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Liberal Education in the United States

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
371

If there is just one general conclusion to draw from this book, it is that we must continue to support the humanities if we want citizens who have the kind of mental self-command and responsiveness to the claims of others that Seneca describes.

Folks:

Today, more than ever, it is essential that our students experience

the kind of education described in the excerpt below. It is taken

from the foreword by Martha C. Nussbaum in: ALIVE AT THE CORE:

Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities, by

Michael Nelson and Associates. Copyright ? 2000 by Jossey-Bass Inc.,

Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104. Jossey-Bass

is a registered trademark of Jossey-Bass Inc., A Wiley Company.

Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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LIBERAL EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES: THE THREE ABILITIES

 

What would it mean to cultivate our humanity through a liberal

education in the contemporary United States? The chapters in this

book provide a wide range of answer to that question. Not all of them

agree with Seneca's preference for Socratic questioning over

traditional acculturation, although most do. Among those who follow

the Senecan idea, we find a wide range of approaches to the

construction of basic curricular requirements. In all cases, however,

we see that the humanities, often scorned as useless in an

increasingly specialized world, are providing essential ingredients

for citizenship. Most of the curricula described here turn to

literature and philosophy to foster a type of Socratic

self-examination and a sense of citizenship that is reflective and

deliberative rather than simply the trading of claims and

counterclaims. If there is just one general conclusion to draw from

this book, it is that we must continue to support the humanities if

we want citizens who have the kind of mental self-command and

responsiveness to the claims of others that Seneca describes. If we

should ever become a nation of narrowly specialized professionals,

with little general humanistic learning, we will have lost crucial

opportunities for deliberation and fellowship with one another.

In my own writing on liberal education (Nussbaum, 1997), I have

argued that three abilities are essential to the cultivation of

humanity in today's world. First is the capacity for critical

examination of oneself and one's own traditions-for what Socrates

called the examined life. This means a life that accepts no belief as

authoritative because it has been transmitted by tradition or habit,

a life that questions all beliefs and accepts only those that survive

reason's demand for arguments and explanations.

Second is the ability to think of oneself as what Stoic philosophers

called a "citizen of the world," rather than merely of some region or

group. Our world is inescapably international. Issues from

agriculture to human rights to the relief of famine require our minds

to venture beyond local affiliations and consider the reality of

distant lives, To attain this ability, however, students need to

learn a great deal more than students in previous generations

typically did about the history and culture of non-Western people,

and of ethnic and racial minorities within their own culture; about

the achievements and experience of woman; and about the variety of

human sexuality.

Finally is the ability that I call the "narrative imagination"; the

ability to try to understand what it might be like to experience life

from a position other than one's own, to be an intelligent reader of

other life stories-and also to understand how difficult it is to be

an intelligent reader. This ability is cultivated, above all, by

courses in literature and the arts.

Liberal Education and Great Books

Should the proponent of a Senecan liberal education, with its

emphasis on these three abilities, approve of curricula that center

on a "great books" course? The Greek and Roman philosophers had a

number of concerns about an education that relies on a list of great

books of the tradition, concerns that apply to our debates today.

First, such courses frequently encourage passivity in students. They

teach them that education is all about deference to authority, and

they may even prevent them from developing their own ideas. Seneca

imagines a pupil who says, "Zeno said this." He replies: "What do you

say? How long will you march under someone else's banner? . . . Now

bring out something of your own."

Second, such lists of traditional books are frequently unresponsive

to the diversity of students and their intellectual needs. Our

country contains institutions large and small, state and private,

four year and two year, religious and secular. It is unreasonable to

think that a single list will be best at cultivating the three

abilities in all of these students.

Third, curricula based on "great books" often encourage what Plato

called the "false conceit of wisdom." The Roman Stoic philosopher

Epictetus imagines a young man who proudly proclaims that he has

memorized a treatise of Chrysippus. His reply: You are just like an

athlete who boasts that he has got a brand new set of training

weights, and thinks he is a great athlete because of this. Books are

like training weights in the mind. You have to show what you yourself

can do with them, or they are nothing but useless paraphernalia.

Finally, tradition-based lists are likely to have a narrow frame of

reference, because they will very likely deal with our own history,

leaving out much that we urgently need to understand. That problem,

acute even in first-century Rome, is especially acute today, given

the enormous diversity of nations and groups with which modern

citizens must be prepared to interact.

I shall now add a concern of my own that is not represented in

ancient debates. Great books curricula are based on books, rather

than musical works, or works of visual art, or the study of social

history. This is unfair to these other arts, and it also extracts the

books from their historical setting in ways that can distort their

meaning. I am particularly troubled by the tendency of many of these

curricula to include the Bible alongside Plato and Aristotle as among

the great books of the Western tradition. In a nation still not free

of anti-Semitism, it is particularly important to remind students

that, as Leopold Bloom says in Ulysses to the incredulous

anti-Semites in Barney Kiernan's bar, "Christ was a Jew like me."

Jesus was the heir of a long Jewish tradition, not in the least

"Western," that had only around Seneca's time (also the time of Saint

of Paul) developed any links with Greek culture. We should study the

Bible as a part of the Jewish tradition, and only after that study

the links between that tradition and the Greco-Roman traditions.

Most of the colleges and universities represented in this book have

chosen a great books approach. How might someone with education views

like mine defend that choice? Obviously I do not want to defend it

altogether. But there are also some things that a Senecan should say

in favor of such courses.

Let me return to the metaphor of training weights: the great books of

our tradition are among the best ways of training the mind to ponder

deep issues of morality and truth. Students often come alive when

they read the works of Plato or Sophocles or Kant. These works are

not called "great" for nothing: they really do have a marvelous

ability to deepen and challenge our thought. For many students, they

supply a type of excitement and intellectual depth that was

previously lacking in their lives, and that might well remain lacking

in the absence of courses requiring such readings. Grouped together,

they provide a wide array of positions, thus stimulating students to

debate and self-examination.

How might one teach such a course so as to avoid, as much as

possible, the pitfalls I have identified? Deference to authority can

be avoided if the instructor constantly challenges the students as

Seneca challenged his: What do you say? What criticisms would you

make here? Is this a good argument or not? What I saw of Rhodes

College's Search course (The Search for Values in the Light of

Western History and Religion) convinced me that it was grappling well

with this question, treating books as the basis for constructing good

arguments rather than as a final authority.

Non-responsiveness to the diverse needs of students is best addressed

by choosing the list after careful thought about one's own students

and what they need-and by insisting on small sections in large

lecture courses, where students can encounter a more Socratic type of

teaching. Writing assignments that are carefully graded, with lots of

individualized comments, are also of the greatest importance.

The false conceit of wisdom is best addressed by arguing with the

texts, not letting any text have the last word, as if it represented

the final statement on any serious matter. Here again the Rhodes

Search course does well, in the way in which it represents texts as

the "training weights" students will use to search for their own

truth. Students initially shocked by this treatment, for example, of

the Bible eventually find the approach valuable, conducive to a more

thoughtful style of religious life, in which one takes more

responsibility for one's own conduct.

Narrowness of range can best be addressed by other curricular

requirements outside the great books course. It seems

counterproductive to sandwich one or two Asian or African works into

an already packed list of Western culture will emerge. On the other

hand, if one does not begin from a list of Western books at all, one

may fruitfully approach this problem in other ways. For example,

Stanford has paired books from different traditions in ways that

illuminate both issues and cultures.

Finally, students desperately need to understand that literature and

philosophy do not exist in a historic vacuum. Difficult though it may

be, historic background about the era of each text must be included

in any responsible great books course. As for the other included in

any responsible great books course. As for the other arts, some of

the curricular described in this book have incorporated musical and

visual works with good results. Often, however, students-and

faculty-are too ill prepared in music and visual art for such

approaches to be fruitful. This is an issue that needs much more

attention than it has so far received.

Whatever we concluded about general education courses in the

humanities, we should insist that the abilities they seek to

cultivate are at the very heart of strong democracy. If we allow our

curricula to be dominated by courses that have an immediate "cash

deliberation in public life will be faint indeed.

Reference

Nussbaum, M. C. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform

in Liberal Education, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,

1997.