“Opinions Are Cheap”

In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education

The Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors just arrived in my mailbox, and in it I find an AAUP manifesto (dated January 2020) called “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.”

The AAUP is noteworthy as an academic professional organization that has consistently attempted to keep structural first principles at the top of its agenda. I’m proud to be an AAUP member.

“In Defense of Knowledge,” though, is a complicated document because it attempts to expose and reframe a set of complex misconceptions. I don’t think it’s perfect, by any means. Partly because it’s such a bold and explicit statement, there’s something in it for almost anybody to disagree with.

For me, for example, the statement’s implicit complacency about the U.S. military-industrial-educational state is questionable. “How can we develop a credible foreign policy, ensure effective diplomacy, and prepare our military,” the statement demands, “when area studies and foreign language programs are curtailed, eliminated, or made subject to political intrusion?” I don’t think you need to be a pacifist to wonder, “Prepare our military for what?” And the statement is explicitly nationalistic in other ways that many academics will dissent from far more strongly than I will.

But I applaud the AAUP’s attempt to define what, exactly, colleges and universities are good for, and to show why they deserve broad-based public support. In fact, I think it’s crucial for everyone working in higher education today to make an explicit defense of their work—all their work—as a service to a free and democratic community.

Here are some of the passages that I found especially provocative and potentially useful for future reference:

It is not only research that is affected [by political attacks on academic independence]; teaching is as well. Teaching is, after all, the transmission of knowledge and a means of its production. A narrowing focus on vocational training, combined with attacks on the liberal arts and general education, closes off access to the varieties of knowledge and innovative thinking needed to participate meaningfully in our democracy. …

There are, of course, endless philosophical debates about the meaning of ‘knowledge.’ For our purposes, however, we need define it only as those understandings of the world upon which we rely because they are produced by the best methods at our disposal. The expert knowledge to which we refer is not produced merely by immediate sense impressions. …

These [academic] disciplines cumulatively produce understandings that are continuously tested and revised by communities of trained scholars. Expert knowledge is a process of constant exploration, revision, and adjudication. …

Academic freedom rests on a paradox. There must be freedom of inquiry, but that freedom must always be subject to peer judgment and evaluation. …

Colleges and universities deserve public support to the extent that American society requires expert knowledge. Expert knowledge has fueled American progress. It has checked ideological fantasies and partisan distortions. It has provided a common ground on which those with competing political visions can come together constructively to address common problems. Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings.

—American Association of University Professors, “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” January 2020

As they say, I recommend reading the whole thing.

The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic

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When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue.[1] But something else has divided public opinion, too.

Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.

The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.

The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.

Continue reading “The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic”

Describing a Democratic Approach to History Education

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Edit, Aug. 26, 2019: Since I posted this, my plans for Fall 2019 have changed. I will not teach the course described below at RCBC, but I will teach a different course at Rowan University, which is also a public institution.

Earlier this month, I posted a draft syllabus statement for my new courses at La Salle University. It explains how my approach to history may fit into the “Lasallian” tradition—that is, the tradition of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the 300-year-old Catholic teaching order that sponsors that university.

Now I’d like to present a draft syllabus statement for a different kind of college. This fall, I’ll be teaching a course in the history of western civilization at Rowan College at Burlington County (formerly Burlington County College), a community college with a main campus in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It’s my first time working at a community college, which has long been a goal of mine.

Here’s my initial attempt to explain what I think a history education should offer students at a public two-year college. I welcome criticism, especially from instructors who have worked in similar institutions.

Screenshot:

Purpose of a history course at RCBC

Text:

Public Philosophy

As a community college, RCBC invites Burlington County to learn together, making a college education something for all of us, “in an accessible and diverse environment,” rather than a privilege for the few.[1] This opens doors to greater personal prosperity and further educational opportunities. But it also strengthens our democratic society in two ways.

First, education helps you become a more responsible part of a free community. In the ancient Greek city of Athens, young citizens reportedly had to recite an oath when they reached adulthood. They swore to uphold their democratic society’s traditions in order to defend its freedom. Modern schools and colleges have sometimes adapted that oath in their commencement ceremonies to describe the ideal educated person:

We will never bring disgrace to this our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for our ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul them and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city not only not less but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.[2]

At the same time, “higher” education (or education beyond high school) should prepare adults to question tradition, criticize their society’s existing values and institutions, and create new forms of knowledge and wisdom. College should expand our freedom as well as preserve it. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who helped establish one of America’s first public universities, we should “follow truth wherever it may lead,” enjoying “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”[3]

A college education in history, especially at a public college like RCBC, should do both of these things at once. Carefully studying the past will help you think for yourself—using resources provided by the people of Burlington County—while inspiring you to cooperate with others in making your society freer, wiser, and more beautiful in the years to come.

You may find some irony in my posting this now, right after questioning how reliably a formal humanities education improves the health of a democracy. All I can say is that this syllabus statement is aspirational and normative, not necessarily descriptive. I am setting forth what I  hope my history course will help students accomplish. The eventual outcome will depend not only upon what I do during the semester, but also what my students do—both individually and together.

Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

Continue reading “Humanities Education’s Limits”

The Deadly Quiet Negative

Hot contention, raucous argument, and loud protestation cannot kill a state’s educational future. Only calm indifference, self-satisfied silence, and the deadly quiet negative will do education in. We can afford to make proper concessions among conflicting interests, formulary compromises among educational purposes, and fiscal adjustments in the name of sound economy in the state. But one big fact should be kept straight: for popular ignorance, for a state’s undereducation, there can be no price but public ignominy.

— Harry Huntt Ransom, “Educational Resources in Texas,” 1961[*]

[*] The Conscience of the University and Other Essays, ed. Hazel H. Ransom (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 19.