Monday, May 10, 2010

Educational Coherence

Recently, FLG propounded, for the umpteenth time, a theory that education needs coherent assumptions. Today, FLG sees that Prof. Deneen has written largely the same thing:
In my view, the reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context. What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught. Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide (I would be satisfied if this were done solely within the context of my own institution, leaving aside for the moment the sticky issue that I may merely propose a set of internally coherent institutions between which students would have to choose. This is merely to push relativism from the individual to the institutional level, but I would regard this as "progress").

Interesting, Prof. Deneen's example of the problem with the Great Books is described thusly:
Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. It's not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown. For Kronman, this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or "the meaning of life." Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent -he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.

A confrontation with the Great Books, according to Kronman, is to disrupt easy assumptions about the meaning of life and force students to more deeply articulate their beliefs. But Kronman is quite explicit that arriving at life's meaning will be the result of an individual's negotiation between these various texts. The "meaning of life" will be developed from each person's own capacity to arrive at a personal response to the many challenges these books represent. Confrontation with these texts reveals the expansiveness of possible ways of life, beliefs, ethics, and economics: they teach us that "each of us can make, and wants to make, a life uniquely our own - a life that as no precise precedent in all the lives that have gone before and that can never be repeated exactly." These books reveal the "plasticity of human nature."

Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated "meaning of life," a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the "meaning of life" is always highly personal and relative to each person. A person may arrive at a "philosophy of life" that is not itself relativistic - for instance, finding in the Biblical texts a religious basis for their beliefs - but overall, such a conclusion will take place within the context of a curriculum that is itself fundamentally relativistic, in which each student is encouraged to come to their own conclusion about the meaning of life, and thus to arrive at a personal set of criteria by which to evaluate all the respective arguments.

Sounds a lot like FLG's view that education's first goal is to disprove The Big Assumption:
First, one particular assumption must be disproven. This assumption is so fundamental and widespread that I will call it The Big Assumption. I believe that it has been held by every person who has ever lived on the planet. Moreover, I am convinced that the Big Assumption has profound consequences for politics, economics, psychology, and sociology. This assumption is: The experiences that constitute my individual life are representative of the entire human condition.

Upon rereading that old post again, FLG thinks he did a damn fine job, although he'd probably modify some of this, of describing what happens after The Big Assumption is disproven:
First, the student changes from the Big Assumption to what I have begun to call the Studies Assumption. They realize that their experiences are not representative of the human condition as a whole, so they narrow the scope of the assumption to their gender, class, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. These students often major in Gender Studies, etc depending on how they have narrowed the Big Assumption. Typically, these departments utilize the Marxist frameworks to justify their Studies Assumption. Yet, The Studies Assumption is just as false as the Big Assumption, and this is why I believe that these departments have such a difficult time finding a core belief system.

Another possibility is a complete rejection of the Big Assumption. This leads down two separate paths, which represent the second and third possible outcomes. The second outcome is relativism and cynicism. My Big Assumption has been rejected and now I realize I can make no other assumption about anything, ever. This usually happens to the cowardly and intellectually lazy students.

The third outcome is when the failure of the Big Assumption leads to the never-ending search for the universal in the human condition. Oddly enough, the second step in a liberal education is exactly the same as the first. The student examines ideas, feelings, beliefs, and experiences via literature, philosophy, art, and history, which are so foreign to their own life that they can find what is universally present in the human condition. This is the ultimate goal of a liberal education. I believe the difficulty in recognizing this goal is that both the first and second step are superficially the same activities.

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