Expectations for Education
Expectations for Education
These days central to the general expectations of students, parents, the broad and loosely identified “higher education community,” government agencies, high-school counselors, news reporters and pundits—virtually everyone—is the understanding that a university education provides and entrance into professions and careers. Education when more altruistically conceived is about solving social problems, changing society, producing change agents, or in today’s language “transforming” society, (we hope for the better, but that does not always seem to be the outcome), and exposing and undoing the networks of privilege and power that deny people their freedom of choosing to do as they feel they can, be what they desire to be, and follow their passions. In many Christian universities this focus on the solving of problems, transforming society, has taken the place of (or has become the major emphasis of) the older notion of shaping the minds, imaginations, hearts, and lives of students through a broad and sometimes deep “liberal” education which includes a healthy dose of Biblical and theological study. My experience in all of the settings noted above, and on many campuses including FPU, is that the common expectation of preparation for professions, for effecting change, for doing and gaining something tangible for the individual and for society at large is the common, pervasive understanding of the purpose of education.
Against this professionalization some argue for a renewal of the liberal arts, which I and many others on the FPU campus have taken part in. Some of what we have argued on and off campus, in scholarly and educational societies, verbally and in print has been effective and some not. We have argued that It takes a great deal of education and training to understand and grasp the root and immediate causes of social problems to know how solve them. This does not come easy. If it were easy, we would not have such difficult arguments in our classroom and in the public arena over what the data on social trends tell us, let alone how to resolve social problems. Perhaps a little humility is in order. This argument is sound, if ignored by popular movements, writers, politicians, and those who seek to inspire students in chapel speeches and convocations.
We have also claimed that there are deeper arguments in thinkers of the past, great thinkers and great books as they are often called, and that these need to be mastered for the insights they offer, and how they challenge us to reconsider whatever are the happy hour specials of today’s ideas. There is much to be said about this argument as well, though the student quickly finds that these thinkers disagree with each other on fundamental issues. Is it Adam Smith or Karl Marx, Plato or Locke, poetry or science, theological law or human judgment, large social factors or individual actions that shape us? Or in what ways do each of them speak to us? As we move past the “dead white male”s among these writers, the great thinkers of other cultures (Asian, African, Islamic, etc.) share the same problems. When women writers are included in the discussions as they have been for the last two generations at least (claims to the contrary notwithstanding) they too disagree with each other, and sometimes agree with the men who are assumed to be their oppressors and adversaries.
Students this week in my world history classes found it difficult to understand that a Chinese writer like Confucius would place conforming behavior to good manners and practicing traditional religious ceremonial and ritual was a virtue that taught one the high virtue of benevolence (or willing and acting well for the good of others). Islamic writers make the same kind of arguments in a different way. Can we not just be good? And when we are free and have the right intentions and ideas, won’t things just work out well and better for everyone? Aren’t past constraints the problem? Students in my Renaissance history and literature class last semester found it disconcerting that some of the women writers of the age, even as they argued for women’s education and for greater opportunity to write and publish, would be considered “conservatives” in their day, and did not follow today’s feminist doctrines. If male writers are the problem, how can female writers not be the answer?
“Great” writers who have been at the core of a liberal arts education are not easy, whoever they are. It is not enough just to read, reflect and appreciate. When we read them, we do not absorb the answers to life’s problems, we may instead learn the depth of the issues that confuse and divide us. To understand these writers, whoever, wherever, and whenever they are requires some professional training to understand what issues were that they addressed, why they addressed them in the way they did, and what the outcomes may have been in their time, and later. The new trinity of race, class, and gender may open our eyes to elements of texts, social organizations, and ideas that we might have missed without them, but when taken as the primary element of human experience they prove to be pretty thin soup that does not provide enough nourishment to work to the depths of the ideas we confront.
All of these arguments and commitments have their weaknesses. And there are other subjects that are and ought to be major parts of a professional and liberal education—how to think scientifically, what the social sciences can tell us and not tell us, and practical tools for living in a complex society like how to read and understand financial statements and calculate value, understand statistical analyses, and the role of the arts (traditional and contemporary) in enlivening and manipulating the emotions, in forming and dissolving communities—but this is not my purpose today. I support the basic expectation that a university education ought to prepare students for professions in our world. Four years of work, and thousands of dollars in tuition, ought to result in being able to enter a profession and earning a living. Professional preparation need not contradict those other claims about the value of deep engagement with ideas and with reading lasting thinkers. My purpose is rather to point out some of the tensions that we live with today, and especially that we find in our teaching and life in the university, in conversations and in planning with colleagues and in discussion with students. These are the some of the tensions, and sometimes seeming contradictions I have been confronted with lately. Perhaps I will offer some thoughts towards addressing them in the near future.