Part Three: On a Liberal Education

Well, enough of other people’s opinions, it is time to state some of my own and attempt to construct arguments that support the ideal of a ‘liberal arts’ education, while simultaneously challenging the hegemonic ideation that universities are the sole possible providers of that education.

This piece is written off the cuff – there are no notes, no earlier edition in front of me to draw on, an absolute minimum of editing, and no one to either proof-read the manuscript or correct my failures of logic, evidence, or presentation. I’m sure the spell-checker works, but it will argue the difference between ‘cheque’ and ‘check,’ when both refer to a fancy bit of paper that two or more people have imbued with some value greater than that of the pulp and printing that go in to its creation. And the ‘logic’ of any argument is suspect; I’m quite capable of holding two, opposed, opinions about a subject at the same time. They’re all guilty, and/or, there but for the ‘grace of god go I.’ Except I’m an atheist; I firmly believe that ‘god,’ or our creation of ‘god,’ is an abrogation of moral culpability. You are either ‘moral,’ within the contexts of societal time and place, or you are not. Unfortunately my position often leads to interminable internal debates about relativism, the true nature of ‘goodness,’ and whether or not I have the moral right or obligation to censor or forgive the behaviour of other people.

I’ll leave the vast histories of ‘the university’ to others; the institutions of Western Civilization that seem at one point in history to have had nothing more to do than justify the actions of the Catholic Church – scholastics determining how many angels can dance on the head of pin, and that sort of intriguing intellectual inquiry – an early example of centres of learning kowtowing to temporal and ecclesiastical power. Later the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic (or dialectic) and the quadrivium (music, mathematics, geometry and astronomy (if memory serves)) would keep generations of students, all male by the way, busy. Later the Reformation and Enlightenment would change, each in their own way, the nature of university teaching, and university life. The gowns at graduation are a hold-over from those earlier traditions.

Did the universities bring on the Industrial Revolution, or, more likely, did the Industrial Revolution help to propel universities in new and different directions? Medicine, all those great drawings of dissection theatres, the students (and on-lookers) in the stadia-style seating, perhaps the earliest form of ‘grand rounds.’ Then, late into the 19th Century, universities were becoming very much the institutions we would recognize today – though some 19th (and 20th) century academicians would not say that today’s universities reflect the best of their earlier practice. We admit the blind, the halt, the lame, the sick. And women.

Damn, what is the world coming to? The 20th century.

A very brief aside; it is incredibly difficult to write all this in a window only 4 lines high, and about 40 or 44 characters wide.

With the 20th century, nearly universal elementary schooling, and both secondary schooling and universal suffrage all but complete, universities were changing. Fast. The murder of the first world war, the social miseries of the inter-war hiatus in Europe and N. America, and another vast geo-political killing machine from 1939 – 1945 (earlier if you count both actions in continental Europe and the Far East) brought expectations of change for the post-war years. And one of those changes, massive, and probably beyond the ability to foresee, was the N. American university systems.

In both Canada and the United States veterans enrolled in massive numbers in ‘institutions of higher learning,’ often discomfiting the staff and faculty of those institutions. Suddenly thousands of new students were in class – but these were not 18-year olds, and I suspect they were not completely awed by the authority of their professors. And then they had babies. And the universities expanded again, empire building perhaps, to absorb the waves of the baby-boom.

But university is expensive. It is particularly expensive if you use a model like Swarthmore, with low student-faculty ratios – a minimum number of students have to fork over enough money to cover the costs of their education – though Michener’s alma mater actually subsidizes a vast percentage of their undergraduates. Another model is the ‘stuff 250 students in a lecture auditorium, and then connect another 250 students in the neighbouring auditorium by video feed,’ charge them all money, and have one professor (if you’re lucky they will be the ‘touted’ intellectual on the recruiting brochure. Hmmmph) and some under-paid graduate students doing all the seminar (if there are any) teaching, and, probably, all the marking. Education on the assembly-line.

But in all this the idea that a person could be ‘self-educated,’ an autodidact, has been devalourized, diminished, discarded. Without the sanction of the ‘university’ you cannot know anything – and, with creeping credentialism, that means you can’t grieve when your pet cat dies because you have not had professional (read John McKnight’s ‘Care Less Society’ for the bit on ‘pet grieving counselors) training.

But is a ‘liberal education’ something we want ‘professionalized’? The way most degrees seem to work, more or less, is this; courses are either 3 credits or 6 credits. A full academic year consists of 30 credits – 10 three credit courses, or 5 six credit courses, or, well you get the picture. After your first two years (60 credits) you have to have a Major. That’s VERY important. The number of majors in a given faculty is a measure of how ‘popular’ the faculty/program is – see episode number one of this little series. And your major defines who you are.

But I’ll draw your attention to this guy – Pierre Bourdieu – just about the only French theorist I’ve got any time for. In what is arguably his best scholarly work, ‘Distinction’, he examines social class, and the differentiation indications. What is your income? What is your social status, class? A few others. And there is a predictable correlation across the things you will read, the things you will eat, the places you will go, and on, and on, and on. But amongst all of this the idea that most struck me, actually two – related – ideas, were these:

a) the autodidact, the self-taught, always lives in fear of being found ‘wrong,’ even if the determination of ‘right or wrong’ is performed by someone will the most meager of credentials.

b) the idea that a ‘degree’ gives its holder the right to ‘not know.’ My degree is in English, I have a right not to know Visual Arts. My degree is BA Mathematics (what is the difference between a BA Math and BS Math? I don’t know. It’s all pretty much Greek to me) so I don’t have to understand, or be interested in, any of the social sciences. And on.

It is that speciation, and, indeed, the absolute right, to not know that most intrigues and irritates me. I did my undergraduate degree in Geography; under the programs guidelines two students could both graduate with a ‘social science’ geography degree, in a small though well-regarded Department, and have shared exactly 1 (one) course. They could, and quite often do, graduate without actually being able to carry on a conversation ‘in their field’ because there was no common core. Out of the 45 – 60 credits in those student’s Major they could share exactly 3 credits. One 13-week, 3 hours a week, course.

I can feel the evening winding down. It has been a long week, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time just looking over the edge of the balcony, thinking thoughts. But. One last dash…

So, a couple quick notes about a liberal education. The first seems so simple. Read. But reading is an active, intellectual, demanding process. If you want the education you have to work for it. And there is more than reading. There are thousands of people who read, tens or hundreds of thousands, and they all read ‘uplifting’ histories, or the read about this war and that war. This battle, that general, this suffragette, that president, prime minister. But there is no active challenge to the text they read; does the argument hold, can the ‘facts’ be verified, are the sources real or are they conjured out of thin air? Without the challenges to authority, without the intellectual engagement the reading is not an ‘education,’ but a recital of the leavings and orts of text.

And the autodidact might fare best if imagined as, in the literal Latin meaning, an amateur. Someone in love with the subject; but so securely in love that the minutia can be examined without regret, or accusation. And then try to find another. Someone with whom ideas and opinions can be vigorously examined, challenged found sound (or not) without the dialectic being seen (or performed) as an attack.

Read, write, think, talk. Share. Challenge, share, tell of histories, tell ‘stories,’ often a greater source of information for an ape that only just learned to write a few generations ago.

Now I’ll hit ‘publish,’ and then I’ll see my mistakes.

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