Liberal arts again

We are just back from the college retreat, in which we discussed the dire state of the environment and the junior faculty drank immense quantities of wine without visible signs of incapacitation.

It did not bother me that the environmental ideologues expressed the opinion that environmental awareness be both a required course and also a component of every single course taught on campus.  It is their duty to argue this sort of thing.  But it did bother me — a lot — that my colleagues in the humanities did not rise as a body against them, for this is our comparable, oppositional duty.  Every single humanities professor at the retreat should have said, as with one voice:  Take all available funds to build solar panels.  Raise consciousness in any way you can.  Take away our parking lots, cut our air conditioning, and fine us if we don’t recycle.  BUT HANDS OFF OUR CLASSES.

Two or three professors did say gentle, elegant words about the importance of reading old books with no immediate relevance to students’ lives.  But many people in the room, including many professors in the humanities, did not seem to understand or even find a conceptual place for this argument.  This depressed me.

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11 thoughts on “Liberal arts again

  1. Yeah.

    Although I’d point out that, for me at least, it’s less about “reading old books with no immediate relevance” and the habits of mind that we teach in such classes. The particular books are of much less importance to me than the modes of reading and writing and are most often taught alongside them.

    Perhaps part of the problem was politeness?

  2. What I believe is that students will only learn skills in a situation where learning them is subordinated to learning content. I mean: if you teach critical thinking as a means to expressing oneself on Jane Austen, students will learn both Austen and critical thinking — not to mention a good deal about ethical and political philosophy. But if you teach Austen as a means to the acquisition of critical thinking — with critical thinking as the highest goal — they’re less likely to learn either.

    And then it’s a slippery slope to not caring what text you teach. Why shouldn’t The Greening of America be as good a text for teaching critical thinking as Austen? It is of course. Because no one knows what critical thinking is.

    Skills have to be skills for a purpose. I think we’re losing sight of the full range of answers to the question of what that purpose might be.

  3. Yes, absolutely. We don’t learn skills — or, more broadly, habits of mind and inquiry — unless there’s a reason to learn them. And we don’t have a reason to learn them without the topic. (There’s much more to say on this.) I guess what I mean when I say that the particular books aren’t very important to me is that I don’t think that there’s any *one* particular set of books that will provide the occasion for *all* our students to learn how to ask probing, interesting questions. The questions they’ll learn to ask in my class are different from those they’ll learn to ask in the classes taught across the street or down the hill, and I’d hope that they’d learn to ask those many *different* kinds of questions, recognize the different types of text or data that can help us respond to the questions, and figure out something about how you analyze or interpret those texts or data by the time they graduate.

    I think that we *all* run into trouble when we mistake the content we teach for the most important thing students learn in our classes. And even more trouble when we imagine that our content (or habits of mind) are fundamentally superior to those taught elsewhere on campus. (More interesting and fun and satisfying for us, sure, but not superior.)

  4. I heard that someone said that teaching sustainability is more important than any other issue, including race, gender etc. Which is just about one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in my life: what are we competing for here? And what would that really look like?

    Anyway, my back automatically raises at any “thou must”, which is why I’m such a bad subordinate. Barring harm, I like even the people I disagree with the most to be able to teach what they want. It’s just that those people are often the ones, like the evangelical Xians, who think that they can tell everyone else what to do.

    The longer I teach the more it sinks in that it’s the questions that are the hardest thing. The rest is execution.

  5. Kyla, dead on.

    dr, we are raising the question of canon now. I would never defend a static canon, which I regard as a perverse illusion existing only in the minds of a few conservatives. I think there’s always been a sense in the academy, at its best, that the body of texts we regard as important is fluid.

    That said, I’d fight to the death against the idea that any text is as good as any other. While I don’t think that the body of texts I teach is the best, I do think some texts are better than others: richer, more conducive to deep questioning of social shibboleths.

    The co-opting of the curriculum by ideologues has been going on for some decades. They seek to replace these philosophically rich texts with texts that profess the truth, as they see it. Often I agree with those truths. But if these texts — issue books, as I call them — become the foundation of a liberal arts education, I’m quitting.

    Being green is part of our lives as human beings. Teaching green is not part of our job as academics.

  6. one of the things I valued most (and often found myself showcasing when attempting to explain what RS is/was) from my RS courses was the interchangeable hermeneutic lens approach (habit of mind, skill, etc) to “who cares” what topic.

    The problem here seems less the issue of “what to teach” although it’s uncomfortable, it has always been somewhat part of academia (curricula etc). The rising sensitivity seems to come more from your previous posts about learning outcomes, incorporating technology etc, which falls more accurately under “how to teach”. When it comes to Humanities professors, I feel the “how to teach” really gets your goat more than “what”.

    In an ideal world, I’m sure no one would tell you “what” to teach or “how” to teach. What we seem to value more, at least in the liberal arts community, is “how”.

  7. Sean, your attempt to replace the skills/content distinction with the how/what distinction is complicated and interesting. It has a lot to be said for it. I could babble on at length about my concerns about “how” — you’re right that I have them. But instead let me give some thought to the way these two distinctions relate and reply at some future time.

  8. As a scientist and a green, I cringe at the suggestion.

    The large-scale degradation of the planet, and the possibly irreversible warming experiment we have embarked upon, is a very complex issue. It takes a great deal of scientific understanding and savviness with statistics to be convinced that it is mostly human-caused.

    I doubt most liberal arts students will not develop sufficient depth in science to fully appreciate that. Instead, they will be indoctrinated in the “correct” way to think. They won’t be able to do more than get in a screaming match when confronted with people who believe otherwise. That’s scary.

  9. fair enough.

    i hadn’t explicitly noticed i was replacing the distinction, perhaps because i thought in these terms:

    skill as a noun really is a verb, unless you treat skill as a quality distinction which in any case is still a verb.

    content on the other hand, is still just a noun. (maybe?)

    so the substitution of how for skill and what for content stays syntactically sound.

    the point about teaching the content and learning the skill or teaching the skill and learning the content reminds me of Alasdair MacIntyre’s attempt to explain a “practice”

    Specifically, in Chapter 14 of his book “After Virtue” he gives an example of an intelligent child being taught to play chess. There is an interesting similar distinction in his explanation of skill/content. His distinction is between the internal goods associated with skill and external goods associated with content.

  10. Did anyone raise the point that being as green as possible might involve, say, *not living in the LA area* because of water issues?

  11. Re: “But it did bother me — a lot — that my colleagues in the humanities did not rise as a body against them, for this is our comparable, oppositional duty.”

    I was at a session with dr when this came up. And for the record, dr was the lone soul who DID rise up to say something in defense of teaching the liberal arts – and academic freedom. It wasn’t a humanities specific comment, which I think was appropriate. I was proud to be in the room with her.

    Personally, I think the suggestion from the organizers caught me so off-guard that I had no response. I was in a bit of shock. Stupid of me, really, given the nature of the retreat. I’m just glad that someone smarter and quicker than me was in the room to offer up a sensible opposing argument!

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