Liberal education in a neocon nation

What does it mean to teach liberally? The obvious answer, which might even be correct, is found in the dictionary, where we find that liberal means “broad-minded” (among other things).

I agree with the dictionary but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. For me, liberal teaching means putting everything I know, and everything I am, at risk in the classroom. And not just in general, but specifically as well. That is, I put it all on the line during every meeting of every class. I’ve been wrong often enough to know it could happen again, and I’m willing to admit my errors in the pursuit of truth.

How courageous is this approach? Remember how it turned out for Socrates.

The essence of liberal teaching is taking risks every day. Rather than applying the conservative approach of deploying textbook knowledge — the “I’m the teacher, and therefore I’m correct” approach — a liberal admits celebrates humility.

I used to be a classroom conservative. Here’s one minor example: I taught my dog to whistle. I taught, and I taught, and I taught. I used every trick I learned from graduate courses on college teaching. But my dog never learned to whistle. The problem with a conservative approach to teaching is the focus on the instructor and his wealth of knowledge, disseminated like so many pieces of valued wisdom to eager pupils (i.e., children, according to this word’s etymology).

A conservative approach to teaching ignores the reality and importance of diverse abilities and viewpoints, as well as our differential ability to perceive and understand various parts of the universe around us. By focusing on the authority figure, it ignores contributions from others. These others — the ones paying for the opportunity — have diverse life experiences that might, and often do, shed light on the topic under discussion. And perhaps even on life itself, and how it should be lived.

Not that we should broach such volatile subjects in our classrooms, of course. At least, that’s what university administrators told me for decades.

Over the years, I came to understand and treat each group of people with whom I was fortunate to work as a corps of discovery. Our quest: a life of excellence for each of us.

Naturally, the quest was not welcomed by most students, at least not initially. In fact, I met considerable resistance each semester as I explained how a life of excellence can and should be pursued along the path of Fire Management or Conservation Biology or Sustainable Living (to list a few titular examples of courses I led recently). But by the end of the second week of each semester, resistance imposed by culture was overcome by the joy, humor, and richness of a liberal approach that valued contributions from every participant during every meeting.

An example might help. In February 2006, during the ninth meeting of a class titled Wlldland Vegetation Management, the syllabus indicated the day’s topic was conspicuous consumption. Already we’re on tenuous ground from the perspective of the typical university administrator. During the first few minutes that day, somebody mentioned Siddartha Gautama (i.e., the Buddha) and his four noble truths. The link to conspicuous consumption should be apparent. Less apparent are the following topics, all of which we addressed within the first ten minutes of the class period, in this order:

No Child Left Behind (act)
Culverts under Speedway (a main surface street in Tucson)
The Princess Bride (film)
Charlton Heston (actor)
Sheryl Crow (singer)
John Dewey (pragmatist philosopher, educator)
Espresso Art (local coffee shop)
New Jersey Turnpike

The conversation flowed naturally from one topic to another, and all topics were linked directly to the idea of conspicuous consumption. As traditionally taught, Wlldland Vegetation Management is all about developing the means to continue our conspicuous consumption. As a group, we were questioning the validity of this historical approach within the context of popular culture and our own experiences.

As you might expect, I was not allowed to teach the course again (as is the department’s head prerogative). Indeed, within a few months, and shortly we hired this new department head, she banned me from teaching any classes in the department. She left the University of Arizona a few days ago to take her wrecking ball to her new job as a dean at another institution, but she departed too late to salvage anything worthwhile in my home department of two decades. From the vaunted heights of Dean-land at her new institution, she can quash a liberal approach at a much higher level than she was allowed at my own institution, at least for the short period during which the industrial economy limps along. Her neocon approach is exemplary as the ivory tower crumbles and becomes increasingly irrelevant to the lives of everybody involved in higher education. Indeed, I hardly fault her or contemporary institutions of higher education for pursuing the fool’s gold of bricks, mortar, and economic growth, as demanded by culture.

Pursuing a liberal approach to teaching is dangerous. It requires courage, a thick skin, and recognition that the personal costs of pursuing liberalism in the classroom are far exceeded by the opportunity costs of failing to do so. Indeed, I would argue that the pursuit of a liberal approach to any of life’s important activities is dangerous. That alone is sufficient justification to apply the approach at every turn, bearing in mind the words of Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Who refuses to listen, must be made to feel.”

Comments 15

  • I think I never got as brave (or presumptuous) as that in my teaching. I think I took refuge in misunderstanding Socrates disingenuous caveat that, “all I know is that I know nothing.” Still, in my handful of years teaching cultural anthropology I shepherded students through a lot of “unlearning”. I always felt if they came out of my courses feeling less assured about their understandings of the world — then I had succeeded at least in opening up some groundwork for future learning. And if I didn’t leave them with a great deal of factual knowledge I at least helped them slough off a few deadening layers of cultural carapace. (Unlike wildlife management, cultural anthropologists were expected to do a bit of cage-rattling in their teaching . . . .)

  • With a liberal education you know much about disparate branches of knowledge. Harvard’s professor emeritus of biology wrote a book about the possibility of a modern synthesis of knowledge. The title is Consilience.

    With a conservative education you know more and more about less and less until finally you know everything about nothing at all.
    Also we have a declining standard of public discourse. When Lincoln and Douglas gave speeches they were at 11 and 12 grade level. We are now down to 7 and 8 grade level according to a Yale study.

    In 2003 only 12% of 19 to 24 year olds could pass the lowest threshold for prose literacy, 13% could pass the threshold for document literacy, and a mere 10% could pass the threshold for qualitative literacy. This is according to the National Center for Education statistics, a branch of the Federal Dept of Education.

    Only 30% of all USA adults can understand 2/3 of the content in science section of the New York Times or Nova according to 2-27-07 Science Daily.

    According to a long term study by Laura Wray-Lake of Penn State, high school seniors expressed decreasing levels of concern about environmental issues between 1976 and 2005 and were less willing to engage in conservation related behavior. There is less belief in resource scarcity which is positively correlated with less conservation related behavior. From 1980 to 1999 the interest in conservation of energy declined 3.5 standard deviations. There is a negative correlation between materialism and belief in resource constraints. There was a 3.1 standard deviation change between 1980 and 2004 in the belief of resource constraints. This is according to a study by Laura Wray- Lakes study is Examining Trends in Adolescent Environmental Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors across Three Decades. Ms Wray-Lakes did this study as a doctoral student at Penn State.

    In order to be a citizen in any meaningful sense of the term one has to follow news. According to a Harvard study, Young People and News 7-07, 79% of young people either do not read newspapers or do to a minimal amount. 58% get small to no information on national TV news, 71% get little to no news from local TV broadcasts, 66% get little or no news from radio and 68% get little to no news from the internet. The study took a random hard news stories from the national news. 13% of young adults both knew it and correctly remembered it. With older adults it was still a low percentage of 27%. Let me see at this rate 27 to 13 in 2 more generations it will be at 3%

    By then a demagogue will prick the bubble of our fairytale world.

    We are also lagging in civic literacy. In a 2006 test given to college seniors at 25 random colleges the average grade was 48.4%. For example less than 46% know that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” comes from The Declaration of Independence. Since these are seniors in college one may assume that the average 24 year old, most of who have not taken 4 years of college would score even lower. This test is administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. A failing grade was received on all test areas, American History, American Political Thought, America and the World, and the Market Economy. “Not to know what has been transacted in the past is to be always a child” Cicero.

  • The Harvard professor is E O Wilson

  • My graduate adviser’s favorite dean joke went as follows: “There once was a dean so dumb, the other deans noticed.”

  • Hi Guy,

    You have elucidated Education in the truest sense. It has always been dangerous, risky for both Seekers and the Established order, which naturally tend to oppose each other. You correctly date this tension back to Socrates, when formal Logic, Rhetoric and Dialectic were being invented. For readers that wish to probe this further, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great read.

    Over the last several decades, the failure of American higher “education” to deliver vigorous, militant antitheses which could force America to achieve a better synthesis is evidenced in the complete collapse of serious resistance to its imperial misadventures. The generation coming of age in the 1930’s or 1960’s – nurtured by Educators and a Liberal class (like John Dewey) that believed in the revolutionary, creative power of Ideas tellingly offered much, much more resistance. Since the 1980’s, this potential energy has been completely neutered by consumerism and a cowardly class of courtiers – including academicians at every level -in lockstep with the power elite. Obama’s ascendancy was the ultimate bait-and-switch in neutralizing resistance.


  • Guy, great post… you’ve PARTIALLY redeemed yourself, in my eyes (like you or anyone else cares), with the above words. Your last few articles have pretty much been irrelevant rhetoric/belief (though there was a modicum of substance), at best.

    Mr. A. Bard, do you think you could be any more self-contradictory? The Socrates quotation you cite is the epitome of a sophisticated intelligence. What it means is that he was aware enough to know that, despite a depth and breadth of knowledge unknowable to most of his “peers,” he also knew that there was so much more to life, the universe and everything that he couldn’t possibly know, even given several lifetimes to learn. I’ve always had the view that that is one of the “absolute truths.” However, one should always strive to know more across a more diverse and very broad range of subjects. So while you seem to dismiss Socrates’ statement, you go on to describe that you, generally, adhered to the principle. Most peculiar… not! Regardless, I applaud your attempt to promote “critical thinking” in your students.

    Mr. L. Shultz, wonderful comment and I mostly concur. The one “glaring” exception regards your citing the Science Daily article that, “Only 30% of all USA adults can understand 2/3 of the content in science section of the New York Times or Nova…” My experiential observations, and I’m 57, indicate that those are “absurdly best case” numbers. First, the NYT and Nova “science” productions are trivial, if not lame in the extreme. Their articles and programs are geared, in my not so humble opinion, to 3rd grade attention spans and awareness and that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. My experiences dictate that less than 10% of the population is capable of “understanding” more than 5% of any scientific article or study… including many “scientists.” Watch Randy Olson’s “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus” and you will see a “state-licensed” geologist, with a Masters degree of higher, pronounce that the Earth _IS_ only about 6K years old, was created by the flying-spaghetti-monster and that dinosaurs and “early humans” existed contemporaneously. Clearly, that jackass is a simpleton and deserves neither his degree(s) or ANY respect from anyone… EVER! Personally, I’ve found the E. O. Wilson expositions I’ve seen/read to be absolutely brilliant! Alas, like too many exemplary minds, it has been so “pigeon-holed” through our [cough-choke] revered “educational system” that he is still quite limited in scope.

    Randy, nicely concise aphorism… but I doubt the implied veracity that ANY Dean, anywhere, possesses sufficient intelligence to “notice” anything of any relevance.

  • Colin, thanks for your observations on my comments.

    A joint poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Communication was conducted between 12-24-09 and 1-3-10. The poll had a plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. It was found that 57% of the citizens over 18 believed that global warming is happening over the last 150 years. 47% believe that it is caused by humans. 34% say that “most scientists think global warming is happening” 12% are very worried about global warming. 5% think the issue of global warming is extremely important. 56% strongly or somewhat strongly trust television weathermen as a source of information about global warming. 45% strongly or somewhat strongly trust religious leaders as a source of information on global warming.

    A recent Stanford study of scientists who have published at least 20 articles in scientific journals found that at least 97% accept the theory of global warming.

    The number of students with a power engineering degree has declined 75% since the 1980s. The percentage of young adult students with science or engineering degrees has also declined according to the US Department of Energy. The DOE in a May 2008 report on 20% Wind Energy by 2030 predicted that if the USA embarks on a major wind energy program that most of the technology and manufacturing expertise will come from other countries. We will be unable to provide the trained talent given our current trend.

    In 2008 according to a New York Times article (As Exit Tests Prove Tough, States Ease Standards 1-11-2010), Alabama passed an emergency law allowing high school graduation with students only passing 3 of the previously mandatory 5 exams. In the same article it was noted that Arkansas allows 8th and 9th graders to pass the Algebra 1 exam with 24 out of 100 correct answers. They are given up to three tries to pass it. If they still cannot pass they are allowed to take a tutorial on a computer followed by a test. Many states are now allowing tests at the end of the course to take the place of the exit exam as more students can pass a test on a subject at the end of the year than can pass it up to 3 years later.

    The Program For International Student Assessment (PISA) tests students in many countries. In the 2006 testing, the USA was 29th from the top in Science. Canada was 3rd. The USA was between Latvia and The Slovak Republic.

    The results of the 2006 PISA testing for Math shows the USA as 35th. Canada as 7th. The USA was between The Russian Federation and Croatia.

    The USA did not do the reading portion of the test in 2006 but chose to in 2003. Less countries participated in the 2003 reading test. The USA was 19th. Canada was 3rd. I have chosen to illustrate the Canadian test results to show that it is possible to have a reasonably good public education in a developed area of North America with 2 national languages.

    Clearly our educational peers are Eastern Europe/Russia. High social capital is apparently not a attribute of society that the USA is interested in. We are intent in pursuing the concentrating of economic capital and monetary income into a narrow portion of our society. Our Gini has been rising for about 45 years.

    According to The Southern Educational Foundation’s report on low income and education in 2006 there were 14 states in which over 50% of the school age children were living in low income households.
    In 2003 there were 5 states with high school graduation rates less than 60%, SC, GA, NY, NM, and Mississippi. Their respective rates of low income students were 52%, 52%, 42%, 62%, and 75% in 2006.

    The high school graduation rate of the 10 largest school districts in 2003 was

    1 NYC 43%
    2 LA 51%
    3 Chicago 50%
    4 Dade (FL) 55%
    5 Broward (FL) 59%
    6 Clark (NV) 56%
    7 Houston 56%
    8 Philadelphia 58%
    9 Hillsboro (FL) 59%%
    10 Detroit 42%

    Perhaps the economic elites prefer a poor dumbed down America. Plutocracy has been tried in the past and found wanting.(As I noted, the study of history is not our national forte.) In any event the political elites are extremely interested in vocational as opposed to liberal education. In my opinion that is why President Obama hired Arnie Duncan to head the Department of Education and is furthering the “no child left behind” agenda.

    Thanks for your postings. I would like to someday read your book on the American savannas. I enjoy learning about climax ecosystems.

    My deceased acquaintance Scott Nearing, a founder of modern homesteading, was a professor at Penn’s Wharton School and was fired because he spoke against child labor. He was then fired from a non ivy league college due to his beliefs. He noted that (at least at that time) that there was no intellectual room for him in the higher education system of the USA. He moved to East Jamaica VT during the great depression to live in a stone “hut”. You are following a parallel track. History may not repeat but is surely rhymes.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson became persona non grata at the Harvard Divinity School.

    Howard Zinn (the historian) was fired from Spelman in the 1960s due to his belief in civil rights.

    Ward Churchill was fired the University of Colorado in recent times because he spoke for personal responsibility for state actions abroad and said that 9-11 was blowback (chickens coming home to roost).

    Perhaps modern intellectuals/eco scientists would be best to not incur much student debt as that may hold them back from being all they can be. Books are much less expensive than credit hours…
    Mud huts are cheaper than student loan payments. Look at the writings of Henry David Thoreau. They were done without the pressure of student loans on a self financed sabbatical from pencil making.
    The cost of publishing a thousand copies his work was the reason for the end of the sabbatical. He go his “pains for his labors”. Ghandi read Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and was able to effect a break from English empire at a lower cost in lives than our own revolution. MLK modeled his letter from the Birmingham jail after Thoreau.
    Thoreau’s legacy showed that the pen can be mightier than the sword.

    Perhaps the future of education will move towards in the direction of sages in mud/stone huts imparting precious liberal knowledge to hungry minds!

    Colleges that grow their own food and produce their own energy could be the wave of the future if ecosystem functioning and intellectual growth are woven into a tapestry of net energy sapience.

  • A Dean Joke: When I was pastoring a church in Austin, Tx, I occasionally had a dean from Austin Presbyterian Seminary as guest preacher. He had been around a long time, and told of a representative of a small presbyterian congregation calling the seminary for a pulpit supply. The representative told my friend that the congregation wanted “no one lower than a dean” to fill the pulpit. My friend replied, “I assure you, there is no one lower than a dean!”

    Guy, have you seen Carolyn Baker’s recent post on Graduating from Graduating, in which she takes on the conventional system of higher education in the light of collapse?

    I have loved my teachers, but I think the structure that most of us are “products” of is fast flying apart.

  • Larry Schultz and Scott Schneider, thanks for bolstering the discussion with data and informed viewpoints.

    Colin Crawford, thanks for the back-handed compliment. When it comes to compliments, I take what I can get. Please let me know what you like and dislike about my essays, so I can try to accommodate your druthers.

    John L. Stanley, I included a link to Carolyn Baker’s essay in my own essay: “Her neocon approach is exemplary as the ivory tower crumbles and becomes increasingly irrelevant to the lives of everybody involved in higher education.”

    Thanks to everybody for weighing in, and especially for the humor.

  • Lest it is overlooked, arguably the wildest form of life that The Powers That Be have to manage is Homo sapiens. Upsetting the apple cart – even allowing, much less encouraging more wildness and intractability will be frowned upon. After all, Wildlife Management of this kind though unmentioned, is taken quite seriously.

    However, in Coming Times natural selection will operate in favor of those who can strike out on their own, outside the framework of “civilization”, without the support of its structures. The break from current paradigms is so severe that denial is the easy way out.

    An educated person is one who knows a little of everything and everything of a little. Depending on how one interprets the word “everything” education can be a lifelong process rather than an object or a goal.

  • In addition to the most excellent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Peter Hoeg’s Borderliners is a brilliant novel about the violence inherent to education and about the use of time as social control. And Ursula LeGuin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” provides a concise look at the ethics of contemporary education.

  • There are nearly as many attitudes and opinions about education as there are attitudes and opinions, stretching all the way back through human history. I support the idea of liberal education outlined by Guy McPherson, which is more about learning how to think than learning how to do. The educational marketplace has spoken, in a sense, and students are more interested in learning how to make lots of money more than anything else. The examined life, among other things, is over, at least for now.

    The comments and jokes about college and university deans are curious. I wish I could remember the title of the memoir I read by an English Literature Professor who went on to become dean of some university. He was quite interesting and intelligent, but the perspective he revealed as both teacher and administrator was one of ongoing struggle with his students to rein in their worst impulses. That sometimes applied to faculty, as well. He frequently referred to the typical student working the angles (without really attempting to learn) as “Smithers.” It was clear that he felt his first duty was to the institution rather than to the students, but that was partly understandable considering how the academy attempts to uphold academic standards while students are frequently busy devising ways to circumvent the standards. In doing so, they ultimately earn an honorary diploma without any real education behind it. We have that reality at lots of institutions that have succumbed to the business model of education. It’s certainly a minefield, and traversing it successfully has gotten harder over time.

    The statistics demonstrating our awful literacy, failing rankings, and provincialism don’t really have the power to surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Those trends are why several social critics have adopted the metaphor that we are on a precipice of a new dark age — an era where the minds of the people are shuttered and they no longer understand basic things about how the world works. There will no doubt always be an administrative class that acquires and possesses knowledge, skill, and know-how (I still wonder about understanding, though), but the masses will be increasingly like children. As to the reduction in numbers of scientists (and more ominously, engineers) in the U.S., I note that in the modern era, the underlying emphasis of science has been application, meaning that science is relatively useless as a way of knowing until knowledge gained through science is transmuted into some way of acting upon the world. Put more bluntly, the natural world is understood, subdued, and dominated through science, giving rise to extraction, production, consumption, and pollution, all of which lead ultimately to degradation and destruction of the natural world. We can’t turn back from wrecking our own habitat at the same time we are clamoring for more specialists in the scientific fields that have enabled our ruin.

  • Well said, Guy. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you. As you well know, the town in which I live is full of professors masquerading as teachers who are in fact nothing but classroom conservatives who refuse to admit that they could ever be wrong. One can graduate with a degree in liberal arts without having one liberal thought. The classes I got the most from were those in which the professors thought as you do, who weren’t afraid of “taboo” subjects, who stimulated critical thinking and exchange of ideas that sharpened everyone’s perception.

    A pox upon that department head, wherever she may be.

  • Well said, Guy, with some nice additions from people who apparently gained more from their educations than they think their children will. I’m somewhat less pessimistic, perhaps, thinking that there are more good teachers than there were when we were in school (maybe wrong thinking on my part, engendered by working at a teaching-centered institution), and remembering that not long ago college education of any kind was unattainable for far more people than it is today.

    While it is true that “they no longer understand basic things about how the world works,” I suspect that’s nothing particularly new. After all, probably few of the members of the “greatest generation” who fought in WWII (people roughly the same age as our students) had much idea of the world politics behind it. And I both know a hell of a lot more now about both politics and practical survival than I did 30 years ago (while I suspect that at least a few of our contemporaries know even less than they did then).

    With higher ed, I also rue the “student-as-customer” (or worse, parent-as-customer), and the publish-or-perish mentalities. You and I know the value of research for our teaching–but (sticking with your theme) we also know that a lot of research is done more for conservative than for liberal reasons.

    A minor quibble with Aeschylus, based on my teaching of media literacy, though perhaps I’m not familiar with his original context and perhaps overanalyzing. Nowadays an advertising hack producing a Hallmark commercial–or a Tea Party “birther” with a blog–can make someone feel more than a typical news report. “Feeling” doesn’t guarantee learning.

    Marginally related to the central theme: One of my favorite student course evaluation comment of all time was, “He clearly loves people, teaching and his wife.” I’d have added learning (the main benefit of being a “teacher”) but was pleased that the alleged subject matter of that particular class (Public Policy, Women & Media) didn’t make the short list.