Friday, May 16, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Seven

The preceding installments have described a tension between organized human effort and individual freedom. The former entails the adoption of a machine-like way of processing observations and acting on them (nowadays a techno-bureaucracy) that has no inherent morality: human values lie entirely with the people who make judgments within this machine. These individuals, however, are bound by the rules of the system, and recent history shows that state juggernauts are capable of enormities. The epistemological and ontological constraints of system-work were described by George Orwell in his 1946 "Politics and the English Language."
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.
On the other hand, our species has a rich history of struggle within and without, and  higher education--particularly the liberal arts--is in a position to help new humans adopt an intentional stance toward the systems they find themselves in, as well as creating and awareness and response to internal biases resulting from our evolutionary and social history. Classical Cynicism closely-read from the charge to "debase the coin of the realm" is a solvent for the calcification of system-rules. It is also too a dangerous an idea to administer to young minds without care.

My argument has been that education that resembles jobs-training lacks the most essential ingredient that young minds need in order to be free. Liberal arts education does not have a single definition that everyone will agree too, but broadly speaking it encompasses intellectual discovery of the "big questions" of what it means to be human. The distinction "liberal arts versus jobs training " is described by Noam Chomsky  as [source]:
 The first kind of education is related to the Enlightenment  - highest goal in life to inquire and create; search the riches of the past; try to internalize ;  carry the quest  ---  help people how to learn on their own; it's you the learner;  it's up to you what you will master.
The second kind of education is related to Indoctrination - from childhood young people have to be placed into a framework where they will follow orders that are quite explicit.
I have framed the "jobs" versus "liberal arts" dichotomy as it often appears in the media (part of their epistemology is to make things that are similar seem more different so that they can create controversy and sell web-clicks), but in reality those who work in higher education are more nuanced about it. For example, "Bentley University Tries to Make Business and Liberal Arts Pay Off" at
Colleges are in the cross hairs of a debate over the relative value of a liberal arts education versus a business degree. But Gloria Cordes Larson, the president of Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., says students don't need to choose just one path.
"It's not about pitting lifelong learning skills against professional skills," says Ms. Larson, a former lawyer and economic policy adviser at the state and federal levels, who took the helm at Bentley in 2007. "A college degree should reflect both."
There are also examples of the opposite. One of our projects at my institution is creating pedagogy that engages students with external audiences in meaningful ways (see "21st Century Liberal Arts"). My math classes do a survey of campus traffic each semester and report to the safety council, for example. In networking with other colleges, we found that some professional programs eschew a portfolio-like approach because all they really care about is the pass rates on standardized tests, for example in nursing and accounting. This is an example of how system-reward-seeking produces Cynicism as a matter of course. Presumably what we really care about is having nurses that can do the many varied tasks with professionalism, skill, and humanity. The system signal for this (the coin of the realm) is a test score, which is not a very good way to asses what we want to know. Optimizing test scores is always a slippery slope, and it inherently adds noise to whatever (little) signal was there to begin with. See "Former Atlanta schools superintendent reports to jail in cheating scandal" for a full-blown example. This is Cynicism on two levels: first accepting a poor epistemology (using tests instead of demonstrations) and then the secondary noise resulting from "optimizing" this easily-debased signal.

Broadly speaking, liberal arts education is our hope for injecting critical analysis into society. This presupposes that we care about things like preventing atrocities and maintaining individual freedoms. If you buy that, the next question is how are we doing with current methods, and what can we improve?

[Part Eight]

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