Saturday, April 26, 2008

Curriculum and the Liberal Arts College

When we examine the place curriculum in a liberal arts college we are confronted between the classic divisions of education between technical education which is occupationally driven and education for the life of citizenship and public life. This distinction was characterized by John Dewey in his article Education for labor and Leisure where he illustrated a view of education as a distinctive exercise in American Pragmatism. In this Dewey pushes the focus of education away from knowledge for knowledge’s sake to a more mechanical scientific approach to education. This was in response to Pragmatisms rejection of fixed truth values and focuses on the usefulness of a hypothesis as determinate of its truth value. With this shift to focused occupational and mechanical education Dewey hoped to remove the focuses of concepts of citizenship and fatherland which proved to be so disasters to German society in pre and post war Europe. In doing so Dewey wanted to make the flourishing of the individual the key aim in education by supporting equal access to public education, democratic control over curriculum of public schools, free discussions and debates with in the public sphere, and the general push for self inquiry.

Castell on the other hand, who having rejected the use of a liberal education as supporting a class of gentry as propose by Newman and purpose arguably Plato with his proposed philosopher kings, wished to also reject as it primary function ones professional studies. Newman in his The Idea of a University asked us to “imagine a project for organizing a system of scientific teaching, in which the agency of man in the material world cannot allowably be recognized, and may allowably be denied.” This would be a university with out any place with in the curriculum for the philosophy of mind, theology, or any other attempt at explaining the activities of the mind and it powers outside of neurological considerations. Perhaps this can be seen as preposterous as Aristotle’s attempt to break the mind and all human means to mere materialism. With this in mind Castell in his work The Teachers World makes a pivotal distinction between the activity of the individual being educated in respect to his flourishing and the process or scientific descriptions and systems used to educate. In doing so Castell points towards the use of Logic as the science of human rational.

Castell comes to show us who really needs a liberal arts curriculum. These are the students who are to be educated, graduate schools seeking well prepared student to purpose professional studies, and society which seeks the civilizing force of such an educational system. It became the task of a liberal arts curriculum to provide students with the larger picture of knowledge, the more micro level understanding of the human condition, a basic background in a selected professional track, and the most fundamental ability of all; being able to think and rationalize effectively. With these goals in mind a fundamental struggle ensued at the University of Chicago over the role of what would become known as the ‘Great Books.’

Dewey in his book Democracy and Education had pushed for a position opposite of Jefferson’s where all individuals, “[where] to lead lives in which they would earn a living, act as intelligent citizens of the republic, and make an effort to lead a decent and enriched human life.”[1] The ‘Great Books’ movement posses Dewey’s Pragmatism against the resurgence of the history of human consciousness, ideas, and pre-pragmatist metaphysics; but most importantly the use of classic literature as a instrument in developing individual flourishing and development of human reason. Hutchins, future president of the University of Chicago, and Professor Adler would develop a list of books created by John Erskine which purpose was to expand the discussion of critical ideas in classic literature. In doing this they pulled the liberal arts university curriculum back from becoming to specialized and helped achieve many of the goals outlined by Dewey himself, which had been lost with the dramatic focus placed on pragmatic education within the university system.

Strauss and Bloom to the post-modern movement as a whole worked to defend the ‘Great Books’ movement as restoring some essential aspect to human quest for knowledge. Strauss’ radical interpretation of texts such as Plato’s Republic lead to the miss use of such movements by groups such as Neo-Conservatives who attempt to support a new established gentry or class of philosopher kings. The post-modern movement, radical by nature, went to far in attempting to defeat all scientific truth and in the end leaving us with nothing more then empty and meaningless existential ramblings. The true defense of the ‘Great Books’ movement and the push to reintroduce the study of the history of human though through literature is far simpler and two fold in nature.

First the failure of the reductionivist position possessed by the Logical Positivist tradition in which human psychology and all forms of intentional statements where proposed to be reducible to extensional or mechanical descriptions of the world. This attempt to reduce psychology, anthropology, history, and even literature down to more fundamental sciences or physical descriptions failed in many ways from the indeterminacy of brain states to the failure to capture intentional meaning with extensional statements. The details of theses failures are well known and show that the sciences can in no way completely replace or explain away the deeper meaning literature and its place in the liberal arts curriculum.

Secondly we need only ask the simple question of why we study literature in the first place. Such a question forces us at first to question what literature it self is? Confusion arises as we are look at proto-scientific work of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the religious works of the Hebrew Canon, the Hindu’s philosophical and religious works of the Upanishads, the bright colors of Dick Tracey comic books, the Cynical yet at times deeply philosophical works of Douglass Adams and Jack Kerouac. In all of these we see everything from technical scientific writing to fantastic fiction and philosophical questioning of the worlds oldest mysteries. As C.S. Lewis told us ‘we read so as to know we are not alone.’ In Shakespeare’s King Richard the Third it is in no way necessary, although interesting, that we know that such a play was written with the biases of the Tudor kings, but only that we feel moved to question the world as it was and could be.

Litature belongs in the liberal arts education because it gives meaning and purpose to human life. The ‘Great Books’ movement should be a guide post, a list of books to be used and sampled and supplemented by those who use them. The list must change as it can not be universal in the special since of covering all of man kind’s great literature nor can it be temporally universal and must change with the times. Although some books will play a important place in a liberal arts curriculum for centuries to come, as students and teachers we must effect change in the list to represent or own struggle to understand the world. Even the list it self must become a place to battle over the finer points of human understanding and at time a form of rebellion against the outside world.

[1] Adler, Great Books, Democracy, and Truth

1 comment:

Tiffany said...

...I wish my name were more secretive.

But God damn it, I wish more people thought about education like we do. I've been super depressed about it lately. You should read these:,,25351-2266728,00.html

And ask me why my future looks gloomy and uninviting.

DreamHost Coupons