Monday, August 1, 2011

R. P. Wolff Puzzles over a Liberal Education

I keep an eye on Robert Paul Wolff's blog The Philosopher's Stone and stumbled upon his meditation on "What Good is a Liberal Education?". He poses three transitional justifications for a liberal education:
as the stigmata of the upper classes, as the royal road to upward mobility, and as the entree into the Great Conversation
He rejects these, but I still have a very soft spot for the last of the three.

Here's the key bit that captures my foolish infatuation with higher education:
The ideal of the Great Conversation is merely an elaborate formalization of Wood's charming conceit. Western Civilization is conceived as a perpetual debate about a number of timeless questions, conducted by the great minds of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman tradition, with its medieval Arabic variants, through the medium of a small, but continuously growing, library of great works of philosophy, tragedy, poetry, fiction, history, political theory - and, more recently, sociology, anthropology, economics, and anthropology. Homer and the nameless authors of the Old Testament, Sophocles and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, Paul and the Evangelists, Ovid, Sappho, Philo, Tertullian, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, Erasmus, Luther, Chaucer, Calvin, John of Salisbury, Jean Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Herder, Marx, Smith, Bentham, Mill - on and on they come, quibbling, quarreling, drawing distinctions, splitting hairs, proving the existence of God, refuting the proofs for the existence of God, reading one another, referring to one another - a grand faculty seminar, captured for all time in no more than several hundred immortal books.

A liberal education - so this story has it - is a ticket of admission to the Conversation. Most of us are mere auditors, much as I was when, as a boy of ten, I sat on the steps of the staircase leading from my parents' living room and listened to my parents, my uncles and aunts, and the neighbors debating politics, literature, and the bureaucratic insanities of the New York City School System in which they worked. An inspired few actually enter the Conversation, and make to it contributions that will be taken up into the immortal lists of Great Books. But for the rest of us, it is enough that we have been initiated into its rituals and shibboleths. Throughout our lives, that eternal debate will be the intellectual accompaniment of our quotidien lives.
I was lucky enough as a dewy-eyed youth to go to an "experimental" college of the 1960s that was ungraded and focused on a "liberal education" and not merely the churning out of technical experts for the factories and offices of the future. I was in nirvana. I blossomed.

But then I went to graduate school and discovered myself back in a "high school environment" of grades and classes and even roll call! I withered. My joy in learning disappeared along with the lack of access to excited and interesting scholars. I had been spoiled as a youth at a college where classes were seminars and not lectures, where professors enjoyed their topics and would linger after class to answer questions. In graduate school I was reintroduced to "education" as a factory for stamping out graded and standardized minds. Needless to say, I dropped out of grad school and went and got a job in "the real world". But my joy in learning continues, but not in an academic setting. I still hold my ideals, I just recognize that contemporary institutions mouth one set of values but lives by another.

It is interesting that R. P. Wolff rejects my rationale and joy.

Here is his view of the purpose of a liberal education:
The true rationale for liberal education, in my considered and passionate judgment, is our society's desperate need for a reservoir of negative thought -and for some protected place in which young men and women can explore what my sons, some years ago, would have called the dark side of the force.
Here is an example from baby training:
One day, something inexplicable, terrible, frustrating, painful happens. The baby makes its demanding noise, with the cookie in full view just outside its reach, and the parent, instead of immediately handing it over, as has happened every day for as long as the baby can remember, now picks up the cookie, holds it tantalizingly before the baby, and says in what can only be construed as a deliberately sadistic voice, "Can you say 'cookie'?" Well, all of us know the rest of this story, for all of us have lived through it. The acquisition of language, the mastery of one's bowels, the control of one's temper - all of the stages in development that make one an adult human being who is recognizably a member of a society - all have a negative side, a side associated with shame, rage, pain, frustration, resentment, a backside, as we learn to think of it, as well as a positive side associated with praise, self-esteem, public reward, power, satisfaction - a front, which, as our language very nicely suggests, is both an officially good side and also a pretense, a fake.

By and large, we do not forget the frustration, the pain, the rage. We repress it, drive it out of consciousness, deny it, put it behind us, as we like to say. But, like our own backsides, and the feces which issue from them, they remain, and exercise a secret, shameful attraction for us.

This brief reminder of our common heritage makes it clear that the repression of "unacceptable" wishes - as Freud so quaintly and aptly labeled them in his earlier writings - is an essential precondition for our development of the ability to interact effectively with the world, and with one another. Mastery of our own bodies, mastery of language, the psychic ability, and willingness, to defer gratification long enough to perform necessary work, the ability to control destructive, and self-destructive, rages or desires - civilization, society, culture, survival depend upon them. But necessary though they are, they are painful; throughout our lives, we carry, repressed, the delicious, illicit fantasies of total, immediate, uncompromised gratification, of instantaneous, magical fulfillment, of the permission to indulge the desires that have been stigmatized as negative.
Personally I think that is a perverse presentation of the facts. The negative (Freudian) aspects are overplayed. Freud wasn't a scientist. He was more a novelist telling "just so" stories that sound credible but really aren't.

My experience of higher education had nothing to do with repressing desires. If anything, it was a romp, a joy, a discovery of an arena of pleasure that was far away from the demands of the workaday world.

As for high culture, I totally disagree with Wolff.
In this project, the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential, and rather surprising, role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works, which we customarily consider the appropriate content of a liberal education, play a continuingly subversive role. They keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.
They don't convey any sense of subversive enjoyment and prod me with an "anger at necessary repression". Nope. I enjoy some high art for the sheer aesthetics. Some I don't care for. Similarly, I enjoy some low art for the sheer joy it brings me while I don't care for other aspects of low art. I get my pleasure from my interaction. I'm not some cog in some grand mechanistic psycho-drama that Marcuse or Wolff want to squeeze me into.

Playing "by the rules" is not some psychological repression. It is simply the game (or work or social environment). If I want to play I am required to play by the rules. But I'm free to reject the game or create my own game. But most people realize that if they "don't play by the rules, they will play alone". That isn't repression. That is just a fact of life. It causes no more anguish than to realize that I can't kick a 500 pound rock and expect to send it over the goalpost. I'm not repressed or compelled by the rock. It is just a fact. If I accept the fact, my life goes more smoothly. If I reject the fact, I'm in for a world of pain. It is my choice.

I just don't buy his argument:
In all seriousness, I suggest to you that this is the real justification for keeping alive the great tradition of liberal arts and letters in our colleges and universities. Not as a patina for modern aristocrats, not as an instrument of upward mobility, not even as an introduction to the Great Conversation, but as a way of putting young men and women in touch with their repressed fantasies of gratification, in such a fashion as to awaken in them the hope, the dream, the unquenchable thirst for liberation from which social progress must come.
But I enjoyed reading it. I didn't feel the least repressed by the thoughts nor did they invoke an "unquenchable thirst for liberation". Nope. That is a fantasy. A fun thought. But it is much like thinking I can punt a 500 pound rock over a goal post. I can enjoy thinking it. But it doesn't make up the reality of the world in which I live.

I do agree with the closing story that Wolff provides, i.e. great art or ideas can reach across decades and centuries and seize a person by the scruff of the neck, and given him a shaking that can liberate him from a lifetime of unthinking subservience to received authority. But that is exactly the joy of ideas without all the fussy nonsense about Freud and Marcuse. It is a chance to knock up against a great mind and realize a new thought, a new perception, a new theory, or a new aesthetic.

Don't take my word for any of this. Go read Robert Paul Wolff for yourself!

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