Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thoughts on Liberal Arts Learning

While away I had some intelligent comments on my recent sarcastic post on the Harvard Report of the Task Force on General Education (PDF), in particular with regard to this passage quoted from it:

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.

One commenter asked the question whether, despite the (not entirely unexpected) committee-writing-a-mission-statement flaws of the report, I could really object what is claimed here. I think that's a fair enough question; particularly since I don't think it's healthy to leave sarcasm as the last word on any subject. As I noted in the comments there, I do, in fact, really think the statement itself, and not just its presentation, is somewhat absurd. It's worthwhile, though, to go a bit more into the question and elaborate why I think it absurd.

The passage I've quoted above is interesting in that it gives two lists, one of ends and one of means, for liberal education. The ends of liberal education, the things we aim at in teaching the liberal arts, are supposed to be:

to unsettle presumptions
to defamiliarize the familiar
to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances
to disorient young people
to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves

The means of liberal education, the things we aim to accomplish the ends by, are said to be:

questioning assumptions
inducing self-reflection
teaching students to think critically and analytically
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

I take it that the list of means is supposed to be representative, not comprehensive. I don't actually have much of a beef with the list of means, although I think the first (questioning assumptions) is dangerously ambiguous between "asking questions about assumptions" and "trying to call assumptions into question" -- the first of which is encouraging someone to develop their thoughts about assumptions, and the second is trying to change them from a state of assumption to a state of doubt about assumptions -- and I am mystified about the importance of "exposing them to the sense of alienation" developed from encounters with the radically different rather than, say, just exposing them to the radically different, whether a sense of alienation is involved or not. The only rationale I can think of for deliberating exposing anyone to a sense of alienation is to give them material for sympathy with the alienated; and that seems to me to be a dangerous thing to do without the express cooperation of the person involved. But presumably they meant something by it, even if I don't see it, and I think the list of means can be interpreted charitably.

Where I really have problems is with the list of ends, the stated aims of liberal arts education, since it seems to me to exhibit a very faulty view of what might be called the phenomenology of learning. That is, it paints a picture from the inside of what learning (in liberal arts education, at least) is; a picture that I think can describe very little real liberal arts learning. Raising these to the status of aims is to confuse the incidental with the essential.

On the picture painted by the list, liberal arts learning is a process of becoming unsettled, defamiliarized, and disoriented; in it one learns to see behind and beyond appearances and has an opportunity to reorient oneself anew. Some of this I could see as legitimate if it were listed not as an 'aim' but as a means. Defamiliarization is an excellent example of this. I would agree that a good portion of good liberal arts education involves teaching students what (in some sense) they already know, but in such a way that (one hopes) they see it again for the first time (as the saying goes). Perhaps we could even consider it a partial and secondary aim of liberal arts education itself. So, too, perhaps, with revealing what goes on behind and beneath appearances -- that can be taken in ways that I think have nothing to do with liberal education, but it can also be taken in ways that are reasonably considered as important parts of it, and it seems reasonable to interpret the phrase in the more charitable light.

But I don't think that unsettling presumptions and disorienting students are particularly well-chosen for a list of aims of liberal arts education, because neither disorientation nor unsettled presumptions are particularly natural results of liberal arts education. It is entirely possible to have a long and wonderful strand of learning experiences in the liberal arts that never involves disorientation or unsettled presumptions at all; and this is a good thing.

A good deal of learning, and arguably the vast majority of it, is ambient. One of the things that was so peculiar about the Hegel passage I recently quoted is the denigration of women on the basis of the claim that they are "educated — who knows how? — as it were by breathing in ideas, by living rather than by acquiring knowledge." But this form of education, where we learn in such a way that doesn't so much involve articulation of ideas as a "vague unity of feeling," is perhaps the lion's share of any serious education. To put it in broadly Aristotelian terms, it is the sort of experience suitable for rational animals -- the sort of experience that provides the materials and environment for serious intellectual thought. As Henri Gouhier rightly says (in a slightly different, but related context):

But underneath these clear ideas, there are those that participate in that other system that is the living person; these are rather the tendencies to concepts; they have not yet been collected into a definition, and they extend into each other, a landscape without lines like the colors of heaven; they live in those regions of the soul where heredity, education, social influences and other fay folk sow the seeds that will later develop into passions, into beliefs, into worries, without it being possible for us to follow the mysterious labor of their development. Interior temple where all the gods have their altar, it is from there that both cries of revolt and words of love escape; it is there that systems plunge their roots, for it is there where questions are perhaps posed and where certainly solutions are formulated.

To denigrate this in favor of the 'clear idea', the articulate ideal, is a peculiar thing to do; it is to fail to recognize that all concepts begin here, in the tendencies to concepts that are gathered together in a landscape that is not yet delineated.

Making disorientation and unsettling aims of liberal arts education seems to me to go along this path even farther into peculiar territory. It represents learning as the result of a set of sudden and occasional external interventions, where someone has broken in on the natural development of the student's mind, disorienting it and unsettling its presumptions. But learning is not an external intervention into the natural development of a mind; it is the natural development of the mind. The aim shouldn't be to disrupt student minds but to assist in their cultivation. Learning is the respiration and alimentation of the mind; to aid it you describe and exhibits ways that the air might be improved, or that nourishing food might more easily be found. In the liberal arts you have not necessarily failed in the aim of educating if the student is never disoriented or if her presumptions become more settled. If she has a healthy orientation to begin with, and if her presumptions are reasonable in the first place, this is exactly what you should hope. (And, indeed, in such a case you should perhaps be more worried about disorienting healthy minds and unsettling intelligent presumptions than anything else.)

So, in short, I think disorientation is a legitimate aim only if you are trying to brainwash someone or drive them crazy. Trying to make it the aim of liberal arts education is like trying to make brain surgery the aim of the practice of medicine. A more reasonable aim is to help the mind do what it does naturally and freely. That is, in fact, what the liberal arts are: the activities of free and rational minds, the sorts of reason-rich things such minds can naturally enjoy in their own right, when they are unconstrained by the need to devote themselves wholly to serving others or to scraping out what is required to survive.