Saturday, February 26, 2011

what education is for

I'm in two faculty reading groups this semester. One is reading a history of the CSU, written by a long-time administrator and CSU president, and has precisely the kind of perspective you'd expect. When that group gets together, we're awfully cranky about the book, the author, and CSU administrators.

The other group will be meeting for the first time Wednesday to begin to discuss a book by Louis Menand on colleges and the need for reform of higher education. So far, it lacks the conceit of "evidence" of that wretched screed I was reading earlier, but it also just seems to lack any solid reasoning. So, I'm getting cranky with Louis Menand now. It appears I can't read anything about higher education at all without getting cranky.

Menand's first chapter deals with general education, which he thinks is higher education's bastard. He compares Harvard's various attempts at a core curriculum, with Columbia's early general ed program, with various others at small, elite cross-section of US colleges. (It's nice that he's not pretending to be making a general survey of the whole field, but that's about the nicest thing I can say about it so far.)

He makes one point, in the rather offhand, vaguely insinuating way he has, that I do think is worth pondering further: What, really, is the purpose of general education? And that question, I agree with him, is really about what we think a college-educated person should look like.

In my freshman year, I took a course in the honors program called "The Culture of Education." It had 8 students in it, was team-taught, and one of the faculty had a TA for the course. (In a large bureaucracy, such mistakes in resource-allocation decisions are bound to occur.) We read some Plato, some Rousseau, we read a bunch of illegally photocopied articles, and we read Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the 1985 book that is, I believe, the granddaddy of stuff like Menand's book.

This morning, I couldn't help recalling a conversation in that class about the purpose of education. Bloom, thinking that he was following the true cultural heritage of the West that started with Plato, argued that education is for the development of moral, political, and aesthetic values. At 18, I resented him telling me which values, and as a clever 18 year old, I suspected his argument of a whole bunch of special pleading. We started getting into it: Who the hell is Bloom to say this is the purpose of education? But then, what else could it be for?

One of the students in the class was an Education major - that is, a future grade-school teacher. She offered the common-sensical view that, for her, education was preparation for her future career. I saw this as begging the question. Maybe the purpose of education for her, and according to her view of things, was career preparation, but what was the purpose of her career? Well, she said, to educate children. To what end? So that they could go on to college.

I didn't like Bloom's strategy, which prescribed a specific political end of education. I didn't like her reasoning, which seemed obviously circular. Plus, I was already referring to the university experience as "higher indoctrination." This is a basic hazard of being a college student by default, and having no life or career plans. I had a funky kind of disinterest - maybe disaffection is a more accurate term - that made me hyper-critical of anything anybody said was a purpose for education, or even a goal for education. (Now that I'm telling this story, I have to admit that I was way more cranky back then.)

It was also hypo-critical of me, since there I was taking up space and haunting the nastier parts of the library. And now, I think that what a college-educated person should look like is approximately either me (college philosophy instructor and rabble-rouser), or my loveliest (semi-gainfully-employed amateur polymath and bricolageuse), or maybe my friend Imj (aka Bobo the Wandering Pall-bearer; intentionally-unemployed amateur poet and casual roller-derby official).

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