The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

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Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

Militant Multiculturalism

I have held forth on a number of occasions (too many, some might say) about the battles going on in the Higher Education since at least the 1960s when the wheels started to fall off. The battles take many faces but occur under the umbrella term “postmodernism,” a new age that will replace the old. One of those faces is that of “multiculturalism,” which has become increasingly militant and focuses on an attack against Western Civilization — regarded as the source of all major problems now confronting the world. It began with an attack on the “establishment” in the 1960s and expanded to take in the whole of Western Civilization, especially during the Viet Nam war, because of  the West’s consistent pattern of aggression and exploitation in an attempt to bring other peoples to their knees and force them to yield up their treasure  — exacerbated  by the presumption of greatness on the part of Western Europe and America and Western art, literature, and philosophy, in particular.

It’s a movement that is well intended, to be sure, though it tends to dwell all too intently on the failures of the Western way of looking at the world. To be sure, there have been terrible mistakes, such as genocide, greed, slavery, pointless wars, and intolerance of other ways of looking the world. But in the tossing out process something precious is being glossed over and in the tizzy to replace the old with the new some important elements are being ignored or forgotten altogether.

Beaten down by this attack, for example, are the “Great Books” of Western Civilization which are now regarded as the villains in the drama, the source of the ideas that have made our culture rotten at the core — though one must wonder how many the zealots have bothered to read any of those books. Indeed, it is mainly dwindling numbers of old geezers such as myself who continue to spit into the wind while defenders of the New Age proudly display their ignorance and triumph in their new-won victories. Their goal is to “rid the world of colonial oppression,” to convert students to one way of thinking, toss out the old, and pave the way to a new and more open way of engaging the world in an effort at what its called “globalization.” And they are winning. Indeed, they may have already won.

One of the old geezers to have joined the battle in a rear-guard effort save the humanities — where these battles have been fought for the most part — is Anthony Kronman of Yale University who has written a book that describes the battles in some detail in an effort to save what remains and perhaps even to resuscitate the humanities as they lie dying in agony from self-inflicted wounds. His book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, points out some of the many ironies of the attack on the tradition that is being replaced. To begin with, there is the fact that replacing our culture with another, presumably superior, culture would require a total immersion in that culture, which is not possible — even in theory — for American students who have spent their lives inculcating scraps from the very culture they hope to displace. Furthermore, the attack on Western Civilization draws on the categories and ideals of that very civilization which also provides the intellectual framework, such as it is, for that attack. And ironically those ideas and ideals are endemic to most, if not all, of the cultures that are regarded by the militants as superior to our own from whence they arose. As Kronman points out:

“The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and the recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technical products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.  . . . all of them, all of these distinctively modern ideas and institutions, are of Western origin. . . . The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity.”

Moreover, as Kronman points out,

“The idea of tolerance [which the militants champion] finds support in many traditions, especially religious ones. But only in the modern West did it become — fitfully, hesitantly, but with increasing clarity and determination– an axiom of political life.”

I have often noted that we seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water, but those who would do the throwing couldn’t care less as they reach left and right for the latest Western evil to be tossed. However, while there are indeed many reasons to feel disdain for our past, even terrible, mistakes that we in the West have made, there are also so many things that are worth saving and preserving. To be sure, the universities should be open to new ideas and make the students aware of the many cultures around the world other than their own — all of which also have made mistakes, by the way. But at the same time they should seek to preserve the best of what we have all learned from our own past in order to pass those things along. Healthy criticism is a good thing along with honest appraisal and a weighing of pros and cons, but a hysterical rejection of all things Western in the name of “tolerance” is itself the most intolerant view one can possibly exhibit.

Education as Fraud

The eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno punishes those guilty or malice and fraud. One of the reviewers of my book on education some years back said that my “journey through the halls of the. . . university [were] reminiscent of Dante’s journey through Hell” — specifically the Malebolges of the eighth circle. When I read that I wasn’t sure what the reviewer meant. I now think I have figured it out.  All of us who attempted to educate the young people who came to us with high hopes coupled with no idea of what education is all about perpetrated a fraud. We promised them an education and we failed to deliver the goods.  To be sure, a few slipped through the cracks but they received an education in spite of the system in place, not because of it. A large part of the problem was that when the students revolted in the 60s and asked why they had to take courses in, say, history, the faculties didn’t know the answer. Another part of the problem was that by that time professional faculty had become immersed in their areas of specialization and knew little about anything else. The faculty the students looked to for guidance had no idea what education was all about or what it is supposed to do. That hasn’t changed.

“Education” is a word we use far too loosely. We use it when we mean “inform,” as in “he needs to be educated about the advantages of good health.” Education is a great deal more than information, though an educated person must be well informed. But an educated person must be able to assimilate and process that information and make intelligent choices. That is, an education must free the young person’s mind from stupidity, prejudice, and narrowness of vision — from the snares of “thugs who would teach them what to think and not how to think,” as Mark Van Doren once said. However, we are surrounded by such thugs and, sad to say, they abound in colleges and universities as well. Instead of putting young people in control of their own minds, setting them free, those who would engage their students’ minds tighten the chains of prejudice and stupidity. Educators  continue to insist that education is all about jobs, or we hand our students ready-made formulas for detecting the injustices we have determined surround us on all sides. The notion that we send young people to school and allow them to run up huge debts in the form of student loans in order to give them “know-how” is completely wrong-headed, as is the notion that the job of educators is to turn out hand-puppets who know only what they have been told by well-meaning instructors who hold over their heads the threat of low grades.

I cannot speak knowingly about the early grades, having only one year of experience teaching the lower grades, but I know that young people come to college ill-prepared to do the academic work and leave only slightly better off. I suspect, having paid close attention for years, that there the three reasons, at least, for this lack of preparedness for college: (1) the meaningless “certification requirements” that replace substantive courses in our teachers’ colleges and discourage many bright students from becoming teachers, (2) the lack of attention and preparation for school in the home before the child ever enters kindergarten, and (3) the mountains of paper-work required of teachers in the lower grades by administrators and boards of education that have nothing whatever to do with teaching the young. In any event, upon graduation from college they cannot read a difficult text or figure the tip in a restaurant. Their vocabulary has shrunk over the years and now consists of a few hundred words and gestures pathetically replacing complete sentences and full paragraphs. As though things weren’t bad enough, texting has now become all the rage, with its sentence fragments and bits and pieces of words. And yet we know that humans think in words and sentences, and we can predict that our college graduates, with rare exceptions, will be unable to think, speak, or figure beyond a primitive level. The reviewer was right: we are guilty of perpetrating a fraud and the students are paying for it through the nose and running up huge debts in the process.

Education as Fraud

The eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno punishes those guilty or malice and fraud. One of the reviewers of my book on education some years back said that my “journey through the halls of the. . . university [were] reminiscent of Dante’s journey through Hell” — specifically the Malebolges of the eighth circle. When I read that I wasn’t sure what the reviewer meant. I now think I have figured it out.  All of us who attempted to educate the young people who came to us with high hopes coupled with no idea of what education is all about perpetrated a fraud. We promised them an education and we failed to deliver the goods.  A large part of the problem was that when the students revolted in the 60s and asked why they had to take courses in, say, history, we didn’t know the answer. The faculty they looked to for guidance were so mired in their area of specialization they had no idea what education was all about or what it is supposed to do. That hasn’t changed.

“Education” is a word we use far too loosely. We use it when we mean “inform,” as in “he needs to be educated about the advantages of good health.” Education is a great deal more than information, though an educated person must be well informed. But an educated person must be able to assimilate and process that information and make intelligent choices. That is, an education must free the young person’s mind from stupidity, prejudice, and narrowness of vision — from the snares of “thugs who would teach them what to think and not how to think,” as Mark Van Doren once said. We are surrounded by such thugs and, sad to say, they abound in colleges and universities as well. Instead of putting young people in control of their own minds, setting them free, we tighten the chains of prejudice and stupidity. Educators  continue to insist that education is all about jobs, or we hand our students ready-made formulas for detecting the injustices we have determined surround us on all sides. The notion that we send young people to school and allow them to run up huge debts in the form of student loans in order to give them “know-how” is completely wrong-headed, as is the notion that the job of educators is to turn out hand-puppets who know only what they have been told by well-meaning instructors who hold over their heads the threat of low grades.

I cannot speak knowingly about the early grades, having only one year of experience teaching the lower grades, but I know that the young people come to college ill-prepared to do the work and leave only slightly better off. I suspect, having paid close attention for years, that there the three reasons, at least, for this lack of preparedness for college: (1) the meaningless “certification requirements” that replace substantive courses in our teachers’ colleges, (2) the lack of attention and preparation for school in the home before the child ever enters kindergarten, and (3) the mountains of paper-work required of teachers in the lower grades by boards of education that have nothing whatever to do with teaching the young. In any event, upon graduation from college they cannot read a difficult text or figure the tip in a restaurant. Their vocabulary has shrunk over the years and now consists of a few hundred words and gestures pathetically replacing complete sentences and full paragraphs. As though things weren’t bad enough, texting has now become all the rage, with its sentence fragments and bits and pieces of words. And yet we know that humans think in words and sentences, and we can predict that our college graduates, with rare exceptions, will be unable to think, speak, or figure beyond a primitive level. The reviewer was right.