Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Plato's Attempt to Control Early Education

In Book II of Plato's Republic, Socrates begins to discuss the education of young children. He doesn't want children exposed to bad stories, but wants them to be exposed only to good stories. Students are frequently outraged at this "censorship."

The line that Socrates wants to draw seems to be that he doesn't want young children exposed to stories that teach falsehoods. Instead he wants them exposed to what is true.

The particular way this plays out is that he wants to reject false stories about the gods: stories that portray them as petty and immoral, hating each other and treating each other badly. Instead, he wants the stories about the gods to be stories that portray the gods as good.

A student in class today objected that this was one-sided: to only want to teach goodness. At some point, young people need to be exposed to the reality of problems and badness in the world.

But goodness and truth are so tightly-aligned in ancient Greek thought that my mind made a sideways shift and I wondered if this student's objection might sound to Socrates like someone saying, "But teaching only about truth is so one-sided! If education is to be balanced and fair, we should give equal time to teaching falsity as well!"

That, of course, was not what my student intended to say at all. But our contemporary political world seems at times to champion such a view!

More specifically, Socrates thought that it was bad for young children to hear stories about badness prevailing. I agree with my student's concern that people at some stage need to face the reality that bad things can happen. But how we tell those stories does matter, I think. Do we tell these stories in ways that disillusion and intimidate? Or do we tell these stories in ways intended to inspire and empower people to triumph over life's adversity?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kierkegaard Quotation

From Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling:

"Suppose someone wanting to learn to dance said: 'For hundreds of years now one generation after another has been learning dance steps, it's high time I took advantage of this and began straight off with a set of quadrilles.' One would surely laugh a little at him; but in the world of spirit such an attitude is considered utterly plausible. What then is education? I had thought it was the curriculum the individual ran through in order to catch up with himself; and anyone who does not want to go through this curriculum will be little helped by being born into the most enlightened age."

--Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 75.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Skills vs. Knowledge

During our final discussion at May College yesterday about our curriculum, several of my colleagues questioned the skills vs. knowledge dichotomy. I appreciate their concern, and very much agree that skills and competencies count as forms of knowledge.

But I do still think that there is an important distinction that can be drawn, that is very relevant to our discussions about what effect we hope that liberal education has on our students.

Developing skills and competencies is very important. As we've discussed, this makes our students better able to do certain things: analyze, synthesize, reason, communicate, etc.

But when I originally raised the question about whether there are other kinds of knowledge we want our students to have by the time they graduate, I was getting at something different that I believe is also very important: Do our students have a good understanding of the world?

We wouldn't necessarily have to specify exact factoids of knowledge that we want everyone to know -- I agree that it would be a nightmare to try to do that (and of dubious value)! But we can approach such a question in a more general, but still meaningful, sort of way. For example, what are the ways that we hope that students can map the world by the time they graduate? We have talked about how we want our students to have global awareness, cultural awareness, environmental awareness, and historical awareness. These are some ways of mapping the world, and they can be analyzed to a finer level of detail as well.

Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding of the cultural diversity of the world, its religious diversity, its biological diversity? Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding that much of what happens is structured by some combination of natural laws plus the operation of human agency? Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding of the best scientific knowledge of patterns of natural processes (laws of nature) and patterns of human behavior and human interaction? Don't we want students to have a good working knowledge of the major social systems that structure our lives: political systems, major world religions, economics, processes of information sharing, the arts? Don't we also want our students to also have a historical perspective on all of the above?

Another metaphor that may be helpful: this is about giving students different lenses with which to examine the world around them -- not specifying exactly what they must look at and how exactly they must see it.

I worry that we are too quick to devalue knowledge just to "information," and too quick to think that in this age of the internet and information overload, the content of what we teach is not important because everyone can just "look it up" when it becomes relevant for them to "know" something in particular.

What I'm trying to describe is a sense of knowledge that is not just facts or information. It is, instead, expanded awareness and enriched perceptiveness. It requires the practice of examining the world through different lenses. It is not just passive absorption, but involves a more subtle kind of skill or competence that involves the ability to get outside of oneself and encounter a greater world that is Other to what one already knows. It requires the development of strategies that enable one to meet this world on its own terms, and then integrate this new awareness responsibly and meaningfully into one's understanding.

We already do teach in ways that foster this kind of ability and this kind of awareness in our students. What I am trying to say here is that we must bring this dimension of education too into our discussions.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Your Anti-Transcript

I once heard a faculty member complaining about how many St. Lawrence students didn't know such-and-such from his discipline. With horror, I realized that I didn't know such-and-such about his discipline myself, because I had not taken even one college-level course in his discipline!

Out of curiosity, I later pulled out the SLU course catalog and decided to see if it was actually possible for an SLU student to take a course in every discipline. The answer is that it would be very very hard. I think what I came up with was that only a student who does a single 8-course major could possibly do this, if such a student planned very very carefully. But most of that student's coursework would be 100-level courses, and faculty would not be very happy with that.

Now emboldened by this finding (if a St. Lawrence student can't do it, and St. Lawrence's requirements are not that demanding, it was surely impossible at my college, which had more demanding requirements), I decided to take stock of my education relative to the full list of academic departments and programs. I decided to use St. Lawrence's listing, since this is my current academic home.

So I made a list of all the departments and programs in which I had not taken even one college-level course. I encourage you to make such a list as well. This is your Anti-Transcript, showing the Shadow Side of your own formal education!

I think that this is part of what makes these conversations about general education requirements so difficult. We all do have gaps in our education. If we are not careful, we can get defensive about those gaps. We can try to pretend that the fields of study we have not studied at all are not really all that important -- but we don't really know that, because we don't know what we don't know. Or, out of embarrassment about those gaps, we can overcompensate by wanting to require what we had not been required to study, in an attempt to ensure that our students do not later come to regret the gaps that we later came to regret in our own education.

Part of what is exciting about discussing general education requirements is how much we can learn from each other about our different fields of study. Is there anything in your field of study that you regard as so essential that you really do wish everyone knew it? Are there ways to teach each other (faculty in other disciplines as well as students) this essential knowledge and these essential skills, besides just through courses?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ethics as a Critical Literacy?

At St. Lawrence University, we have been discussing our curriculum.

One of our current "Aims and Objectives" is "a personal ethic of considered values," but I notice that nothing similar clearly shows up on the new "Liberal Learning Goals for SLU" draft, although something like this is implicit in "Civic responsibility and self knowledge" and the items listed under this.

The phrasing on the AAC&U "Essential Learning Outcomes" handout is clearer. This listing includes "Personal and Social Responsibility," with "Ethical reasoning and action" as a sub-item.

How important do you think it is to keep ethics as an essential literacy? How important do you think it is for students to clarify and develop their own ethics and values? How important do you think it is for students to foster a commitment to living responsibly in relation to other people and the natural world?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

First Draft of Liberal Education Goals

May Faculty College has begun, and this year's theme is "General Education 2.0: Exploring Essential Literacies." Our first assignment was to think about what we each regard as essential literacies. What do we hope that our students learn in their four years in college, and/or what skills do we think it is important that they develop? Here are my own preliminary thoughts.

Reasoning/Critical Thinking:
  • deductive and inductive reasoning
  • what counts as evidence in different fields
  • constructing arguments (ability to do so; also, understanding of processes for doing so in different disciplines -- e.g., the scientific method)
  • critiquing arguments (difference between finding problems in structure of reasoning vs. assessing quality and relevance of evidence)
  • also - ability to recognize, critique, and avoid fallacies
  • (note that quantitative reasoning fits into all of the above)
Good Communication Skills (perception and expression):
  • reading, writing, listening, speaking
  • other forms of creative expression and performance (e.g., visual, musical, kinesthetic)
  • ability to do the above in various settings: face-to-face/in person, or via technology/media
  • aesthetic awareness/aesthetic skill (in all aspects of perception and expression)
Understanding the World:
  • historically
  • different cultures, different religious traditions, different political systems
  • natural world (includes environmental awareness)
Understanding Oneself:
  • biologically, psychologically, sociologically
  • one's own interests and abilities
  • one's own values and ethical orientation

Monday, February 25, 2008

Quotation from Aristotle on Education

From Aristotle: "And those who have just learned something do not yet know it, though they string the words together; for it must grow into them, and this takes time."

--Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VII, Chapter 3 (1147a20).
Translated by Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Company, 2nd edition, 1999, p. 103.

Friday, February 15, 2008

On Simplicity and Complexity and Education

One of the motivations for anti-intellectualism is the appeal to "keep it simple." Simplification makes things easier to understand, but at a cost. Something is lost in translation.

While teaching is about helping people to understand, and simplification is a necessary step along the way, real understanding requires coming to terms with increasing levels of complexity. Education is a process of initiation into more complex truths.

The process of clarification requires stripping complex concepts down, but then building them back up again, layer by layer. Teachers can show their students how to do this, but students need to learn to repeat this on their own over and over again until they themselves become able to see the simple in the complex, and the complex in the simple.