Cathy Davidson has been steadily working away at the problem of inequality within higher education and at how higher education contributes to inequality.
I admire the intensity of her focus and her willingness to consider radical rethinking of institutions of higher learning. However, I think she’s up against a much harder problem than even she credits in her latest arguments for the liberal arts as a “a start-up curriculum for resilient, responsible, ethical, committed global citizens.”
Davidson has argued for a long time, in concert with many other reformers in education, for abandoning the industrial infrastructure of modern educational institutions–the idea of taking standard inputs (matriculating students) and producing standard outputs (graduates) through a series of industrially-organized allocations of time and labor. Put students in a room at a set time, do a standardized type of work or dump a standard unit of information, send them away at a set time, test and measure, do quality assessment (aka grading), throw away the substandard. Repeat.
Instead, she often counters, we should be contributing to human flourishing. Education should happen for every student seeking it at its own time and pace. For one person, competency and mastery might bloom in an hour, for another in a week, another in a month: let the institution match its pace to that. Don’t chop up knowledge into manageable reductions, skills into atomized pieces. Don’t suppress what students are really thinking through because there isn’t time to listen, because the assembly line must continue to move along. Don’t turn degrees into Skinner boxes. And so on.
It’s a familiar critique, and I endorse much of it. In part because I can imagine the classrooms and institutions that would follow these critiques. To me, much of what Davidson asks for can be done, and if done will show a greater and more effective fidelity to what many educators (and the wider society) already regard as the purposes of education, whether that’s the cultivation of humanity or teaching how to add. I have no trouble, in other words, arguing for the wholly conventional value of a substantially reimagined academy in these terms.
However, in any educational project that emphasizes the cultivation of humanity, at least, there is a difficult moment lying in wait. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that specialized knowledge or skills are not present in people who have not received relevant training or education. When we talk about wisdom or ethics, however, I think it’s equally easy to demonstrate that people who have had no educational experiences at all, or education that did not emphasize wisdom and ethics, nevertheless possess great wisdom or ethical insight.
Arguably, our current educational systems at the very least are neutral in their production of wisdom, ethical insight, emotional intelligence and common sense. (Unless you mean that last in the Gramscian sense.) Davidson might well say at this point, “Exactly! Which is why we need a change.”
I can see what a learner-driven classroom looks like, or how we might rethink failure and assessment. I don’t know that I can see what an education that produces ethics and wisdom looks like such that I would be confident that it would produce people who were consistently more wise and more ethical than anyone without that education would be.
What I unfortunately can see is that setting out to make someone ethical or wise through directed learning might actually be counterproductive. Because to do so requires a prior notion of what an ethical, wise outcome looks like and thus creates the almost unavoidable temptation to demand a performative loyalty to that outcome rather than an inner, intersubjective incorporation of it.
If we thought instead about ethics and wisdom as rising out of experience and time, then that might attractively lead back towards the general reform of education towards projects, towards making and doing. However, if that’s yet another argument for some form of constructivist learning, then beware fixed goals. A classroom built around processes and experiences is a classroom that has to accept dramatically contingent outcomes. If we embrace Davidson’s new definition of the liberal arts, paradoxically, we have to embrace that one of its outcomes might be citizens whose ethics and wisdom are nothing like what we imagined those words contained before we began our teaching. We might also find it’s one thing to live up to an expectation of knowledgeability and another altogether to live up to an expectation of wisdom.