Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The question of education’s value to the individual versus that value to society as a whole is one we hear and see all the time, and I need not ride that horse for long. However, it must be saddled briefly in order to look at what Oakeshott viewed as a core purpose of education as he conceived it. That is, whether there is a loosely related set of ways of thought that people should know in order to be considered educated.
The Oakeshottian view is to some extent the opposite of the E.D. Hirsch approach: there are few facts to be learned to be considered an educated person in the universe of Oakeshott’s education. What Oakeshott really wanted, and what he considered education, was the development of critical thinking. Not just its development, but a recognition that critical thinking was the distinction, or at least the most important one, between an educated and uneducated person, and that calm, measured thought was a goal and outcome of education, especially what we would call “higher education,” a term he disliked.
Education in the Oakeshottian mold is today largely a private matter. If it happens at all, it happens in private homes and small circles of people with similar interests. I see it occasionally in the stupefyingly precise discussions that some teenage birders have with each other over such subjects as sandpiper molt cycles. It can be seen here and there in public universities, somewhat more often in private colleges, in spots at community colleges and essentially never in for-profit colleges.
For the most part, though, it is accidental, because it has been decoupled from the curriculum in most colleges and operates only as a function of personality: only certain faculty are interested and make any effort to advance the ideas that Oakeshott would recognize as educational. Indeed, many faculty, hired to haul on the fourth starboard oar of the pasta-press, have neither the time or inclination to engage in “education,” for they are paid to train. Then again, only a few students are capable of linking with the best faculty to produce the superreaction that we would all recognize as the Socratic ideal transmuted into 21st-Century minds.
Sadly, the students and faculty who really want to have education, disconnected from contingent want, are spread around the higher education universe and do not often meet. The ideal norm of an Oakeshottian college, in which most of the inhabitants are capable of this kind of interaction and performance, requires that people who want it gather in community, and this is a rare animal in the wildlife park of colleges today.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: January 26, 2009
A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”
The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.
This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.
In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.
Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.
New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.
In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:
“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”
Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.
“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect ... . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”
I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.
Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like “Mary Poppins.” But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.
Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.
But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.
OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS | TRANSITIONS
Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?
By CHARLES MURRAY
Published: December 27, 2008
BARACK OBAMA has two attractive ideas for improving post-secondary education — expanding the use of community colleges and tuition tax credits — but he needs to hitch them to a broader platform. As president, Mr. Obama should use his bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor’s degree as a job qualification. Here’s a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.”
The residential college leading to a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics. But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students, and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. That almost always means education beyond high school, but it need not mean four years on a campus, nor cost a small fortune. It need not mean getting a bachelor’s degree.
I am not discounting the merits of a liberal education. Students at every level should be encouraged to explore subjects that will not be part of their vocation. It would be even better if more colleges required a rigorous core curriculum for students who seek a traditional bachelor’s degree. My beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.
For most of the nation’s youths, making the bachelor’s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.
If you doubt it, go back and look through your old college textbooks, and then do a little homework on the reading ability of high school seniors. About 10 percent to 20 percent of all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10.
No improvements in primary and secondary education will do more than tweak those percentages. The core disciplines taught at a true college level are tough, requiring high levels of linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Those abilities are no more malleable than athletic or musical talent.
You think I’m too pessimistic? Too elitist? Readers who graduated with honors in English literature or Renaissance history should ask themselves if they could have gotten a B.S. in physics, no matter how hard they tried. (I wouldn’t have survived freshman year.) Except for the freakishly gifted, all of us are too dumb to get through college in many majors.
But I’m not thinking just about students who are not smart enough to deal with college-level material. Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don’t want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.
A century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school. Now they know they need to acquire additional skills, but they want to treat college as vocational training, not as a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.
As more and more students who cannot get or don’t want a liberal education have appeared on campuses, colleges have adapted by expanding the range of courses and adding vocationally oriented majors. That’s appropriate. What’s not appropriate is keeping the bachelor’s degree as the measure of job preparedness, as the minimal requirement to get your foot in the door for vast numbers of jobs that don’t really require a B.A. or B.S.
Discarding the bachelor’s degree as a job qualification would not be difficult. The solution is to substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.
Certification tests can take many forms. For some jobs, a multiple-choice test might be appropriate. But there’s no reason to limit certifications to academic tests. For centuries, the crafts have used work samples to certify journeymen and master craftsmen. Today, many computer programmers without college degrees get jobs by presenting examples of their work. With a little imagination, almost any corporation can come up with analogous work samples.
The benefits of discarding the bachelor’s degree as a job qualification would be huge for both employers and job applicants. Certifications would tell employers far more about their applicants’ qualifications than a B.A. does, and hundreds of thousands of young people would be able to get what they want from post-secondary education without having to twist themselves into knots to comply with the rituals of getting a bachelor’s degree.
Certification tests would not eliminate the role of innate ability — the most gifted applicants would still have an edge — but they would strip away much of the unwarranted halo effect that goes with a degree from a prestigious university. They would put everyone under the same spotlight.
Discrediting the bachelor’s degree is within reach because so many employers already sense that it has become education’s Wizard of Oz. All we need is someone willing to yank the curtain aside. Barack Obama is ideally positioned to do it. He just needs to say it over and over: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.”
Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”
Monday, January 12, 2009
Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”
As he tried to train himself to screen-read—and mastering such reading does require new skills—Bell made an important observation, one often overlooked in the debate over digital texts: the computer screen was not intended to replace the book. Screen reading allows you to read in a “strategic, targeted manner,” searching for particular pieces of information, he notes. And although this style of reading is admittedly empowering, Bell cautions, “You are the master, not some dead author. And that is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master”; you should be the student. “Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns,” he observes.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Reproduction of a fossil of a scarab, 1984, collection of the author's wife.
"Your physical, reptilian brain has the control centers for fear and aggression, our deepest and most primitive emotions. Killing prey, territorial defenses, sexual predation and ruthlesss self-interest are the legacy of our earliest ancestors...
The brilliance, the absolute triumph of mammals, is that we took the same chemistry, the same neurological wiring, and turned it around to create positive emotions. Reptiles run purely on negative reinforcement emotions. Mammals invented love, joy, pleasure, and play, all of which are enshrined in our DNA.
But the reptiles were doing pretty well with anger and agression. Why go further? What's the biological point of love or friendship, of being happy, sad, optimistic or enthusiastic? Why invest extra energy in building a whole new level of brain structures? The answer is, to work together.
Tile of a Lion. White Glazed Terra Cotta, Christmas gift from my wife, 2008
Nature hardwired our reptilian ancestors for their own individual survival. Apart from a drive to have sex, reptiles have no parental instinct. Most of them cheerfully eat their young, which is why they're programmed to lay eggs and get out of town before they hatch. Our limbic brain gives us two critical advantages over the reptiles. It lets us love our young and work in groups. (some people are better at this than others -- perhaps an indication of the development of their limbic brains -- CHE).
Bronze Lion on oak base. Going-away present from Occidental College, 1997
Luckily for us, although the limbic brain responds to both positive and negative reinforcement, it responds best to the chemistry of pleasure. We feel good about our offspring and about being part of a working group. (again, this is true for the most successful -- indeed, most 'human' of us -- but certainly not all of us). Back in nature, packs let us forage with a collective eye out for predators, hunt more effectively and share child-raising.
Clothespin from The French Laundry. Gift from the restaurant at my 40th birthday party there, 1999. Trophy commemorating my hole-in-one my first time on a regulation golf course, Sierra View Country Club, June 11, 1999.
Think of the physical reaction you have to anxiety. That's the limbic brain kicking your reptilian adrenaline into action, like a rider on a big, powerful horse with a mean streak. If the rider is good, he has a lot of control, but the horse will always be a bigger, stronger animal. If the rider isn't so good, or if the horse spooks, he can get thrown and the horse will take off without him. The same holds true for your primal instincts. If you work at it, your limbic brain can become a good, even great rider, but the horse will always outweigh you by a thousand pounds; you will never be as firmly in control as you would like to think. In practical terms, that means you will pay a steep physical price if you don't get the emotional structure of your life into fairly good shape."
Thursday, January 1, 2009
The educated man lives this kind of a life, because he has opened the windows of his mind to great thoughts and ennobling ideas; because he is not imprisoned by the printed page, but chooses to make a relentless, rigorous analysis and evaluation of everything he reads; because he is less interested in the accumulation of degrees than in the stimulation of his mind and the cultivation of a generous spirit; because his interest is less in knowing who is right but more importantly, in discerning what is right and defending it with all the resources at his command; because he can express himself clearly and logically, with precision and grace; because he is not awed by authority, but is humble enough to recognize that his best judgment is imperfect and may well be tainted by error or pride; because he has a deep reverence for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, as a creature of God; because he has a healthy sense of values, a breadth of outlook and the depth of compassion which a purposeful education generates; because whenever he talks about good government he is prepared and willing to sacrifice himself for it; and because he lives a life of relevance to the world in which we live, a sharing in the problems of his time and doing whatever he can with intelligence and fairness and understanding.