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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teaching Plato to Plumbers–Bad Idea

Scott Samuelson, a teacher of philosophy at a community college, asserts (The Atlantic 5.1.14) that he is in an ideal position to justify the teaching of the liberal arts even to students who are enrolled specifically to get skills training.

We should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

This is all well and good, but although Samuelson cites the epiphany of one student who have applied the teachings of Kant to her own troubled situation, most students attending community colleges are there purely and simply for economic reasons. The best community colleges in fact establish links between themselves and local industry, designing and tailor-making their curricula to meet the standards of the private sector.  This is a win-win-win situation where the company benefits from trained and motivated recruits, the college can demonstrate high performance against an objective indicator, and the students become gainfully employed. 

One of the most successful community colleges I have visited had such a program, and was successful not only in providing well-trained employees to existing industries, but managed to attract new factories to the region as well.  The college, however, felt a responsibility to educate the ‘whole’ student, and had a small but not insignificant liberal arts program, teaching basic courses in literature, philosophy, and the arts.  Because of its overriding mission to provide a solid technical education to its students, the liberal arts curriculum was neither exhaustive nor demanding.

Why, then, should such community colleges require students to spend even a small fraction of their time for a cursory, superficial exposure to the liberal arts? Why should any time at all be devoted to such study when job markets are tight, skills are at a premium, and every competitive advantage is important?

There is an interesting passage in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where Levin and others are debating political philosophy.  While the novel is mostly a page-turning romantic pot-boiler, it also provides insights on the dramatic changes that were brewing in Russia in the last quarter of the 19th century.  The serfs (slaves) had been freed only a few years before 1874, the publication of Anna, and intellectuals were engaged in lively debate about labor, capital, socialism, communism, and capitalism.  As importantly they debated civil rights – the difference between duty and fundamental rights; women’s rights, and the rights of the peasantry.

One of the more interesting arguments was about education. One debater insisted that education was the key to the social and economic advancement of newly-freed serfs.  Another proposed that such education was a complete waste of time, and that investments made to rapidly improve the peasant’s lot must take precedence.  Once the peasant could breathe more easily, the wolf’s breath no longer at the door, he could turn his attention to higher concerns.

The same arguments can be made today.  In my view a glancing treatment of literature and the arts only diverts attention and time from the most important task at hand – acquiring the skills which will lead to employment and eventual prosperity. 

Samuelson has understood why the arts, philosophy, and literature are important. They offer particular and unique insights into human nature. Shakespeare more than any playwright or author understood the ineluctable and inescapable qualities of human nature.  He knew that all relationships whether between individuals, families, or nation-states were based on self-interest, self-preservation, and the expansion of wealth, power, and territory.  Of course this insight is not new, and world history chronicles the predictable cycles of war, treaty, expansion, and war.  The poet playwright, however, in his Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies is more conclusive about the driving force behind human events than any historical account could be.

                                                    Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III

Ibsen and Strindberg wrote about Will and the native, innate power of certain individuals to rise above the common course of human life.  Chekhov was more restrained and understanding of the limitations on human action and intervention and sympathetic to those who could not be Supermen.  Tennessee Williams created heroines who were frail, wounded, but courageous, and offered us hope and redemption through their struggles.

Most educated Americans, however, ever get this far.  If they read Shakespeare or Chekhov, it was in college many years ago; and if they occasionally go to a play it is for the language, the staging, the direction, and the acting.  To fully appreciate what Shakespeare was about and to appreciate his unique insights, one must read not one but many or all of his works.  As the Shakespearean critic Jan Kott said, only if one places the Bard’s Histories in chronological order, laying them from end to end, can one see the workings of the Grand Mechanism and the predictable, inevitable, and repetitious palace coups, internecine struggles, wars, duplicity, and outrageous arrogance of human nature.

The point is that even highly-educated professionals never give themselves the opportunity to delve deeply enough into literature, philosophy, and the arts to apply lessons learned; so why should we expect job-bound, poor students to do so?

The liberal arts-community college syndrome is a result of a misreading the principles of American democracy. “All men are created equal’ means equal opportunity, not equal benefits.  Yet advocates for the liberal arts invoke this principle when they say that all students should have equal access to higher education.  Education for the poor should be no different from that for the privileged.  These advocates bridle at the thought of technical schools because they consign fellow citizens to the workbench and factory floor rather than expose them to the light of higher learning.

On the contrary, providing students with increased economic opportunity is the best advantage they will ever have; and educational programs should be aligned with that priority.

Studying the liberal arts should be in proportion to economic need and necessity.  For those privileged few who attend Harvard and Yale, a Summa Cum Laude degree in Art History or East Asian Philosophy will be more than enough to get into law or business school.  Less advantaged students attending skills-specific community colleges, should not waste their time and money on the liberal arts.

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