On liberal education
Against the Expertise Model of Education
One of the first questions I typically get when I tell people outside the academy that I teach philosophy is “Graduate or undergraduate?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question. These are quite different modes of education, after all, one devoted to specialized study in a discipline, the other part of a broad course of studies with many paths branching out from it. But if you teach graduate students in the traditional disciplines at a typical American research university – unless you are very famous – you will also be teaching undergraduates, as I do. I even teach some classes that are open to both groups.
This mode of intellectual organization is the product of a peculiar history in which the Humboldtian ideal of the university as an institution for research was grafted onto the existing apparatus of American liberal arts colleges. The Robber Baron universities of the late 19th century – like the eponymous Johns Hopkins or Rockefeller’s University of Chicago – were self-consciously oriented to research from their inception. In the same period, other institutions, from the University of Virginia to Harvard, remade themselves to accommodate the Germanic model, while preserving a liberal undergraduate education as a sort of jewel in their crown and as a necessary preparation for higher degrees, not only scholarly ones, but in professions like medicine and law. (The idea that doctors and lawyers need a first degree, typically in a different subject altogether, before going to medical and law school is pretty peculiarly American!)
These contingent facts aside, we can still locate a tension between two ideals of education and the desired outcome in each. On one model, what we seek in higher education is expertise. A good way to learn advanced techniques in, say, programming is to get a computer science degree at a university and to take the relevant coursework. But of course one could also learn on the job or teach oneself with the abundant resources available online or attend a technical boot camp with no university affiliation, as a friend of mine recently did. It is easy to think of doctoral study in philosophy or mathematics or anthropology along the same lines - is one not an expert in philosophy or mathematics or anthropology after getting a PhD?
University administrators tend to think in these terms, since it is a way of making clear the value of their institutions’ offerings, something they are under pressure to do in the face of both public scrutiny and the desire of private donors to see measurable outcomes from their contributions. Unfortunately, at least for those administrators, there is no such thing as expertise in philosophy. (I cannot speak about mathematics or anthropology, but I tend to think they - and indeed computer science itself - are more like philosophy than they are like programming.)
Let me avert one possible confusion. Being employed to teach philosophy at the university level is certainly a profession. We have a professional organization, the American Philosophical Association. Students in doctoral programs should - though they frequently don’t - get training in how to succeed in this profession as part of their study, say, how to give a good half hour conference paper or how to structure an introductory syllabus.
What I mean, instead, by the claim that there is no expertise in philosophy is that there is no body of knowledge or even a set of skills or know-how that makes one good at philosophical inquiry, in the way that one can evidently be good at programming in virtue of some set of knowledge and skills. Rather, to engage seriously in philosophy is to practice a certain mode of living.
This mode of living typically takes the form of openness to conversation with others about philosophical topics, of reading and writing about philosophical topics, whether for publication or for one’s own benefit, of taking philosophical problems – and this is most fundamental – to be one’s own. Human beings are susceptible to this mode of life. It is one we can take on when we get a taste of it, as I did in classrooms at the University of Texas nearly two decades (has it really been that long?) ago.
There is no controversy that being an artist is like this, too. One can make art without being an artist, after all. (I gather that there are both elephants and artificial intelligences that do, for instance.) Likewise, one can generate philosophical arguments without taking philosophy seriously. Probably some portion of professional philosophers in fact do so. After all, one can find a decent wage in it. In this regard, Socrates had a point when he insisted he didn’t take money.
I tend to think it is hard to sustain this unserious or alienated attitude toward philosophy, especially when one is engaged in teaching. But it is certainly possible. Probably all of us fall into such a slump from time to time, just as artists do.
The Humanist Model of Education
What, then, is the alternative to the expertise model? It is notoriously difficult to describe. I would prefer to call it the humanist model of education, while acknowledging that it applies beyond the traditional arts and humanities subjects. It is frequently assimilated to the ancient Greek and Roman ideal of liberal education, that is, the sort of education that befits a free person because it mades you worthy of your freedom. (The sentiment seems bolder when we consider that these were slave cultures.) In what follows, I will use both terms interchangeably.
On the humanist model, what we aim to cultivate are certain intellectual virtues. All I mean by invoking this old-fashioned word is to say that in humanist education, we try to get better, not at doing or making something, but at being thoughtful or reflective about some subject matter.
Now, to put it very abstractly, it happens that it is difficult for some people in a society to do things effectively unless at least some others have been thoughtful or reflective about what they are doing. So a social institution devoted at least in part to cultivating thoughtful and reflective people will contribute to aims apart from this cultivation and the life it makes possible.
Increasingly, universities are oriented toward promoting research into topics where there are ready applications that may lead to either some broadly-defined social benefit or industrial advancement (and profit). The cases I mean to include are very broad, ranging from disseminating a better understanding of barriers to social justice to manufacturing quantum computers.
These social and economic benefits are so clear and identifiable that it can seem that, if a university is for anything, it should be for producing these benefits - as well as, of course, training people who can, in turn, be socially and economically useful themselves. These two ends seem to correspond neatly to research and teaching respectively. And teaching on this view turns out, ultimately, to be training.
There is no room for liberal education – that is, education on what I have called the humanist model of teaching – on this view of teaching as training. But as defenders of liberal education rightly point out, this alternative - a model of education devoted purely to training socially beneficial people - is self-defeating.
In the first instance, the social and economic benefits of cultivating reflective and thoughtful people was meant to be indirect. Setting out to train people with skills that are directly beneficial is no guarantee that they will also end up being reflective and thoughtful. Moreover, it is not clear that universities are the proper institutions for training people in this way. It is certainly at some distance from what university educators have taken themselves to do for a very long time, and that should give us some pause, at least, in claiming this as part of our ambit.
Of course, as the critics of liberal education like to say, it is not at all clear that a liberal education can guarantee that a student ends up being reflective and thoughtful, but the prospect of such failures is a hazard any serious plan of education faces. The point is that the humanist aim of cultivating specific intellectual virtues is specially fostered by a set of approaches and attitudes toward that education. Most of all, this kind of education takes time and space.
Liberal education takes time because it is more thoroughgoing than other forms of education. It requires, frequently, a reorientation in the attitudes of students and always some redirection. Of course, all serious education, including education devoted to acquiring an expertise, requires discipline, persistence, and other instrumental virtues. But liberal education, for its success, asks students to adopt a particular ethical stance.
It is common to make this claim into a certain sort of piety, in which the liberal educator claims a position of moral authority. Since it is pretty clear that liberal educators lack this authority – since we are plainly no more likely to be good people than any others – such rhetoric tends to undermine the view I am trying to articulate here, both by straining the credulity of the audience for these arguments and by leading the discussion away from the most important issues.
Let me be clear, then: I am not saying that liberal education is a part, necessary or even just useful, of moral education. Rather, I am saying that the process of acquiring the intellectual virtues that are the aim of liberal education also requires the development of certain ethical virtues. In a similar way, you cannot become a doctor or a carpenter without cultivating patience and resilience; but we do not say for that reason that doctors and carpenters are necessarily good people, or even that they are patient and resilient ones in contexts outside the practice of their arts, though it cannot hurt to have cultivated these qualities in at least one domain of life.
Ethical Formation in Liberal Education
It will help to be more specific about the ethical formation I have in mind. Among the ethical virtues that liberal education demands and also helps to cultivate are openness and a particular sort of friendliness.
First, the virtue of openness. To profit from a humanistic education, it is not enough to love ideas and to enjoy the cut and thrust of intellectual debate. The arguments and subjects with which liberal education is typically concerned arise from particular human experiences. You must learn to be open to the ways things look from other perspectives, across boundaries of time and cultural difference. In the ideal classroom for humanistic discussion, there will be enough agreement on the questions that matter urgently to focus discussion and enough difference to make this discussion worthwhile by leaving the participants feeling at least somewhat unsettled in their own instinctive or chosen views.
Part of why liberal education has a conservative reputation is that class and race and gender used to be means of securing such agreement. I find that similarities of this kind tend instead to stultify discussion. In fact, we live in enough of a global culture that it is really not very hard to secure agreement on the questions that matter, and I am old-fashioned enough to think that many of these questions just turn out to be what thoughtful people in every time and place have fretted over.
Diversity of experience, then, is the friend of liberal education, though I should stress that the relevant sort of diversity can arise even among people who come from very similar backgrounds, which is why it was so much as possible in the more restrictive academy of the past. Consider how different it is to be an only child than one who grew up with siblings, for instance. Or to be someone who has spent a great deal of time in hospitals or in the wilderness or on a shop floor. Differences in class and race and gender and sexuality and the like can but needn’t lead to these sorts of differences in experience. But in any case they should be readily welcomed.
The difficulty with openness is that practicing it tends to make us feel unsure of ourselves. But the success of liberal education cannot be measured in the instability of one’s opinions over time. When you are, for instance, reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine together, it is not enough for every atheist to leave the classroom less sure of their atheism and every religious believer less secure in their belief, when they see the same zeal for truth over time lead Augustine to Manicheism, to a pagan Platonism, and then to Christianity.
Rather it is our relation to our own attitudes that ought to change and of course also our relation to the alternatives that may be held sincerely to others. Our openness to a text can be driven by what another sees in it from their vantage. Equally, our openness to one another can be shaped by what we see together in such a text. These parallel processes are one reason that humanistic education has often been identified with curricula of ‘Great Books’ that have the power of opening us up in this way, but whatever their utility, Great Books are neither necessary nor sufficient for the task of this sort of education. What matters is that the range of human experience itself opens up to us.
Let me now say something about the virtue I have called friendliness. Just as it is not enough to love ideas and argument, it is also not enough to merely wade in the waters of human experience, past and present. To take liberal education seriously, we must learn to love humanity itself.
It is very easy and increasingly common, for instance, to regard people of earlier times as unenlightened because of the moral turpitude of the practices they endorsed or at least tolerated. Actually, it is very easy to think of anyone who does not share your core ethical commitments as unenlightened in this way, even if they are right in front of you. It may be that it is possible to construct a social environment for oneself in which ethical disagreement is hidden or even foreclosed. But it is not obvious to me that this situation is desirable. There is a particular disposition to love others across certain kinds of ethical differences that seems an important part of friendship.
This kind of friendship or friendliness is important to liberal education because ethical difference is everywhere when we earnestly seek the riches of human experience. But this attitude is also not a contentless toleration. Rather, it is love of humanity itself, and especially the particular humanity of others. Such a love sustains us when we encounter and are even wounded by such ethical difference.
It is easy to hear my praise of friendliness as contentment with moral error or a sort of crass relativism or ‘live and let live’ attitude. I am in favor of none of these things. But I also think it is not only an intellectual but also an ethical mistake to condemn all others who have thought differently as they sought to live human lives. For just as frail and weak as those lives inevitably were, so too are ours. Really to love the ethical good, we must also love the capacity of human endeavor toward it.
Neither openness nor friendliness are easy virtues to practice in our time, even in a limited form and for a limited time (say the typical length of an undergraduate education). We are meant to be more certain of our views and more sure of our alliances than that.
Humanistic education, then, is somewhat counter-cultural. It is both conservative - in its attitude toward the past and tradition - and liberal - in its open attitude towards what might possibly be good for us. It demands both diversity of viewpoint and rigor of argument. It is serious business when every force in our lives seemingly tends toward different sorts of unseriousness (tribalism, smugness, and materialism, to name but a few).
But its fruits remain the same as they ever were: not the skills that make for good employees or entrepreneurs, nor the capacities and attitudes that make for good citizens of liberal democracies (or authoritarian regimes, for that matter), nor even the ethical virtues that make you a good person as such, but simply the intellectual virtues of a serious, reflective, and mature person. These intellectual virtues are good and even praiseworthy qualities to have. Whether they improve your life is an open question (in our society, it is quite possible that they are a recipe for discontent, the subject of a beautiful essay by Joey Keegin in The Point), but they are worth having all the same.
Knowing the Truth and Knowing the World
I have been thinking about these different models of education recently and the confusion they give rise to, because of two essays that appeared in the wake of a book published by my colleague and friend Roosevelt Montás. The book is Rescuing Socrates, which is part memoir – tracing Roosevelt’s journey from an impoverished childhood in the Dominican Republic to transformative study and, later, teaching at Columbia University – and part defense of the ‘Great Books’ model of humanistic education that still defines the Columbia Core Curriculum, which Roosevelt ably administered for a decade.
I along with others was somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of a review the book received in the New Yorker by another graduate of Columbia[*], Louis Menand, now an English professor at Harvard. Among other things, Menand is thoroughly convinced of the expertise model of education, wondering what on earth the point would be, say, of a philosophy professor like me trying to teach Dante to a bunch of confused first-year students when a whole department of Italian Literature specialists is just down the hallway.
The review, in turn, sparked a reply in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the Dickens scholar Brian Rosenberg, who also used to be the President of Macalester College, a beacon in the landscape of American liberal arts colleges. Rosenberg rightly puzzles over why an English professor at Harvard would think so little of a humanistic ideal of education.
Obviously, given what I have said, I am broadly speaking on the side of Montás and Rosenberg and I share with them a bemusement at Menand’s apparent rejection of the ideals that would seem to ground the value of his own work and teaching. But despite his polemical tone, Menand also has a serious point to make. He emphasizes that the humanities ought to claim, in a culture that increasingly valorizes the sciences, that they are also in the knowledge-production business. The problem is that Menand cannot see a way of connecting the project of knowledge-production (and knowledge-acquisition, on the part of students) to the kind of ‘Great Books’ liberal education that[*] Montás is defending. Is it not so much self-indulgent dilettantism?
I think Menand is half-right about the the nature of the humanities. If we take ‘knowledge’ to be a matter of successfully grasping the way things are with some aspect of the world, especially in a systematic or rigorous fashion, then the humanities are in the knowledge business. But where Menand goes wrong is in construing this knowledge as expertise, just as I have already cautioned we should not do.
Let’s take a particular example. I’m not sure my students have learned anything much of value if they can confidently and accurately report, say, the various arguments that have been given in favor of and against thinking that political authority deserves our obedience. What matters to me is whether they have thought this through, and thinking this topic through is consistent with favoring one view or the other or even suspending judgment because the arguments seem balanced.
Likewise, to riff on Menand’s own example, we can say that it is not enough to learn what others have said about Dante’s purposes in eliciting the reader’s sympathy for certain of the damned in Inferno despite his affirming repeatedly the justice of their eternal punishment. What matters is for us to try to make sense of justice and sympathy themselves in Dante’s company - and, of course, also to appreciate the sublime aesthetic achievement of his poetry. An expert Dantista may of course help us engage in this task by equipping us with the skills and the historical and literary insights to read Dante carefully. But there is a value, too, in coming to these questions and trying to make up one’s own mind about them without the presuppositions of centuries of scholarship.
Part of the work of producing scholarship in the humanities (let us leave aside the ugly word ‘research’) is writing, in a knowledgeable way, about such topics, with the aim of helping people, especially the broader community of scholars, think these sorts of issues through. But if there is nothing like expertise in the ultimate task of the humanities - grappling with humanistic questions for ourselves - then there is something peculiar about such scholarship. It certainly ought to be the fruit of a humanistic life. But it is not what this life is for.
In the best case, the work of scholarly production helps everyone - the writer, the reader, even editors and referees - think better about the subject matter under discussion. It is also traditionally how scholars are evaluated, which has various functions in the overlapping set of academic guilds that constitute the modern research university. But everyone in the business knows professionally successful academics who do not seem very engaged in the business of thinking; and likewise, everyone knows that there are subtle and provocative thinkers who do not find their home or even a career in the academy.
There is, then, an important role for knowledge and even what Menand calls knowledge-production in the humanities. But these roles are instrumental to the task of living an intellectual and scholarly life. Equally, communicating such knowledge to our students can be, at best, an invitation into living this life for a time and aiming to cultivate qualities of reflectiveness and thoughtfulness, qualities that are worth having simply for themselves.
All that said, I think framing this alternative to the expertise view around knowledge is liable to be misleading. The concept of knowledge has been so thoroughly identified with the product of the natural sciences that its associations tend to make the very notion of humanistic knowledge seem puzzling or even self-contradictory. (We can contrast this situation with the more-neutral German concept Wissenschaft, which embraces the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), the social sciences (Sozialwissenschaften), and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften).)
It would be better to talk about the work of the humanities in terms of truth. Truth lacks the connections to generality and systematicity suggested by the concept of knowledge, but we can readily add that any organized pursuit of truth, of the kind universities are oriented around, must adopt these qualities as further standards.
We can now reframe some of the claims I advanced earlier. For instance, if philosophical or literary truth is anything, it lies in coming to appreciate philosophical and literary questions properly and not in assenting to stable answers to these questions achieved through an objective stance (‘the right answers’).
Against Self-Knowledge as an Aim of Education
Turning back to Rescuing Socrates, we find just this same emphasis on truth, especially in its last substantive chapter on Gandhi and his lifelong dedication to truth, with some important critical asides on Nietzsche, Foucault, and their postmodern inheritors. But there is also an important difference from the position I have been advocating here, one which may well explain some of Menand’s suspicions: both in Gandhi’s own thinking and in Roosevelt’s defense of it, we find the ideal of self-knowledge as central to the pursuit of the truth.
Again, there is an aspect of this position that I think is exactly right. The pursuit of truth in liberal education is very much a matter of coming to understand ourselves. But I think the plural (ourselves) in my formulation of this claim is important: human beings and their experiences are the object of humanistic knowledge. So we come in this process to grapple with questions that are central to our understanding of ourselves as human beings.
But actually understanding the particular human being we happen to be is and the particular experiences we have had is what psychotherapy is for, not what the humanities are for. Self-knowledge in this narrow sense, then, is neither a plausible achievement for humanistic education - which, at its best, ought to destabilize our sense of ourselves - nor a desirable one. My concern about Montás’s position is that it emphasizes, to too great a degree, this sort of particular self-knowledge.
Indeed, at Columbia, undergraduates are invited to reflect on their ‘journey’ as part of an official program of the College that seeks to organize the sheer diversity of intellectual and personal experiences of our students. Officially, this program is meant to encourage students to be reflective in their studies, which is certainly an admirable goal. But its rhetoric - aligned with a dominant cultural paradigm in which college is a time to ‘find’ oneself - still troubles me. I would rather our students be curious about the world - and everything about it that lies outside their particular experience - than about themselves.
To be clear, I do not think it is necessary that the view advocated by Montás in Rescuing Socrates leads in this self-indulgent direction. But the possibility of construing it in this narrow and narcissistic way is a good reason to avoid the rhetoric of self-knowledge as the goal of humanistic education altogether. The truths pursued in humanistic education, just as much as in any other sort of education, are characteristically universal.
I wager that at least some portion of Menand’s concern that ‘Great Books’ programs of liberal education involve not only a dilettantish flight from expertise but also a retreat into navel-gazing for the élite gains some credence from this construal of Montás’s defense of them. My verdict, then, is that Menand’s demand for expertise is misplaced, while his worry about rendering self-knowledge the goal of humanistic education has some merit.
In the end, however, I have more sympathy for Montás and Rosenberg’s imaginative sense of what the humanities might be for. In particular, when Menand writes that “a class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel” he is saying something either banal (if you want to find out about human beings, social psychology is one means, just as literary analysis, or for that matter, physiology is) or quite absurd (that the generalizations of social psychology explain the behavior of human beings systematically in the way that novels can only do haphazardly). But armed with the rhetoric of humanistic truth, we can stand up to the bullying attempt of some academics to reduce the humanities to just so many imprecise claims about reality.
[*] Correction, March 21, 2022: These sentences, as initially written, wrongly stated or implied that Louis Menand attended Columbia College as an undergraduate. While Professor Menand received his MA and PhD from Columbia University, he is not a graduate of the College. Thanks to Roosevelt Montás for the correction.