How Can Liberal Arts Education be Reformed?
The university, as I would like it, does not exist.
Northrop Frye (Interview)
[Before attempting to reform liberal arts education, we must examine how liberal arts are currently taught at most universities. In general, would it be true to say that university education is open to the criticisms and falls short of the objectives found below?]
What distinguishes education from the fact that people have always been able to learn a large number of things? According to Ivan Illich, education is learning under the assumption of scarcity, learning under the assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce, and therefore education is a marketable and expensive commodity.
The classical view of education is that you learn from the experiences you have and from the company you keep—especially from the people you identify with. Learning is easy and the most natural thing in the world, and first and foremost it is a social activity.
Education, to be successful, must not only inform but inspire.
The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s time.
Sydney J. Harris
What is more wonderful than the delight which the mind feels when it knows? It is the satisfaction of a primary instinct.
Happiness consists principally in the act of the intellect, and not in an act of the will.
Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.
Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.
It can never be repeated often enough that nothing intellectual can be achieved in a field that does not attract us. Working in our vein, without a sense of effort, and, on the contrary, with a sense of ease and freedom, is the fundamental condition of a healthy mental operation.
Real interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant.
Education is nothing if it is not the methodical creation of the habit of thinking.
University presidents are a nervous breed who praise independence of thought on all occasions of public ceremony; and worry deeply about its consequences in private.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Education cannot produce the wish to think where it does not exist, but, given this indispensable germ, it ought to provide the necessary conditions to bring it to maturity.
You can lead a man to the university, but you can’t make him think.
Finley Peter Dunne
Aristotle considered education the occupation of leisure.
Education in the modern world is intimately associated with work. Education is not only considered to be a necessary preparation for employment, it is, itself, one of the largest employers in a modern economy.
Education frees the intellect and imagination from bondage to unexamined ideologies or beliefs.
A thinker must think about his theories rather than simply with them. Everybody thinks with their theories in the sense of using those theories as organizing devices for understanding the world, but most people do so at an implicit level.
The two predominant activities of liberal education are reading and conversation.
There must be a proper balance between written and spoken forms of language. An exclusive emphasis on texts can devalue the spoken word.
Reading after a certain time diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and use his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.
One can’t be right until one has first conceived the possibility of being wrong.
Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition. It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.
G. K. Chesterton
The simple realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing what they are is a big step. The final achievement is understanding why they are held.
When a subject is highly controversial one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
Education, in the sense in which I mean it, may be defined as the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world. It remains to ask ourselves, what mental habits, and what sort of outlook, can be hoped for as the result of instruction?
Civilized people can talk about anything.
Is the University Too Much like School?
Ivan Illich defines “school” as an age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.
School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Real knowledge is always acquired in the pursuit of real goals.
It is futile and vastly expensive to try to teach people things they are not motivated to learn.
Once the mechanical teach and test cycle was established it tended to perpetuate itself. If it doesn’t work it must be because either the students or the teachers are doing it wrong.
One professor defined a lecture as the process by which information passes from the notebook of a speaker to the notebook of a student without encountering resistance in the minds of either. If the purpose of a university is to teach and that of a student to learn, why do we still use the method least likely to satisfy either objective?
The official view of learning and all its apparatus should be abolished and the classical view re-established. Then the way people naturally are would become an advantage instead of a disadvantage.
Education is never neutral. It either liberates people or it dominates and oppresses them.
Compulsory education has a hidden agenda to turn the citizenry into a pliable, unthinking mass. That’s why the schools so often seem to inhibit their students intellectually.
Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, church or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.
Robert Lewis Stevenson
The longer each person is in the grip of [institutional] education the less inclination he will have for self-directed learning.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled youthful curiosity. For this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.
Someone in the English school pointed out that of the outstanding living authors who were educated at Oxford—W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Anthony Powell, William Golding—none had firsts, and half got thirds. The head of one of the colleges once said to me: “I understand why we’re teaching the students, but I don’t understand why we’re examining them.”
The highest marks [at Oxford] tended to go to examinees who were good at doing what was expected of them and these tended to be unoriginal people. More independent-minded students did not usually behave like this; and the more imaginative they were, and the more distinctive their intellectual personalities, the less likely they were to behave in his way. What these tended to do was to pursue with unusual intensity those subjects that interested them while neglecting those that did not, often with little regard for examination results. The consequence was that first-class degrees went to students with the mentality and temperament of high-grade civil servants.
Schools are becoming career factories.
School prepares you for just one thing: School. It doesn’t prepare you for life. As a result School is utterly future oriented. The present is awful, but the future will be wonderful.
The age-old idea of education as the quiet pursuit of wisdom is being replaced by a utilitarian scramble to acquire knowledge of facts, and especially material facts, and above all, commercially rewarding facts.
We produce a higher education system which is more and more separated, more and more divorced from the intellectual function. What I see out there is an enormous public hunger for high quality, general propositions of an intellectual kind, something that isn’t journalism, isn’t the sound byte culture, isn’t entertainment, is ideas.
Healthy students often redouble their resistance to teaching as they find themselves more comprehensively manipulated. This resistance is due not to the authoritarian style of a public school nor the seductive style of some free schools, but to the fundamental approach common to all schools—the idea that one person’s judgment should determine what and when another person must learn.
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