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Personal/Theological Notebook: Catholicism Class; With Mom and Aunt Pat; Training Is Not Education

A busy week has passed by, and I was happy to collapse tonight after the last of my Catholicism courses concluded, after a long session on the idea of God in modernity, and how the chief question of modernity regarding God was not antiquity's Who or What God Is, nor the Reformation's How God Relates To Us, but rather Whether God Is (or, more aggressively, perhaps, Why God Ought Not Be). The long development of Western subjectivism and skepticism was discussed with regard to the question of God, with some digression on my part about how I think the tide of the "evidence" question has turned with the wealth of historical and archaeological evidence the 20th century produced (perhaps leading to the general ignoring of the question of evidence for God or for Christian claims). We concluded with a long discussion on the philosophy of contemporary Pluralism, and its pressure to ignore the truth question regarding religions or philosophies, driven by the moral desire to create peace between cultures, peoples, and worldviews, which is a good desire, but painting itself into a tricky corner with its absolute law of no group or worldview being aloud to push its views on any other. The impulse is a noble one, trying to avoid the overwhelming of less powerful cultures by those richer or more powerful, as we have seen all too often in history, but the logic leads to the conclusion (followed all too often, I've seen, by students who have learned their lessons well) that, for example, "you cannot judge the Nazis for what they did to the Jews, because that was just their culture." The students today followed the logic out, some not happy about it, given what a sacred cow Pluralistic thinking is in popular philosophy, but recognizing that when followed to its logical ends, it undermines any basis for law or for a public ethics. So there was no small discussion about the distinction between the mere fact of plurality or diversity, with the desire to nurture and protect that as much as possible, but also seeing that Pluralism is only one philosophical/legal interpretation of how to protect diversity. With its tendency to slide into soft or even hard relativism or moral subjectivism, there was a lot of speculation among students about what kind of other philosophical, legal, or ethical approach might allow for both some sort of appeal to a true justice while also maximally protecting diversity. It was a real pleasure to see students throwing themselves into the debate.

Mom and Aunt Pat left yesterday, and while I couldn't accompany them on most of their excursions, I was able to see them each day that they were here, even if just for a meal or for a cup of hot chocolate or the like. I used the Borders gift card that Pat had given me at Christmas while we were in the cafe at the Borders by their hotel, so that I could have her inscribe her gifts to me, as I always like in the gift of a book (or three, as this case was, since I found some good deals on small volumes on the architecture of Santiago Calatrava, and on the art of Chagall and Caravaggio). I was able to join them in the National World War II Museum on Saturday (which I need to revisit a few more times, I think, in order to do the entire collection justice: we mostly just went through the exhibit on the Pacific Theater and made a cursory pass of the European Theater exhibit as our time was running out). On Sunday, I met them in Audubon Park, enjoyed the warm afternoon sun walking for a bit with them there, and then took them on a tour of Loyola's campus, stopping by the library to see photographer Harold Baquet's latest exhibition In the Blink of an Eye, photographs from his 30-year career shooting New Orleans, tied to his recent book, In the Blink of an Eye: Photographic Memories of a New Orleans No More. (A YouTube-archived TV news story about the exhibition, interviewing Mr. Baquet is here.) After that, we hit the late Mass over at Holy Name of Jesus before calling it a night, so I got some extended time with them on the weekend.

Other than that, I find that I've been coming back over and over in my head to this essay from The Washington Post that Dan pointed out to me last week. There has long been discussion in my education circles about education becoming too narrow, turning too much into job training and not so much what we used to understand education to be: the ability to understand the world in its complexity, and across a variety of disciplines, and from that, to be able to think creatively. I've been troubled to note how, even since my time as an undergraduate, how much more current undergraduates expect to be handed to them. They frequently have an expectation that an instructor will tell them, for example, what is going to be on a test. That is, not "what material will be covered," but something closer to "what the questions and answers will be," and that a professor who doesn't provide a "study guide" that amounts to an answer key is somehow cheating them. While I can certainly remember the pain and frustration of dealing with a professor who ends up (possibly unfairly) testing you over material other than that for which you thought you were being held accountable, I also understood as an undergraduate that part of the educational process in the classroom was learning to be able to tell what material was more important or central to the topic, and to be able to study accordingly.

Thus this essay struck home, as a former Rhodes Scholar now on the Rhodes selection committee speaks of her dismay at bright students who only know how to solve problems given to them, but who seem increasingly unable to figure out what the issues or problems in the world worth examining actually are. This kind of "instrumental" thinking makes me see more clearly another part of why the "Reflective Sciences" of Philosophy, Theology, and (potentially, at least) the various Humanities are so central to an education, and not just relics of a "general education" program that has a romantic idea of making students "well rounded," but which really amounts to wasting their valuable job-skills training time with random trivia. Not so. The Reflective Sciences are where you can learn to think: to pull together and being to inter-relate the vast data and experience of the world with questions of meaning and not just of utility. Post-Modernity has been inclined to try to ignore or deny meaning, as getting too close to those Questions That Make People Argue. But the good moral impulse to peace and to nurturing diversity cannot be accomplished through willful ignorance. Seeing in this essay how that implicit philosophy or attitude is making some of our "best and brightest" undergrads into brilliant simpletons only reinforces for me how critical my work can be.
Our Superficial Scholars
By Heather Wilson

The Washington Post
Sunday, January 23, 2011

For most of the past 20 years I have served on selection committees for the Rhodes Scholarship. In general, the experience is an annual reminder of the tremendous promise of America's next generation. We interview the best graduates of U.S. universities for one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on young scholars.

I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years - not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America's great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.

Unlike many graduate fellowships, the Rhodes seeks leaders who will "fight the world's fight." They must be more than mere bookworms. We are looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership. The undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president's health-care bill but doesn't really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn't really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn't seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn't seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America's Constitution.

When asked what are the important things for a leader to be able to do, one young applicant described some techniques and personal characteristics to manage a group and get a job done. Nowhere in her answer did she give any hint of understanding that leaders decide what job should be done. Leaders set agendas.

I wish I could say that this is a single, anomalous group of students, but the trend is unmistakable. Our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study.

This narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism.

Perhaps our universities have yielded to the pressure of parents who pay high tuition and expect students, above all else, to be prepared for the jobs they will try to secure after graduation. As a parent of two teenagers I can understand that expectation.

Perhaps faculty members are themselves more narrowly specialized because of pressure to publish original work in ever more obscure journals.

I detect no lack of seriousness or ambition in these students. They believe they are exceptionally well-educated. They have jumped expertly through every hoop put in front of them to be the top of their classes in our country's best universities, and they have been lavishly praised for doing so. They seem so surprised when asked simple direct questions that they have never considered.

We are blessed to live in a country that values education. Many of our young people spend four years getting very expensive college degrees. But our universities fail them and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why.

The writer represented New Mexico in the U.S. House from 1997 to 2008. She is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Rhodes scholar.
Tags: class-catholicism, education, family, loyola, new orleans, personal, philosophical, secularism/modernity, students, teaching, theological notebook

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