Thursday, March 15, 2018

Eldridge lore

Richard Eldridge has an interesting essay on liberal education here. I don't know that I have much interesting to say about it, but he talks about the point of higher education, which I have talked about before, and I do have something, however slight, to say in response.

One of his key ideas is this:
human beings are enabled to flourish in and through the exercise of rational powers only through education as paideia: the actualization of rational powers and the direction of preference and interest toward appropriate ends. Merely having a biological life and a lot of pleasant experiences is not sufficient for living well. Absent education as paideia, then, human life threatens to collapse back out of the rational-cultural and into the animal-instinctual. To flourish, we must learn from each other to engage in activities that support the actualization of rational powers.
This is another:
If I can get students to pay attention — close attention — to the details and intricate coherences of, say, François Truffaut’s Day for Night or Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or James Baldwin’s Another Country, Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Half of Life” or Rilke’s “An Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Plato’s Symposium or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, then, I think to myself, that’s something. There’s a chance that they will resonate to the insights and, more important, the powers of perception infused with thought that are manifest in these works. They might learn to see their lives, their social circumstances, and the currently obscure possibilities within them more clearly and with more hope. That would be something, and I am not quite ready to give up. 
And his conclusion is along these lines:
In any case, I will carry on, with such modest successes in paideia as I am able to manage. Within a general culture that no longer expects or appreciates paideia and within an institution that is shaped by that general culture, this will sadly remain difficult and often-enough fruitless work. The larger issue is the plight of liberal education, paideia, in an ongoing war between Deweyan-Rawlsian liberal democracy and neoliberalism, where neoliberalism is winning.
I'm sympathetic to a lot of what he says, even if he sounds a bit like a grumpy old man (as I often do) when he brings up electronic dance music. But do I really agree that developing powers of perception is what higher education should mostly be about? Would I spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to send each of my children to university just for that? I think I would not, unless I had won millions on the lottery. 

One thing to note is that I wouldn't count on any university in particular right now to even try to get students to pay close attention to great works of art. My daughter (majoring in engineering) goes to an expensive university and has not been required to take any course that aims to do this. I don't think the college I teach at requires its students to take any such course either. So if you're paying for this kind of paideia, at least at one of those two places, you're out of luck. Secondly, students get exposed to some works of art in high school, and can be exposed to more by their parents. Might that be enough? And thirdly, how much can colleges and universities do to make students appreciate great works? Even if that is a worthwhile goal, and I think it is, is enough success likely to make the great expense of college worth it? Eldridge emphasizes the value of science, art, politics, and friendship. If someone like my daughter is already invested in three of these heavily and takes some interest in the fourth, how much should I worry that she might be missing out on something really important? A little, but enough to justify spending lots of money for the possibility of maybe partially filling the gap? The question seems simply irrelevant to all but the richest parents.

Eldridge, I think, recognizes this. The problem is less what universities teach and more the precarious state in which people entering the job market find themselves. If there were less inequality, if being at the bottom were less terrible, then we would be less worried about the need for our children to get job qualifications. It would also help, of course, if higher education were much less expensive. In the meantime, though, as he suggests, colleges and universities can at least try to cultivate the minds of students in less utilitarian ways. I agree with him that it's a shame we don't do more of this.  

As things stand, a college degree increases one's expected lifetime earnings enormously but is also very expensive. Which means the advantage goes to the children of richer parents. That is unfair, and means that we all suffer from living in a less meritocratic society (the talents of working class children are often wasted, to the disadvantage of all except the less talented members of the higher classes). This strikes me as a bigger issue than paideia.

But I do care about paideia as well.     


  1. i am not sure i actually came to any very significant appreciation of any 'works' as a direct result of any courses i took in college. and that's even though my philosophy major was an english major first, before i abandoned it. the novels and the poetry, the music, the films, anything i acquired a deeper feeling for and reflected intensely on in college, i came to informally, via friends, self-directed poking around, etc. at best, the classroom and curriculum were useful for providing me with the ideology and the context according to which what i was doing was what i was supposed to be doing, as a paideia-educated person.

    (i might make one exception, for a book of adorno's i read in a philosophy class. but i didn't even like it at the time and surely didn't understand it. otherwise even for philosophy it was more that i came to this kind of experience on my own, outside of the formal boundaries.)

    but i had a relatively luxurious education because of scholarships and my particular educational career.

    it seems like philosophers ought to be engaged in a full-scale critique of many things - especially neoliberal 'work', the internet as a technology and a cultural force - that oppose their own conditions of existence. yet they're utterly useless.

    1. I think my experience has been similar with regard to how I've learned to appreciate things. Courses I took have at least been relevant--e.g. I got into Wittgenstein by discussing philosophy of mind (which I was studying) with a friend who was studying Wittgenstein--but mostly in an indirect way. Some graduate courses I took were very good, but coming to real appreciation seems to require more individual attention than you get in a typical course. It also requires a level of maturity and knowledge that undergraduates don't usually have.

      As for the uselessness of the philosophers, you have a point. I won't write off everyone's work as utterly useless, but it certainly doesn't feel as though philosophers as a group are changing the world or saving themselves with any success.