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Originally a talk given to Phi Kappa Phi at the University of Evansville on March 31, 1995, subsequently published in the Southern Indiana Review in 1996.

Reflections on the Liberal Arts


Steven C. Scheer

We don't need no education,
We don't need no thought control,
No dark sarcasm in the classroom,
Teacher, leave them kids alone.
Teacher, leave them kids alone.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.
- Pink Floyd

My humble apologies both to you and to Pink Floyd because, as it should be instantly obvious, I don't know how to sing, though I do know a good song when I hear one. I remember agreeing with "Another Brick in the Wall" the first time I have heard it, though I did reflect instantly on the irony of the use of the word "education," since what the song talks about is really indoctrination. Of course, the irony is that some people (even those who ply their trade in educational institutions) confuse the two, which is precisely what the song objects to, or rather what the song objects to is indoctrination in the name of education. There is a paradox at the heart of this issue that I would like to slowly unravel in the next 10 minutes or so.

Do people really think what they think they think or do they just think that they think what they think they think? This question could be raised with various degrees of overt or covert hostility by simple pronominal changes. Thus, do you really think you think what you think or do you just think that you think what you think you think? Or, more humbly, do we really think what we think we think or do we just think that we think what we think we think? The answer, of course, could be either yes or no, or (perhaps) both yes and no. Allow me to tantalize you with a few more permutations of the idea behind this basic question: According to one of his most famous dicta, Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, "claim[s] to show, not how [people] think in myths, but how myths operate in [people's] minds without their being aware of the fact." Robert Pirsig invokes something similar when he says that according to Einstein "common sense . . . is just a bundle of prejudices acquired before the age of eighteen." Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning sums up the issue with the following far-reaching words:

The child is shaped to follow automatically certain rules in a world which automatically executes those rules. Socialization, in this sense, is a kind of 'instinctivization' of the human animal - a paradoxically symbolic instinctivization, but one that represents the same hardening of behavior as that found among lower animals. . . . [C]hildren are trained to want to do as society says they have to do. They have to earn their prestige in definitely fixed ways [like going to college in order to get an education]. The result is that people willingly propagate whole cultural systems that hold them in bondage, and since everyone plays . . . the same . . . game, no one can see through the farce. (Italics mine)

Thus, from the time we are born we are overtly/covertly forced to be rather than allowed to be what we are. In a very real sense we are indoctrinated, first by our parents, then by our schools and, in time, by our religious and political institutions. (Our parents were, of course, likewise indoctrinated and so were our teachers.) To some extent this indoctrination is both good and necessary. Ralph Waldo Emerson formulates what is on each side of the coin here rather admirably when he says that:

The difficulty is that we do not make a world of our own but fall into institutions already made & have to accommodate ourselves to them to be useful at all. & this accommodation is, I say, a loss of so much integrity & of course of so much power. But how shall the droning world get on if all its beaux esprits reculcitrate upon its approved forms & accepted institutions & quit them all in order to be single-minded? The double-refiners would produce at the other end the double-damned.

Indeed, in the routine everyday or workaday world we do need to follow the prescribed forms, the habitual ways of thinking and acting, the conventional modes of behavior. All of these indoctrinated modalities, if you will, make for the smooth operation of our daily lives. Even common courtesies are there but to accommodate or even perhaps guarantee the ease of our personal/professional interactions. But there is also a grave danger in such automatic behavior which can, by the way, be both mental and/or physical. Tolstoy, for example, alerts us to this issue in the following diary entry:

I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist who quotes the passage I have just cited, spells out its message for us as follows:

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things. . . . The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception. (in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays)

And what is true of art is, of course, also true of education, for education is truly an art as well as a science (in the old sense of body of knowledge). "There is no method," says T.S. Eliot in one of his essays, "except to be very intelligent." Yes indeed, the purpose of education is to undo the work of indoctrination. Indoctrination turns us into efficient machines, education, on the other hand, allows the return of the person, the individual human entity, who always already bemoans the loss of knowledge in information and the loss of wisdom in knowledge (as T.S. Eliot expresses it in "Choruses from 'The Rock'").

Ironically such losses of knowledge and/or wisdom may occur in the least likely or most unlikely places: institutions of higher education. Russell Jacoby, for example, spells this out splendidly in his Dogmatic Wisdom when he says that "curriculum or course description matters less than the fitness, intelligence, and inclinations of the teacher. A brilliant curriculum with a feeble teacher is a feeble experience; a feeble curriculum with a brilliant teacher may be a brilliant experience." This is an idea, of course, that cannot seem to penetrate the bureaucratic mind. But we cannot lay the blame entirely on the shoulders of bureaucracy (that is, after all, where their heads should be). The problem is that academics themselves may muddy the issue. As Russell Jacoby puts it:

Many academics know, but do not admit, that detailed curricula are irrelevant for university education. Liberal arts colleges regularly beat their breasts, reflect, form committees, and recommit themselves to revising their basic required courses. They issue thoughtful reports, but very rarely are these translated into a specific curriculum [thank heaven, I say] . . . A blunt overview of curriculum reform concluded: 'One of the great indoor sports of American faculties is fiddling with the curriculum. The faculty can engage in interminable arguments during years of committee meetings . . . They can fight almost without end about . . . providing useful or liberal knowledge. They can write learned books and articles . . . The harsh truth is that all this activity is generally a waste of time.'

Another brick in the wall indeed. Here we go again, staring at the enemy in the mirror and refusing to identify ourselves. A liberal arts education should liberate us from the prejudices of our time and place. But this is not easy to do. Habitual ways of thinking result in predictable forms of behavior. We go around in circles and, like Pooh and Piglet the second time around, we may be frightened by two new sets of footprints, our own from our first trip around, which we mistake for those of Woozles or other Hostile Animals.

As I approach old age (just approach, mind you), I am coming around (no pun intended but, as always, it is welcome anyway) to believing what I had the courage to believe when I was young: a first-rate institution hires first-rate teachers and then just lets them do their thing. Insitutionalized forms of liberation are bound to enslave in the long run. The trouble is that most administrators (as well as many of our colleagues, especially - I am afraid - those of the currently fashionable conservative persuasion) fear the freedom I am here advocating with a vengeance (the ambiguity in this last sentence is also unintended but welcome anyway). In the meantime we must do the best we can to ferret out the errors in the ways of our thinking as well as to dismantle the illusions that lie (pun intended) at the foundation of our various religious and political orders. This is, of course, an interminable enterprise, for every time we get used to the idea that we have captured the truth, it will have absconded with our illusions again. Great works of art frequently illustrate this point with remarkable intelligence. Since I don't have the time to explore one with you right now, I am forced to beg you, at least for the time being, to just take my word for it, by repeating Camille Paglia's "mantra" for students: "Hate dogma. Love learning. Love art."

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