Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Aim of a Liberal Education

I have been enlightened by the Harvard Report of the Task Force on General Education (PDF). Some of it is ordinary enough, but then, shortly into it, you get this lovely sentence:

On the contrary, the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves. A liberal education aims to accomplish these things by questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection, by teaching students to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations and with phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand.

As near as I can figure, what this means is this: the aim of liberal education is to induce insanity. One should produce students without settled presumptions who are unfamiliar with anything, who can thereby undergo that standard insanity-inducing technique in which you disorient a person and make them feel alienated and unable to understand the world until they start re-orienting themselves by making up their own world. It's a good, solid plan, and I fully look forward to seeing the results. And they get practical, too; for instance, we should teach students how to distinguish between the 'literal' and the 'symbolic', and give them science classes that don't cover in depth any scientific sub-discipline, and they firmly insist on the conservative idea of the importance of faculty-student interaction in teaching, rejecting the view that they should never interact at all. Also, if you read it, you will learn that Harvard students lead lives that affect the lives of others; and because of this liberal education has value in comparison to professional education because it teaches people to think unprofessionally.

Yes, I am being facetious; the report doesn't tell us that we should teach students the difference between being facetious and serious, but it's a natural sort of thing to do when you are painstakingly showing them how to recognize that something is a symbol. Amid all the triteness there are some good things in the report. But for those who prefer unsettle the presumptions of academics and disorienting Task Forces, you might start with R. R. Reno's criticism of it.