May 24, 2021

Andrea Gabor: Education Without Controversy? What’s the Point?

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The GOP is passing gag orders for teachers. Universities are cutting the classics. At Bloomberg, journalist Andrea Gabor takes a look at the problem, and one proposed antidote.

These latest culture-war skirmishes also are part of a decades-old effort to downsize the liberal arts, which are seen as less practical than the sciences, even though the lifetime earnings of liberal arts majors are comparable to those who hold science degrees. Equally important, as Carlos Rotella, a Boston College professor, puts it: To “dismiss ‘liberal arts degrees’ as impractical because there’s no job called ‘English’ or ‘history’ is to misunderstand how education shapes a life.”

As social media companies wrestle with serial liars and Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney is ousted from GOP leadership for her vocal opposition to the party’s election-fraud fantasies, could there be a greater reminder of the importance of pursuing truth than Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” about the role of education in guiding students to enlightenment?

Classics have endured, and deserve to be taught, because they help make sense of the great themes of human history and struggle. They also help us “appreciate how difficult it is to be a decent human being,” said Paula Berggren, who created the Great Works Program at Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York. That doesn’t mean adhering to any particular canon. After all, colonialism, brutality towards women and family disintegration are central themes in an array of classical and modern literature.

Everything old is new again, and art and literature help make the connections between today and yesterday. Hip Hop has made Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution, as well as Shakespeare, fresh and relatable. Zoom helped reinterpret the classics during, and for, the pandemic. Grappling with difficult truths in a world of ambiguity also requires teaching a set of intellectual skills, beginning no later than high school and on through college, for weighing conflicting narratives and perspectives.

One way to do that would be to embrace Nicholas Lemann’s proposed methods-based core by arming students with the skills and habits of mind needed to wrestle with hard questions. Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University journalism school, begins, rightly, with the need to teach “information acquisition,” which goes beyond learning to locate texts to analyzing how information is created and determining the relative quality of sources found on social media or via a Google search.

Another core academic skill would be identifying what Lemann calls “perspectival thinking” — the idea that everyone has points of view with inherent limitations, and that other people experience the world in ways that “ought to be understood rather than dismissed.”

While Lemann’s approach is emphatically content-neutral, it offers a means of probing controversial books and subjects.

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