Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Taking liberties

The first stage of our liberal education pedagogy seminar MetroCITI MetroCITI ended today - 15 discussion-rich hours, during which we ten instructors and four researchers got to know each other, and started what will certainly be an energizing discussion spread over monthly meetings for the coming academic year. They'll be at once refreshingly general (since we're from all sorts of different fields and institutions) and helpfully grounded (since we'll be sharing experiences from the courses we're teaching). Three veterans of the program came today to share their experiences and their advice. I'm already sensing the possibilities of this space which they described, as a space for reflection, experimentation and collaboration.

I wasn't the only one left with one nagging question, though. What is meant by "liberal education"? The term, as I understand it, emerged a few years ago to replace the universally uninspiring "general education," the catch-all for things university students are expected to do outside their chosen majors. "Liberal education" adds some cadences of liberal arts, and also emphasizes the civic significance of the formation students receive in a well-delivered higher education setting. But still, what is it? One of my fellow participants asked the director of the program this question point-blank. She said she didn't know; she'd read lots of literature on it, none of it satisfactory. Our project is part of her attempt to get beyond discussions focused on curriculum and on educational philosophy. Perhaps what makes liberal education important can best be appreciated if we can observe it in the classroom.

Well and good; I'm on board. But of course I've just come back from China, where nothing called "liberal" would be welcomed, at least officially. I didn't have much opportunity to reflect on it while there, but the question of liberal education (or more generally liberal arts education) is close to my heart. I've thought for a while that its future must lie in engagement with the new constituencies and old traditions of Asia, especially India and China... but I confess my thinking was only on the level of curriculum and educational philosophy. What I found in China was a different kind of challenge. Universally valid education or western cultural imperialism?

My own accounts of what I try to do when I teach invariably gravitate toward the language of democracy: another no-go in PRC. Our director's work is grounded in American ideals of freedom and equality, too. (Liberal: liberty.) Is "liberal education" too narrowly American? One of my fellow seminar participants grew up in France; he thinks that may be so, too. I'm not backing away from my earlier formulations, not at all. But I was given pause by our director's pitch-perfect synthesis of statements by two US Secretaries of Education:

Anna Neumann, “Staking a Claim on Learning:
What We Should Know about Learning in Higher Education and Why,”
The Review of Higher Education 37/2 (Winter 2014): 249-267, 263

Her point in offering this was that there's precious little "liberal education" in these statements. I agree - I think this might describe the concerns of quite different governments, including that of the PRC. 

So what does "liberal education" add, and is an education incomplete without it? Is it worth paying for for oneself, for others, let alone for every member of one's society? 

I remember when I first went to China in 2012 and some students at Kunming University asked me what I thought about democracy. I often say something along the famous Churchillian lines - the worst system except all the others - but I think on that occasion I made it about the growth of knowledge: that the best ideas will come out if everyone has a voice, which will produce a better world for all of us. When I gave the faculty commencement address at Lang in 2006 I emphasized that our kind of seminar learning would make the world a better place because of the "democratic virtues" students developed by being in class with others and learning to expect to learn from everyone in the room. Education isn't just about individual development; it's a public good, and liberal education teaches us to see and value it as that.

What do I think now? I'm not sure. Do I think it's about making the world a better place? Yes. The whole world, and in the same way? Not necessarily... Stay tuned!

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