Opinion

Liberal learning: A suitable education for the free individual

Evading the ‘Faustian bargain’

In this age of a dynamic global economy, new kinds of industries are replacing those we had in the industrial age.

Established companies are reinventing themselves, and new ones are created all the time. In education, our challenge is to figure out how to prepare people for multiple careers and, most likely, for careers that do not yet exist. Educating for change demands helping our young people learn how to learn and at the same time build a solid educational foundation that goes beyond a narrow approach or single discipline to educate the whole person.

Our educational focus must be on teaching, research and innovation rather than numbers and statistics; we must always demand quality rather than quantity. With so many proprietary colleges, overly bureaucratic accreditation processes and an infatuation with form over substance, I wonder whether we have made a Faustian bargain that trades a truly classical, solid education for one that has been watered down to meet the demands of a rapidly changing educational “marketplace” that serves today but not tomorrow.

Related: The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts

Perhaps one of the best ways to look to the future is to start with the past. I am reminded of a conversation of Socrates, written by Plato, called the Phaedrus. In it, Socrates, who wrote no books, gave three reasons why he did not like the written word. Writing, he said, would deprive Athenians of their powerful memory, for if everything is written down there would be no need to memorize.

He also said that writing would change the form of education. In particular, it would force students to follow an argument rather than participate in it. Finally Socrates warned that writing would change concepts of privacy and the meaning of public discourse. Thus, for Socrates, the widespread use of writing presaged a cultural disaster.

In a sense, Socrates was correct. There is no doubt that writing undermined the oral tradition that he believed to be the most suitable mode for expressing serious ideas, beautiful poetry, and authentic piety. But Socrates did not see what his student Plato did-that writing would create new modes of thought altogether and provide wonderful new pathways for the intellect.

Related: Dissatisfaction guaranteed — that’s how the liberal arts work

In the same manner that the written word challenged the genius of the Greek mind, so the current information revolution has very subtly — and not so subtly — altered the way our own generation thinks and writes. We need only to look at our children to see this change.

Although these changes represent major challenges for our universities, I am reminded of a comment made many years ago by Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, who was asked what he thought about the role of the university in American society.

A reflective man, Kerr replied that America’s great research and teaching universities were a unique part of the heritage of the Western world and would remain among the most enduring institutions of society.

Related: How liberal arts offer the very ‘workplace skills’ critics demand

He observed that if one took the year 1520 as a starting point, there were only 75 institutions in the Western world that still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories. These include the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the City Council of Venice, the Parliament of the Isle of Man (a self-governing kingdom 20 miles long in the Irish Sea), the Parliament of Iceland, and 70 universities.

Kings, feudal lords, guilds and monopolies have come and gone; so too have nation states and corporations through the ages. But these 70 universities (Edinburgh, Cambridge, Glasgow, Louvain, Sienna, Verona, Paris, etc.) are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same way.

In this age of unparalleled change and uncertainty, it is vitally important that America’s great universities remain a constant — something durable that we have inherited from those original 70 European universities. At least I hope they remain so, but keeping this legacy a constant will require careful stewardship.

In the United States there has always been an unwritten social compact between the public and its universities that grants them a unique degree of institutional autonomy and scholarly freedom in exchange for effective and responsible scholarship, the education of an informed citizenry, and the preparation of society’s future workforce. In other words, there is a general recognition that our universities carry social and public obligations that transcend their institutional needs and desires.

Related: Learning is like sex, and other reasons the liberal arts will remain relevant

There is also an implied understanding that teaching and research in our universities involve not just the transfer of specialized or technical information but a commitment to developing the whole person. To achieve this, we have learned that the solution to our challenges is not to isolate our scholars within the ivory towers of academe, or within their own disciplines, but to connect them to others–both in and beyond the academy.

What does this mean? It means that we must all become lifelong learners and the goal of our schools should be to make each of us a self-motivated learner. For the university, it means that we must move away from trying to fill students with information that becomes quickly outdated and, instead, prepare students for active and continuous involvement in learning. Any student who graduates without good cognitive skills, without having examined the values that guide our lives, and without a willingness to pursue continuous learning will lack the survival skills needed for this new millennium.

We should continually strive to create a liberal education for our students. By that I am not talking about liberal learning versus conservative learning. Rather, I am talking about education that is fit for a free individual in a free society. To put it simply, we want to create free minds, not ideological ones. The free mind thrives on the world of experiences with all of its contradictions, all of its ambiguities, all of its ironies, and all of its paradoxes. The ability to deal with these multiple experiences, to walk with confidence through ambiguity, to distinguish fad from trend, to make decisions about the future based on a wide knowledge of the past and present, certainly does not come from narrow interests, or from an ideological framework. An education that prepares students for the future relies on a strong foundation built in the past and an equally strong preparation that enables them to continue to learn every day of their lives. We can ask no less of our universities, or of ourselves.

Dr. Hamid Shirvani is a Senior Fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He served as Chancellor of the North Dakota University System and President of California State University Stanislaus.

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Hamid Shirvani

Dr. Hamid Shirvani is a Senior Fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He served as Chancellor of the North Dakota University… See Archive

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