liberal education

I read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in the late 1980s. My very close friends and I were in our early 20s, and together we found its mix of (mostly conservative) ideas about personal responsibility, education and relationships provocative and demanding of serious thought. We were, after all, the University students Bloom was describing and I seem to remember thinking of the book as a kind of call-to-arms.

I happened to pick up my copy this morning and read the following in the Preface:

Fascination with one’s students leads to an awareness of the various kinds of soul and their various capacities for truth and error as well as learning. Such experience is a condition of investigating the question, ‘What is man?,’ in relation to this highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs.

A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern. Despite all the efforts to pervert it … the question that every young person ask, ‘Who am I?,’ the powerful urge to follow the Delphic command, ‘Know thyself,’ which is born in each of us, means in the first place, ‘What is man?’ And in our chronic lack of certainty, this comes down to knowing the alternative answers and thinking about them. Liberal education provides access to these alternatives, many of which go against the grain of our nature or our times. The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.

— Bloom (1987, pp.20–21)

If you can put aside the painfully gendered language (and that’s quite a large if) then this piece of 26 year-old writing remains relevant.

I remain convinced that my role as a teacher in higher education is to encourage students to ask difficult questions, and to imagine that complex solutions might exist beyond the narrowness of our own thoughts, experiences and histories. And yet I also feel that this role is under considerable threat from bureaucratic and political systems that seem to want to homogenise the feelings, doubts, interests and needs of current undergraduate (and to a lesser extent postgraduate) students.

I want to celebrate our chronic lack of certainty, and I care deeply about alternative solutions to our complex problems of personal and cultural understanding.

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