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New Criterion Symposium on Liberal Education:

Several very interesting articles in the latest issue of The New Criterion. The full issue is available here.

This is an interesting passage from the essay by Alan Charles Kors on "The Sadness of Higher Education":

The academic world I so loved revealed itself best in an undergraduate course I'd taken on the history of Europe in the twentieth century. When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the Left, returned the midterms to the hundred plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we'd saddened and embarrassed him. "I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions," he explained, "but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear." He informed us that he would add a major section to the final exam: "I'm going to assign the book I disagree with most about the twentieth century. I'm not going to ask you to criticize it, but, instead, to re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which he understands and analyzes the world." I was moved by that. The work was Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and it changed the course of my intellectual and moral life. It also showed me immediately how I wanted to teach as an intellectual historian. Each year, I teach thinkers as diverse as Pascal and Spinoza, Hobbes and Butler, Wesley and Diderot. I offer courses on intellectual history, and the goal of my teaching is to make certain that my students understand the perspectives and rich debates that have shaped the dialogue of the West. I don't want disciples of my worldview. I want students who know how to read deeply, how to analyze, how to locate the essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers, and, indeed, how to understand, with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought. I know that I am not alone, but I also know, alas, that I am in a distinct minority in my pedagogical goals in the humanities and the so-called social sciences.

Just Saying:
I'm quite moved. In an era where we hear about profs who sue their students for poor course evaluations, this was a breath of fresh air.
5.6.2008 2:41pm
Oren:
Ditto for me as well, I had a history prof that was likewise left-of-center who encouraged the same sort of broad inquiry. It was especially refreshing in a course on the history of the cold war, where I half expected there to be no controversy at all.
5.6.2008 2:43pm
The Mojo Bison (mail) (www):
I had to laugh when Professor Kors talked about
<blockquote>
"[T]he academics who dominate the humanities and social sciences on our campuses today would state that K-12 education essentially has been one long celebration of America and the West, as if our students were intimately familiar with the Federalist Papers and had never heard of slavery or empire. .... In their view, our K-12 students know all about Aristotle, John Milton, and Adam Smith, have studied for twelve years how America created bounty and integrated score after score of millions of immigrants, but have never heard of the Great Depression or segregation."
</blockquote>
Those academics have obviously never been around when some schools stop and drop everything to celebrate Fill-In-The-Blank History Month. Nor have they ever picked up a high school history book, most of which are, <i>contra</i> <b>Lies My Teacher Told Me </b>, among the very most politically correct tracts you will ever pick up.
5.6.2008 2:47pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Mojo: Amen. When I read Lies, I couldn't figure out what country Loewen had been raised in. (Or at least what century.) History books at least over the last few decades spend more time on all the allegedly overlooked minorities that Loewen is trumpeting than on any president who didn't get the country involved in a war.
5.6.2008 3:05pm
Lester Hunt (mail) (www):
That's a beautiful quote from Kors. I'll have to read the whole article.
5.6.2008 3:36pm
Anderson (mail):
"Liberal" education? Haven't they gotten around to changing that?
5.6.2008 3:38pm
Oren:
I can't tell if you are objecting to the factual content of Lies or the general over-inclusion of minority history?
5.6.2008 3:38pm
Latinist:
Funny. The liberal academics supposedly need to start respecting other (generally conservative) views: but the views of liberal academics themselves are characterized as "egregious nonsense, crude meta-theorizing, self-indulgence, and tendentious special pleading." There's geese, you see, and then there's ganders.

I don't remember ever hearing anyone on the other side apply such a strongly negative description to the ideas that they are supposedly witch-hunting off of campus (though of course, people everywhere are sometimes thoughtlessly dismissive of views they disagree with). Yet on the right, it is absolutely commonplace to claim that all feminist theory, recent ideas about race or sexuality, and anything that can be called "post-modern" are utterly without value, part of a vast "swindle" (Kors' word) whereby students are cheated out of an education.

I don't entirely disagree with Kors' (and other conservatives') basic complaint, but I don't think you can simultaneously argue "you need to respect my ideas" and "all your ideas are so utterly worthless that I will not even bother to examine them."
5.6.2008 4:27pm
CJColucci:
And I just call the balls and strikes. Anyone can say this stuff, and most do. Whether Kors is right about himself or others would be an interesting question, but not one that we can accept Kors' say-so on.
5.6.2008 4:28pm
ithaqua (mail):
"When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the Left, returned the midterms to the hundred plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we'd saddened and embarrassed him. "I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions," he explained, "but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear.""

If he was 'saddened' by this (admirable, if true) he was not, by definition, a 'distinguished intellectual of the Left'. You'd never hear a biology professor claim to be 'saddened' that his students aren't willing to question his Darwinist dogma.

"[A]ll feminist theory, recent ideas about race or sexuality, and anything that can be called "post-modern" are utterly without value, part of a vast "swindle" (Kors' word) whereby students are cheated out of an education. "

Exactly so. It's important to draw a distinction between proven facts (the questioning of which makes the questioner look like a fool), ideas that can be legitimately questioned (because the orthodoxy is wrong or incomplete, or there's a legitimate difference of opinion) and ideas that can be dismissed offhand (because they're stupid and contradict proven facts). Feminism (defined as the idea that women are superior to men and that unborn children are non-human parasites), recent racial 'theories' (the idea that white men and Western Civilization are inferior to everyone else, including cannibalistic hunter-gatherer tribes in the Amazon), and yes, anything 'post-modern', all fall into that latter category.
5.6.2008 6:31pm
Oren:
You'd never hear a biology professor claim to be 'saddened' that his students aren't willing to question his Darwinist dogma.
I don't know, I was pretty saddened when my physics students weren't willing to question my Newtonian dogma in favor of some Aristotelian physics.
5.6.2008 8:38pm
The Mojo Bison (mail) (www):
Oren: it's not that I object in principle to Fill-In-The-Blank History Month; it's just that many public schools make their entire social studies department literally drop everything and focus solely on that topic. I am not making this up, I am a former high school instructor and know of whence I speak.

What was hilarious to me, an innocent member of the Historically Privileged Majority, was that frequently the loudest objections came from, well... let me provide two anecdotes from those times. One February we had a protest from African-immigrant students who objected to being lumped in with the descendants of slaves and freedmen. And then that May, there was a huge ruckus from Hispanic students who were told they had to take part in Cinco de Mayo celebrations --nevermind that Hispanic Heritage Month is officially September, when the real Mexican Independence Day occurs. (The moral of the story: Hispanic does not equal Mexican, as any Guatemalan or Honduran student will tell you.)

As for Lies, I had serious problems with the author's methodology and premise. He was obviously out-of-touch with major publishers books for both California and Texas; in fact, I'm not the first person to say that he cherrypicked his cases. His point about textbooks being generally lousy in terms of writing quality was valid, though.
5.6.2008 9:58pm
ichthyophagous (mail):
If anyone is interested, there is also an excellent related article in the same issue of New Criterion: "The Age of Educational Romanticism" by Charles Murray. The discussion of the Claude Steele "stereotype threat" issue is right on target. If many people are mindless conformists, where does it all begin?
5.6.2008 10:00pm
Oren:
Mojo, I get the feeling this might vary between high schools because our 'history months' barely impacted us at all.

Loewen was cherrypicking the most egregious examples, that's sure, but I think his basic premise that high schoolers are not taught controversy is sound. I recall considerable consternation from the school board when a history professor taught about US support for OBL and SH in the 80s - they backed down but they were on-record as objecting to the implication that American foreign policy at the time was, let's say, counterproductive.
5.6.2008 10:06pm
Bill (mail):
Prof. Kors did a series of recorded lectures for a company that sells topical lecture series' on tape and CD. I listened to his lectures on "The Birth of the Modern Mind" recently and definitely found that he exhibits the intellectual virtues that his praised professor sought to promote with his final exam question.

But I have been unimpressed, shamed, and disgusted with most of the popular criticism of curricula of teaching methods from the right and left. These are uniformly hyperbolic, as can be proved by observing the oblivious vehemence displayed by each side in decrying the other. What these missives really demonstrate is the lack of seriousness with which both sides take education and presume it to be taken. Setting a good example and rewarding good behavior are signs of a pedagogical critic who really cares about improving education.
5.7.2008 8:39pm
Orson Buggeigh:
Latinist, if you want a nice example of the intellectual worth of what passes for scholarship in identity studies programs like African American studies, womens studies, etc, take a look at the review of the recent article in Social Text by three of Duke's finest regarding the Lacrosse case hoax,er, frame. A political tract, which anyone who has a high school education and who can follow footnotes and read for himself can deconstruct it with ease. Dr. Johnson did it beautifully, but anyone could do it. Which is why the point is worth making: identity studies are political organizations, not academic ones. People who want to agitate for political concerns should do it somewhere other than the classroom. The methods appropriate for literary textual criticism are well suited for the study of literature. They not appropriate for the study of history, politics, or the natural sciences. Nothing like using the wrong tool for the job and wondering why it came out poorly.

Anyone who truly has a liberal arts education should be able to recognize what's wrong with the academy. My personal experience confirms that Kors' observations are accurate in my state's public colleges and universities.
5.8.2008 11:41am