It may come as a surprise to those who know me as a writer on politics and culture, but the highest grade I ever received in university was not in philosophy or the arts. It was in my first-year astronomy class.
I had read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos the summer before, my math skills were still fresh from Jesuit tutelage and the final exam was maybe a smidge too easy. But it also seemed to resonate with my other courses – in history, political science, philosophy and English.
By the end of the year, I had acquired a sense of intellectual connection, of how things fit together and influence each other, that has never deserted me. It is no exaggeration to say that it formed the foundation of my intellectual life since.
Looking back, I see that, like many students, I had instinctively crafted an option-driven version of a core curriculum – something the University of Toronto didn’t have then and doesn’t have now.
It does have breadth requirements, though, which is one reason that more than half of the 20 students in the first-year seminar I’m teaching right now, an interdisciplinary course called Ethics and Fiction, come from the sciences. They are passionate about books, write elegant sentences, and argue with vigour and intelligence – just like humanities students.
I know that versions of these same science students are also present in the 500-person intro philosophy class I’ve taught for more than a decade, because, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get to know students in large classes.
In first-year courses, large or small, stability is a value: Students need to find their feet. So the materials for these classes tend to be drawn from the traditional philosophical and literary canons. But even in first year, I like to leaven the roster of Western philosophers with outliers such as Lao Tzu and Jean-François Lyotard.
The status of these canons is much disputed, which is one reason the idea of a core curriculum is inherently controversial. But the arguments in favour – that a core gives students shared knowledge, critical-thinking skills, and a base from which to launch criticism – are sound.
That’s not to say that any canon should, or can, stay the same forever. We don’t put Greek and Latin at the centre of our teaching any more. Nor is the medieval liberal-arts combination of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) sufficient any longer. (But yay, astronomy!) can help move the debate along.
1. Education is a public trust
This may seem obvious in a country where postsecondary education is publicly funded, there is no legacy system to benefit the scions of wealthy graduates and tuition remains low. But the rhetoric of education has never been so dominated by the reductive logic of return on investment, of tuition traded for jobs.
This reduction is perhaps inevitable in a moment of economic uncertainty. What is not inevitable is the assumption that the only other possible value of education is purely personal, a kind of luxury good of the mind. Job-training centre – or mental spa.
No. Liberal education is about citizenship, not job training or simple personal enrichment – though it may incidentally provide both. Postsecondary institutions should be in the business, primarily, of creating critical, engaged citizens. This is not the current dominant view; it is nevertheless the correct one.
2. The world changes rapidly, but speed is not itself a value
Important social institutions combine innovation with tradition, sustaining past achievements as living ideas. Change and novelty should never be pursued for their own sake, or because the world at large is driven by them. This isn’t nostalgia.
We philosophers don’t value Plato because he has been around so long; he has been around so long because he’s valuable. Whenever I lecture about his analogy of the cave, for example, whether in a campus lecture theatre or at a downtown men’s shelter, it’s the vivid depiction of political deception that matters, not that it was written in Greek.
3. The most important skill is critical thinking
We say this a lot but don’t do much about it. Here’s what we need: courses in informal logic, so students can recognize fallacies in public discourse; in economic theory, since economists think they rule the world, and politicians believe them; and in computer programming, because you can’t see the biases of the system unless you know how it was coded.
Also, the widespread view that technology is value-neutral, inevitable and always here to help, needs to be exposed as the dangerous ideology it is.
4. Okay, what else?
Well, the basics: history, philosophy, world religions, political theory, mathematics and literature. But also social justice, community service, languages, media criticism, diversity awareness and etiquette. (Stop looking at your phone while you walk!)
On the ancient Greek model, music, art, architecture and physical activity also belong. And why not some life-skills training while we’re at it: cooking, banking, public speaking, relationships. Some things are too important to be left to chance, advice columns or roommates.
5. Great – now, how do you teach all this?
Traditionally, for the most part. Sitting together in groups, with a shared text before us, still works as well as it did two millennia ago. And many innovations, such as flashy PowerPoint slides or “clickers” that rate instant comprehension, are just gadgets. Gadgets can be fun, but they are no substitute for reading, writing and discussion. (Also, see 3, above.)
Liberal education is a conversation, not a data transfer that might be accomplished as well online. That conversation starts in a room, with other people. It can even be a large room, if the professor is engaging and enthusiastic.
6. Socrates was right: The unexamined life is not worth living
This holds for societies as much as for individuals. More knowledge is better than less, wisdom is its own reward, and society as a whole benefits from an educated citizenry.
7. I know: you’ll say I’m gazing at the stars
Yes; but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to find our way.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Oct. 13 2012
Mark Kingwell teaches at the University of Toronto and has won its President’s Teaching Award. His latest book is Unruly Voices.