Can we imagine college classes being conducted without agendas, either political or scholarly?
If this seems a fantasy, can we imagine ways that the agendas that inevitably emerge would be constantly subject to self-critical eyes?
The small-scale culture of a college — not its rhetoric or its bureaucratic shortcuts — would be the only source of such a possibility.
Consider the serious challenges that an ordinary college lecture class faces in this regard. The content-providing professor proceeds according to his or her preestablished conclusions. Grades are constantly dribbled out in a way that can encourage followers or punish dissenters. The student as content-consumer has little incentive or indeed encouragement to undertake an inquiry where much of anything is at stake.
The architects of the liberal arts program at St. John’s and of the original core curriculum at the University of Chicago had an ingenious solution: Demote the professor to the status of a guide and give students the responsibility for the discussion.
The “teachers,” as my college’s advertising boasts, are the authors of great works, Plato, Newton, Austen or DuBois. Let students pursue the questions they bring to the classroom with the books as interlocutors and with their fellow students and teachers as helpers. Let the faculty step back and ensure that the discussions are careful, respectful and relentlessly pursue the truth. And use grades only to signal to outside institutions the student’s fitness for further study.
A great work is one sufficiently complex and majestic to support conflicting interpretations. But it is also one that exposes questions crucial to humanity: on the just structure of society, yes, but also the existence or nonexistence of divinities; the nature of matter and the laws of nature; the inner workings of mathematics; and the pitfalls of the human mind and heart.
Discussing such works is a bottomless journey, pursued in acknowledged ignorance and punctuated by flashes of insight.
Such discussions train us in respecting others, in facing our own inadequacy and in patiently seeking out the reality of a situation. Training the natural and spontaneous interest of a young person in fundamental questions is an excellent preparation for life.
After all, agendas come and go. The challenge is to maintain a broad perspective in an environment driven by money-making fads and more sinister attempts to exploit human beings in the search for power and profit.
The interior freedom an authentic liberal education imparts is the safest space on earth.--Zena Hitz "What is a Safe Space?" Washington Post.
Hitz's article in the Washington Post responds to the debate about safe spaces and trigger warnings, but is really a further articulation, if not development, of her position that a certain kind of education develops interiority (recall her piece in First Things, and my response here). While it is true that the core curriculum and the way of teaching that accompanies it is not political in the sense of taking sides in conventional party politics, she is mistaken to suggest that there is no politics in the conception at all, or that it instantiates a kind of (Weberian) neutrality in which the only politics it produces is an emergent, indirect quality.
The core [recall] she lovingly discusses was developed by President Hutchins at The University of Chicago (and given widespread familiarity by Mortimer Adler) during the Great Depression and is a species of secular humanism (in which, as Hitz notes and exemplifies, religious thought is welcomed). The (slowly evolving) core simultaneously instantiates a great conversation over perennial issues by exemplary minds, and presents the development of thought. Among the self-conscious underlying aims is to produce citizens and thought leaders, and simultaneously be a rescue mission (Wikipedia has a useful intro). I would be the last to suggest that such a rescue mission is not needed today.
The very idea of 'flashes of insight' as a way of knowledge contribution is itself Goethe's contribution to the Romantics (although clearly modeled on a species of religious experience and celebrated in Archimedes Eureka moment), and, in part, an elitist response to the more egalitarian, more democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. To be sure, this is primarily a nobility of the mind acquired through Bildung.
But my point here is not to quibble with Hitz's claims about neutrality and politics. Rather, despite the fact that her piece warmed my heart and made me feel in the company of a true educator, I was troubled by it. After a day's mulling, I recognize that something is missing in the closing line of Hitz's piece (recall), "The interior freedom an authentic liberal education imparts is the safest space on earth." To put the point philosophically, freedom is never a safe place. True freedom, even if reduced to interiority (as Hitz suggests), always presupposes (as a kind of constitutive principle) the possibility of making disastrous mistakes from which no practice of self-criticism can save us.
Because (recall) I recently read Gertrude Himmelfarb's (1994) "On Looking into the Abyss," I am reminded of a famous, somewhat facetious remark (which she quotes) by Lionel Trilling in his (1961) "On The Teaching of Modern Literature:"
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.
Trilling points to the phenomenon in which books have lost the capacity to destroy by, say, making a bad or troubled soul worse, and accentuate immoderate desires. Hitz does not allow for this when she insists that the true guide through these books, in an atmosphere of mutual respect in which young souls are turned toward the good, provides "an excellent preparation for life." But As Trilling reminds, books can also undo life in ways that are not merely a preparatory experience. I think this is true. I can't convince you of this, but the best I can do is offer some hint of an autobiographical remark.
When I was a late teenager, I read Sheltering Sky. I am unsure how I stumbled upon it (I am pretty sure I read it before the movie came out). But it brought me extremely close to suicide. I have no idea why the story of an overconfident American couple who travel through Africa unnerved me so badly, but I was not just physically shaken by the felt experience, but also overwhelmed by the meaningless of life. (When, later, I read Nietzsche, I found him tame and too refined for my taste.) There is a famous passage in the novel (it was used in the film) that while flirting with the pretentious (and bordering on the incoherent) kind of points to the underlying theme of the book (which I have never re-read again):
Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
What gets to me in the passage is not the actual remarks about death or the finiteness of life (I know about that), but rather the sneaky claim that everything, even the most constitutive memories happens a very small number (four or five) times, really. Yes, you can try to cheat: by doing a daily exercise to remember the event many more times or by denying that any thought really matters to you, but so doing would also distract from the art of living, of being alive.
Much of professional philosophy blabbers on about truth, rationality, and morality and never allows the sneaky claims. By contrast, the close reading and shared discussion of the texts that Hitz and I both admire makes space for it. The aim is not, of course, to generate a stream of psychiatric patients or suicides in the class-room--a skilled guide and teacher can forestall it often--, but in the very possibility of unsettling even the skilled guide can slip sometimes and make us worse off, genuinely worse off, than before the conversation started.