An interesting discussion reoccurred in one of our academic meetings this week. It comes up with some frequency–sometimes sides are picked, and sometimes a mediating solution is proposed. For the first time a way through came to mind with some clarity. So let me try it out.
It is sometimes claimed, often in fact, that to be ready for today’s world students need to spend some time and gain some experience in international travel, especially to “third” or as they are sometimes now called “majority” world countries. This is the region of the future, the region of the majority of world population, the place of dynamic change, and a place of need. This is the world for both service and business opportunity. Students should be learning Spanish before French or German, and Chinese and not Russian. Sometimes a further claim is added that students do not need to travel to Europe, or learn the literatures or thought of Eurocentric thinkers. This is all in the past, or oppressive or now irrelevant. The first claim is certainly true; we do need to spend time in these parts of the world. There is need and dynamism. It looks like the future will be influenced more and more from these areas. There is also great need and suffering, and where people suffer God calls us to action. The second claim is at least questionable.
On the other side of this occasional debate is the claim that the classical liberal arts are necessary for a good education. A couple of arguments are regularly made, sometimes singularly, sometimes together. First it is claimed that the traditional liberal arts and sciences are necessary to develop critical thinking, good communication, and sophistication of analytical ability. They are the avenues or lenses of learning, or we need to know the languages of learning. Secondly it might be claimed that it is the content of the liberal arts that is important. Plato, for instance, raises the question of justice and the philosophical tradition develops it. We need to know the tradition of that development. There are “canonical” works, great works, the standards, that should be known, and that these great works are the furnishings of an educated mind. Without them we are left with derivative learning, lesser, compromised, or mere utilitarian professional learning. We are left without depth, and perhaps without truth. One or the other or both of these claims might be put forward, sometimes with sensitivity and nuance, sometimes without.
It struck me that both are in some measure true, but that they each speak to different goals of learning.
One of the goals of learning is to understand the world in which we live, the questions, problems and opportunities that confront us. We do need to know the global world around us, the dynamic world we live in, and we must enter into the new trends, needs and opportunities that confront us. The majority or third world is with us here now, not out there. It is no longer a Eurocentric or Amerocentric world. The west may indeed be losing its dominance, and will play a different role in the future. Spanish fluency is needed, and so is or will be Chinese. And as educators we want our students to know this global world, and they want to know it as well. We and they need to spend time there, to understand the dynamics we and they face, and to enter into a connected, mutually habitable world.
Another goal of learning is to engage in deep reflection on perennial questions, and to engage critical awareness. The so call traditional arts do not so much convey a particular truth as debate interconnected questions. They debate the meaning of justice. Plato only initiated one part of that discussion. The Old Testament, for instance, initiated another. Jesus refined it. Others in the so called canon disagree with all of these, and develop alternative understandings. Similarly there are others that debate the problem of political freedom, and the necessity and dangers of power, the origins and distribution of wealth, the nature of virtue and how we know what is good, and the nature and limits of human knowledge. John Locke and Adam Smith make particular claims about how property and freedom are necessary for the creation of wealth; Karl Marx worried, and rightly so, about the effects of industrialization, and distribution of wealth. Smith and Locke don’t agree with Marx, but they all must be understood unless we are to repeat painful and costly errors of judgment. Literary works feed the imagination that we take with us to global travels; history gives us some perspective and might inoculate us against chiliastic dreams; philosophy, theology, and religion enter into the deepest questions and provide glimpses of answers and remind us of mysteries beyond our small minds. The sciences provide both understanding of complexity and how forces and combinations can be altered and used.
Both goals of education are legitimate and necessary. Students who travel to the developing world engage deeply in the world we live in, and develop a broader horizon of experience and understanding. They see a broader world, and learn to tolerate, appreciate, and welcome differences, complexity and ambiguity. They see their homes differently and perhaps more critically. Their experiences are often life-changing. They sometimes find their vocation, their calling, their passion. It is a risky part of our education, but rich in rewards.
Students are also grabbed by the power of great works, by philosophical arguments, by imaginative creations; they gain a depth of understanding of people, the world and the nature, possibilities, and limits of their own understanding. To see the world through the eyes of Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, of Confucius, or Nietzsche, or Achebe is to gain depth of insight and understanding. These great formulations, whether we ultimately adopt any one of them as our own or not, are touchstones against which we can test our experience and understanding. Sometimes disagreement with a great thinker helps shape positively our understanding. Knowledge of history or economics, of the sciences will open our eyes to the character and processes of the places and things we experience. This core of knowledge need not be Eurocentric. There are works of great depth and beauty in all places where the human mind has flourished. We need to sit at their feet for a time, and both appreciate and wrestle with their offerings. But “modernity,” the globally connected world of dynamic change, for good or ill, is of European or western origin, and we ignore this at our peril. Scholars in the majority/third world struggle to understand this modern, western creation and so must we.
Our travel to and experience of the new and developing world is a legitimate, exciting, and even necessary element in our education. It brings questions, problems and opportunities to us. But we must understand how we might approach these experiences. Other, more mature minds have wrestled with our questions before us. We do well to attend to their discussions. Those discussions are not the be all and end all of education. They are to be taken to the world we live in and experience, a changing world of new places, peoples, ideas, schemes, hopes and tragedies.
Somehow we must include both of these goals and both elements in our educational process. They work together; they are not at odds. We are the poorer for it when we neglect either one. I have only touched the surface here, but you have been very patient to have read this far.