Friday, September 7, 2012

"The aim of education is wisdom ..."

"The aim of education is wisdom,
and each must have the chance
to become as wise as he can."
-Robert M. Hutchins


I finally finished reading "The Great Conversation" by Robert Hutchins, even though it took me a couple of weeks, cramming in a few pages here and there while I waited on SC at dance, gymnastics and piano lessons.  Unfortunately, by the end of the day my brain is only capable of comprehending "light" reading (like romance novels), where there is nothing to think about, argue with, and there is always a happy ending.

That being said, there is quite a bit of Hutchins' argument I agree with, and some I do not.  Some of what I disagree with I think has to do with my looking in hindsight from where we are now in history (especially with the massive development of technology to what it is today) versus what Hutchins could only guess at when he first wrote in the early 1950s.

Many of Hutchins' predictions, in fact, have not turned out as he would have hoped.  One of the main arguments he makes is that an education through the liberal arts (a "liberal" education) was initially only received by those of the elite classes - people whom had both political power and leisure time.  Now, the masses have political power in that there is universal suffrage.  He also assumes that with the development of technology, more people will have more leisure time, since it will take less time to do his/her work.  Hutchins is nothing if not an optimist, striving for an ideal, and he failed to see what would become (and honestly, probably already was) the driving factor in American society: money.  Those with the most money are now able to buy the political power they need, rendering those without to be voters with no power.  When looking at the private sector, the people in charge are driven to acquire more wealth, which means that instead of more leisure time with which to acquire a liberal education, workers now work longer hours for less pay, or require multiple jobs in order to pay for necessities for their families.  Hutchins mentions that "whatever work there is should have as much meaning as possible" and that all "workmen should be artists," but a worker who goes from one minimum-wage job with no hope for advancement to another minimum-wage job with no hope for advancement, all to provide meager rations of food, clothes and a roof over his or her family is as far from an artist working a job filled with meaning as one could get.  Hutchins makes the assumption that this happens in other countries, and demands that the "statesman" should see to raising the standard of living, but it is happening here, and the "statesmen" are all to happy to turn a blind eye in return for a coin in their own pocket.  America has regressed in this area, and must find a way to get back on track.

 The advancement of technology has even gone so far (as Hutchins' correctly predicted) as making the world a much smaller place, but instead of creating a world society (as Hutchins thought might happen), American companies now are sending more and more jobs around the world, creating mass unemployment and sparking protests and riots from "educated" college graduates who have no place to work, artistically or otherwise.  Now, the "dream" every parent had for their child to get a college education seems worthless, and society is running full speed toward Hutchins' conclusion that the people's "uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous."  Hutchins argues that society should constantly strive for the ideal, "that everybody should have the chance to have that education which will fit him for responsible democratic citizenship and which will develop his human powers to the fullest degree."  However, the society we live in now shuns education.  School (K-12) is a place where children are dumped, to keep them busy while the parents attempt to earn a living, or even to simply indulge in their own interests.  Curriculum is developed to teach to the most average student, and focuses on data, facts or skills, which can be tested through the use of a bubble-in answer form.  College is a place students go to "have experiences," including parties, sporting events, and making new friends, and eventually they must choose a major, but education in general does not interest them so they choose what they think will be the simplest path, with the least amount of work required.  Obviously this is a huge generalization, and there are many students in the upper-echelons of each and every college or university that strive toward educational excellence and wisdom, but most colleges in general are only interested in what brings them money, so their focus is also on the most average of students.  Hutchins points out that "one of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the 'uneducated' and the 'educated' is so slight."  This is even more true today.  How do we reconcile what Hutchins says our society needs to be successful with where we are now?

I do agree with Hutchins' assessment that in order for democracy to work, the people need to be educated.  However, unlike Dorothy Sayers in "The Lost Tools of Learning," who specifically focuses on classical education for youth, Hutchins largely states that this education must be done after adulthood has begun, because a younger set of readers lacks the real experience required to comprehend what the great writers are saying.  He uses the example of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, stating that a reading of the work in high school would only amount to mediocre comprehension, but a reading of the work as an adult, after having experienced marriage, would result in a much higher comprehension.  I have honestly found this to be true myself and cautioned an unmarried friend against reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening, because I felt that without the experience of marriage, much of the work would be lost to her.  However, as true as I believe this argument of Hutchins' to be, I am struggling to reconcile his belief that "every man and woman, from childhood to the grave" should receive a liberal education since he spent so much of his time arguing that young people would not understand what they are reading.  Add this to the fact that how America is now educating its young people has created adults that do not  "read great books and look at great pictures knowing very little of Plato or C├ęzanne, or of the influences which moulded the thought or art of these men, quite aware of their own ignorance, but in spite of it getting a lot out of what they read or see," but rather adults who relish simplistic books, simplistic or distasteful pictures, crude and lowbrow humor, music created by corporations rather than true artists, and visual media that combines the worst of these.  One of the things I loved about the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins was how well it mimicked American society in this respect.  How do we educate in a way that leads young people to become adults who ARE "sensible," understand "the tradition in which we live," and are able to "communicate with others who live in the same tradition and to interpret our tradition to those who do not live in it?"  Hutchins concludes that "an educational system that aims at vocational training, or social adjustment, or technological advance is not likely to lead to the kind of maturity that the present crisis demands of the most powerful nation in the world."  Remember, this is sixty years ago, and if anything, the crisis has gotten worse.  But how do we actually create and implement said system, from where we are now?

Finally, the first chunk of the essay felt to me like an infomercial on these specific books rather than a treatise on a classical education and how to create "an education [system] that draws out our common humanity rather than our individuality."  In fact, he states that to leave these books unread means to remain purposely in ignorance, an "undeveloped" human being.  He constantly refers to "these books" or "this set of books," reminding the reader that it actually is an introduction to a set of books rather than a call to arms, the arms in question being "great books" in general.  He hopes that adults reading the introduction will then read the set of books, and though he makes some great points about the state of education in American society, he provides no relief for those who agree with him.  He also assumes that if only people could read his arguments for reading the set, people would see the error of the way they have been doing things - if only it were that easy.  


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