properly to others” (p. 14).
Second, there is E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s proposition that education is about correcting human nature. In The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (Anchor Books, 1996), Hirsch argues that “the aim of education is not to follow human nature but to correct it, to set it on a path of virtue that is often contrary to its natural development. To give one’s fallen natural instincts free rein would beget a life of greed, selfishness, and crime” (p. 73).
Lastly, there is Allen Bloom’s contention that education is about completing human nature. In The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), Bloom suggests that “the teacher, particularly the teacher dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to approach it” (p. 19).
Three different thinkers present three distinct visions. Education is to confer knowledge and skills. Education is to correct the soul. Education is to complete the soul. The question that I have been considering is whether or not these distinct visions are mutually exclusive or complimentary to each other or related in some fashion.
There is something clean and neat about Fish’s proposal. It is simply about inputs and measurable outputs. Yet, Fish’s notion of education is non-transformative. It does not address the whole person. Hirsch’s vision considers education to be much like a medical prescription for the soul. Universities and faculty are the soul’s medical solutions. While this appears transformative, it gives universities and faculty a broad grant of moral authority to become the soul police. Lastly, Bloom’s vision appears holistic and thus transformative. It is about human flourishing. Yet, at the same time, Bloom’s proposal is vague and mystical.
As I mentioned earlier, these are observations and reflections about American higher education and our role as faculty. I have not reached particular conclusions though I confess that reflecting on these visions has alerted me of how much more there is to know and think about higher education. In this sense, these three visions of American higher education have enriched my thinking and my teaching already. Will they enrich the soul and learning of my students? Only time will tell.