All Quotes tagged Liberal Arts(14)

In the fall of 2004, my freshman students and I analyzed a speech of John Kerry's and found it confused, contradictory, inchoate, and weak. Six weeks later I went out and voted for John Kerry. What I was doing in class was subjecting Kerry's arguments to an academic interrogation. Do they hang together? Are they coherent? Do they respond to the issues? Are they likely to be persuasive? He flunked. But when I stepped into the ballot box, I was asking another set of questions: Does Kerry represent or speak for interests close to mine? Whom would he bring into his administration? What are likely to be his foreign policy initiatives? How does he stand on the environment? The answers I gave to the first set of academic questions had no relationship whatsoever to the answers I gave to the second set of political questions. Whether it is a person or a policy, it makes perfect sense to approve it in one venue and disapprove it in another, and vice versa. You could decide that despite the lack of skill with which a policy was defended (an academic conclusion), it was nevertheless the right policy for the country (a political decision). In the classroom, you can probe the policy's history; you can explore its philosophical lineage; you can examine its implications and likely consequences, but you can't urge it on your students. Everything depends on keeping these two judgments, and the activities that generate them, separate.

Indeed, when liberal arts education is doing its job properly, it is just like poetry because, like poetry, it makes no claims to efficacy beyond the confines of its performance. A good liberal arts course is not good because it tells you what to do when you next step into the ballot box or negotiate a contract. A good liberal arts course is good because it introduces you to questions you did not know how to ask and provides you with the skills necessary to answer them, at least provisionally. And what do you do with the answers you arrive at? What do you do with the habits of thought that have become yours after four or more years of discussing the mind/body problem, or the structure of DNA, or Firmat’s theorem, or the causes of World War I? Beats me! As far as I can tell those habits of thought and the liberal arts education that provides them don’t enable you to do anything, and, even worse, neither do they prevent you from doing anything. The view I am offering of higher education is properly called deflationary; it takes the air out of some inflated balloons. It denies to teaching the moral and philosophical pretensions that lead practitioners to envision themselves as agents of change or as the designers of a “transformative experience,” a phrase I intensely dislike. I acknowledge a sense in which education can be transformative. A good course may transform a student who knew little about the material in the beginning into a student who knows something about it at the end. That’s about all the transformation you should or could count on. Although the debates about what goes on in our colleges and universities are often conducted as if large moral, philosophical, and even theological matters are at stake, what is really at stake, more often than not, is a matter of administrative judgment with respect to professional behavior and job performance. Teaching is a job, and what it requires is not a superior sensibility or a purity of heart and intention—excellent teachers can be absolutely terrible human beings, and exemplary human beings can be terrible teachers—but mastery of a craft. Teachers who prefer grandiose claims and ambitions to that craft are the ones who diminish it and render it unworthy.