Thursday, November 05, 2015

Stanford News - Novelist Marilynne Robinson warns Stanford audience against utilitarian trends in higher education

The original rationale behind an American liberal arts education – to play a vital role in democratizing privilege – "is under attack, or is being forgotten," Robinson said. Now, universities by and large do not attempt to "prepare people for citizenship and democracy." Instead, they educate them to be members of a "docile, most skilled, working class."
As Robinson put it, "We have persuaded ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be of use to the economy, more precisely to the future economy – of which we know nothing for certain."
But, Robinson added, "a human community with a history and with a habit of aspirations toward democracy, requiring a capacity in its public for meaningful decisions about its life and direction, exists apart from these [economic] forces and is at odds with them."

I have never heard of this woman before, never read one of her novels that I know of, and would probably disagree with her on almost any political question, based on what I read in this article, but I do agree with her on this.  When I was younger, 20's and early 30's, I wouldn't have.  I was impatient with life and didn't have a good understanding of why a grounding in the humanities / liberal arts was important.  Of course I was a lackluster student anyway, but even more so when forced to take a class that I didn't understand the purpose of.  In some ways I blame the colleges for not educating me on why having a good grounding in these subjects is important, but really it was my fault for not being sufficiently inquisitive.

Now however I agree with her on this point wholeheartedly.  The purpose of education should be to educate.  To teach people to think and to provide them with the background in which to place their ideas.  The founders of this country were not just technicians plugging in equations to find someway to crank an extra 2 GHz out of a processor.  They were, largely, auto-didacts, with a serious background in Moral Philosophy and Natural Sciences who were able to bring the subjects together into something great.  More practically it is hard to counter an argument if you can't understand it. That is where the classical liberal arts education comes in.

EDIT - I exclude degree programs like progressive feminist basketweaving theory from this.  While study of the history of peoples outside society's mainstream is valid most of those courses of study seem to exist for the purpose of providing a grievance platform.  In other words study of African American History is a valid pursuit.  Studying African American Studies is not.  YMMV.

(Crap - I should have saved this for my 52 weeks of preaching post.  Oh well I had to skip a week on that so consider us even)
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