March 5, 2010

A Friday Night Pedagogical Thought

Justin Katz

Reviewing The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (subscription required), James Piereson raises a number of interesting concepts related to higher education, but this is perhaps the most fundamental:

The liberal arts at their best, he says, disseminate "knowledge that exposes the contingency of present arrangements," a surprising formulation coming from an author who takes the organization of the academy so thoroughly for granted. It is also revealing of a pedagogical outlook now pervasive in the academy: that students can learn how to think before learning anything important to think about.

At least to my experience, most of the examples used, in college lessons, are of the sort in which the answer is already presumed to be known by the professor. Race is the most common, with gender and sexuality in the mix, as well. The focus is the evil of oppression, not the borderlines of issues at which big ideas actually clash, as between civil liberties and civic structure. Slavery was and is an unmitigated evil, but concern about states' rights is not merely a sly way to support evil.

Indeed, an extremely interesting course could be built around the unintended side effects of measures taken to remedy the sins of the past. The Fourteenth Amendment comes to mind. Unfortunately, the largely progressive faculty who populate liberal arts departments don't seem inclined to offer their students a path to considering whether the easiest route to "progress" might not be the best.

Which ties into the above block quote in that grappling with actual Important Ideas, rather than trying to follow the illusory path of logic flowing from the first principle that no ideas are objectively important, might persuade developing generations that there are concepts worthy of real battle — and worthy compromise.