What is Education?

Pomp and Circus Dance
By Korey D. Maas on June 26, 2012

Essays and exams have been marked, final grades submitted, and graduations endured. Now begin the post-commencement rituals of college professors: revising lectures and syllabi, reading through a semester’s worth of neglected journals, reacquainting oneself with the half-finished manuscript that was due on an editor’s desk four months ago.

And, in light of that recently endured graduation, asking oneself—at least half seriously—is any of it worth it?


Paradox as Paradigm
By Korey D. Maas on May 23, 2012

It’s not exactly hot off the press, but a year ago now the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University sponsored a speaker series under the heading “Life and Learning in the Great Christian Traditions.” In addition to lectures by Mark Henrie (Catholic), Carl Trueman (Reformed), John Behr (Orthodox), and others, they were kind—or naïve—enough to invite me to present a Lutheran perspective. The lectures were videotaped and are now up on the THC website. Below is a short abstract of my own lecture, followed by a link to the recording.


Does a Liberal Education Still Have Value?
By David Kidd on April 09, 2012

John Von Heyking responds to complaints of Canadian employers that too many students are studying the liberal arts rather than vocational skills.


Why Is It Wrong to Use the University for Political Purposes?
By David Kidd on April 01, 2012

If you like hearing people tell other people they aren't doing their job right, then you'll love "A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California." The report, written by the California Association of Scholars (a division of the National Association of Scholars) is 81 pages of steely resolve and relentless truth-telling, and if it were roast beef, you wouldn't be able to cut it: it's that well done.


Renewing the Humanities
By Stefan McDaniel on August 04, 2011


Debate about liberal education has long been central to the culture wars. Most of us are familiar (perhaps wearily familiar) with the main points of disagreement. Should colleges and universities to teach truth, merely sponsor the search for truth, or proclaim truth a delusion? Is it possible or desirable to identify a canon of “great books,” and what should it contain? Is it possible or desirable to practice neutrality among cultures, or neutrality among a chosen set of cultures? What (if any) restrictions on academic freedom are justifiable? To what (if any) religious or ethical standards may the opinions and behavior of students or faculty be held? 

While the belligerents have been slinging heated tracts at one another, their mutual enemies have quietly gained possession of the field. Traditionalists and postmodernists alike generally agree that liberal education should be liberal (i.e. worth doing for it’s own sake), but the contemporary university is increasingly ordered toward creating and credentialing efficient producers for the market and effective managers for the state. Furthermore, the humanities, the most distinctively liberal disciplines, have well-earned reputations as refuges of indolence and fraud. Though our disagreements are far from trivial, all of us seriously concerned with liberal education should collaborate to promote its autonomy and rigor. 

Let us begin with a notion glamorized (though not invented) during the Renaissance: Man (i.e. humankind) is worth studying. Man in all his aspects, but especially insofar as he appears to be distinctive, that is to say insofar as he is a cultural being, one who applies, historical, religious, philosophical, and ethical categories to his own experience and activity. 

If that is granted, we must ask whether there are any disciplines universally fundamental to the intelligent, responsible, and productive study of human culture. I believe there are at least two such disciplines—language and history.

All committed humanists must study language, broadly construed to include semiotics in general, but with natural languages as the indispensable core. Culturally speaking, man lives by signs alone, so semiotics stands in much the same relationship to the diverse branches of the humanities that mathematics does to all departments of engineering. The humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, can increase their respectability and rigor by mandating, whatever the specific field of study, high competence in several natural languages and mastery of the fundamentals of syntax, semantics, and the general theory of signs. 

Only slightly less important than language is history, which the great historian John Lukacs defines with lapidary exactness, as the “remembered past.” Through the study of the remembered past (which illuminates and is illuminated by study of the languages by which it is transmitted) humanists learn how human beings construe their experience; the categories, values, connections, and problems perceived in the natural and social world that condition human thought and action.

Except where a humanist’s specialty obviously requires a different emphasis, there are good reasons for Americans strongly to prefer the history of America and Europe. People are, generally speaking, best equipped to interpret and analyze the historical materials of their own culture. Still, it is not of decisive importance whose history is studied, so long as the habit of historical thinking is firmly ingrained. We obviously cannot agree on the proper content of a shared deposit of historical knowledge, but perhaps we can agree that an educated public should be acutely aware of the value of detailed understanding of history and eager to remedy historical ignorance. Furthermore, although there is little hope of consensus on any important aspect of history, the practice of scrutinizing and comparing the methods and materials used by different historians should create common criteria for identifying honest and intelligent interpretation.  

The subjects generally classed among the humanities are usually studied most profitably when approached with the skill-set given by study of language, and are certainly seen most comprehensively within the context of history. For, in various historical circumstances and using various special modes of expression, man has asked and ventured answers to certain fundamental questions, “What is the world like, what has happened so far, and what should we do now?” and thence came philosophy (including the natural and formal sciences), religion, economics, poetry, etc.

The approach I have suggested would improve the general quality and reputation of liberal learning and, since studying language and history develop fungible skills, provide many other benefits. There’s even something in it for the utilitarians, since, as David Goldman of First Things once argued, one of the United States’ most troublesome liabilities in international relations is poor intelligence. For this, Goldman suggests, we must blame a culture that produces proportionately few people with significant knowledge of foreign languages and folkways. American colleges and universities are culturally powerful institutions. If the policies and ethos of the academy demanded, even at the undergraduate level, significant knowledge of foreign languages and the habit of historical thinking (which implies the habit of cultural analysis), the United States would have a much larger pool of qualified candidates for work in diplomacy and intelligence. 

Professor as Pimp, Education as Voyeurism?
By John von Heyking on March 15, 2011

Joseph Epstein has some sensible comments on the case of psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey, who had a woman demonstrate the use of a sex toy before his undergraduate class.  Epstein uses this “teachable moment” to reflect upon how little academic freedom means these days on account of the confusion in higher education as to the nature of education.  Instead of being intellectual authorities, universities, and their professors, have now become pimps, and university presidents their enablers.

Read more.


We'll Never Be Harvard
By Korey D. Maas on March 02, 2011

Buildings, bank accounts, and extra-curricular silliness do not a university make. The stock and trade of the university is ideas; and these are not expensive. Many of the best, in fact, are free; they’ve been bequeathed to us, no less than to Harvard, as an inheritance.


The Customer is Always Right
By Lee Trepanier on January 26, 2011

I can’t recall from where, but recently I read somewhere that students deserve at least a C because they are consumers in the business of higher education. Now I suspect most of you may recoil in horror at this idea, as I initially did, but after some thought, I wonder whether this isn’t such a terrible idea. To some extent, we already do this in the admission process, with the prestigious universities guaranteeing admission to those who can afford generous contributions to their endowments. Why not extend this same principle in the classroom?


Whistling Past the Graveyard
By Anonymous on December 06, 2010

This September, two articles on the crisis of higher education were published in the New York Times, both on the same day, but in different sections of the paper.


"Important" Academic Issues # 4--Office Space
By RJ Snell on November 12, 2010

As part of the ongoing evacuation of academic culture from the academy, the corporate cubicle makes perfect sense: for faculty offices efficient, inexpensive, simple. Too bad that's not what the academy is about.


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