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Dylan returns to St. John's College, Annapolis to bring its president into dialogue with the PEL clan about Jacob Klein's “The Idea of a Liberal Education” (1960) and “On Liberal Education” (1965), plus Sidney Hook’s “A Critical Appraisal of the St. John’s College Curriculum” (1946) and Martha Nussbaum’s “Undemocratic Vistas” (1987).
Ep. 192 got us talking about a great-books-oriented education, and this discussion tackles that issue head-on: What constitutes a liberal education? Klein (a former Dean of St. John's) describes the process of metastrophe (fundamental change), where you take the familiar and make it strange; you contemplate what you used to take for granted. Seeing thinkers of the past grapple with the concepts ancestral to the ones we use now, whether in the areas of science or politics or whatever, makes us question these current concepts and ultimately understand them better. Klein even has a story about how metastrophic questioning was necessary for these modern disciplines to be founded in the first place.
Hook witnessed the first generation of Johnnies and was very critical of this idea of the same menu of ideas for all students, with a heavy emphasis on the history of science (rather than current, practical science) and learning ancient languages (as an exercise in translation and seeing how alien different languages are, not to be able to actually speak to anyone). He thought that study of the past should be guided by the concerns of the present, not insulated from them. What sense does it make for a student to know more about the political structure of ancient Greece than that of his or her own country?
Nussbaum's article is a New York Review of Books article about Bloom's book. She stresses contra Bloom that a philosophical education is practical, and that it should be made available to everyone. The SJC curriculum was (as Hook describes) originally advertised as the model that all colleges should follow, but time (and/or realism) has seemingly dampened that ambition. So, is there a single history of the intellectual life of the West that we Westerners would be well advised to study, maybe just adding a couple of authors who are not dead white males to modernize it a bit, or is a more thorough break from this idolized past needed? Or is the whole idea of a "best" education for all just ill-advised? Do people really need to read the Western canon at all?
Continues with part two; get the full, unbroken Citizen Edition now. This will also get you access to the follow-up discussion where Wes and Dylan discuss articles by Richard Rorty and Leo Strauss about liberal education and democracy that were originally on our reading list for this episode, but were deleted due to too many things to read that weren't exactly on point. Please support PEL!
Image by Solomon Grundy.
Luke T says
A liberal education, DIY?
Two PEL regulars – Mark and Dylan – make an argument in this (and previous) episode for fashioning a do-it-yourself (DIY) liberal education. And while they acknowledge the challenges and inherit limits of as much, this suggestion seems possibly the most practical cash-out for any PEL Citizen who is busy with a career, but still wants to indulge the pleasures and wonder that accompany long-term, dedicated study of the Humanities.
Supposing this were an action that fell out of Episodes 192 and 193 then, and not merely its passive cousin, i.e. following along privately with PEL’s intellectual wanderlust. What would a stock, ‘Great Books’ curriculum look like?
Panos cautions here against being too prescriptive, but might we at least imagine some sort of literary menu to choose from a la carte, with expert recommendations for ‘best value’ entrees, side dishes, and so on? So much as this conceit bears merit, moreover, is it conceptually transferable to a tradition (East Asian, or Middle Eastern, or otherwise) that will be out of the PEL audience’s (i.e. mostly Western) direct experience? How does the model travel, finally, if it does? How does one build their own DIY liberal arts curriculum, accompanied by friends, and migrate everyone cognitively when the time comes right?
Concerning the discussion about changes in great books programs in the beginning: I’m an incoming freshmen in U of M’s honors program, and the great books program offered there is undergoing a change very similar to what Seth describes happening at Reed. The people at Michigan described it to me as being less centered on what “old, white purple” have to say. I wonder what Mark’s thoughts would be on this, considering he went through the same program. Has there been a lack of communication to alumni similar to Reed?