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Musings on the Philosophy of Education vis a vis the University
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-03-30 09:45:36
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Some thirty-five years ago, on February 13, 1975 I published a newspaper article in one of the local paper of San Juan Puerto Rico (The San Juan Star) taking sides in a raging debate on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico. The debate had to do with the role of the humanities and liberal arts within a holistic approach to education, that is to say, the education of the whole person. It was precipitated by a decision on the part of the university administration to eliminate Classical Greek from its curriculum. The article was titled “Reflections on the Francois Marie Auret Controversy.”

In surveying the article I am struck by how relevant it remains even so many years later. And that is not good news, when one considers that the debate had to do with the marginalization and trivialization of classical humanistic and liberal arts studies within an academic educational system which had begun to apply to education the mind-set and the market methods of industrial production and consumption wherein quantity and numbers and what sells and is popular seems to be the main criteria. One could detect already a monumental shift from the Platonic Good to market goods.

Sadly, the situation may have worsened since. To convince me of that unfortunate fact are three relatively recent articles: one can be found in The New York Review of Books (November 4, 1999) and is titled “The Death of Literature” by Andrew Delbanco, another can be found in The Atlantic (February 2000) and is titled “The Kept University,” and another is in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 5, 1999) and is titled “Restoring Sanity to an Academic World Gone Mad,” a title redolent of Vico’s famous quip: “and at the end they go mad.”

Indeed, what I was arguing then, and would still argue today, 40 years or so later, was that to reduce education to mere instrumental quest for knowledge conceived as power (it was Francis Bacon, the father of scientism, who after all said “knowledge is power” contradicting Socrates’ “knowledge is virtue.”), or worse, as a means to a “life-style,” is to end up with defective and incomplete paradigm of education; a paradigm that will privilege the means at the expense of the authentic goal of education. It was Einstein who said that our age is characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals, and he said a mouthful. For, an authentic vision of education is one that always aims at the formation of the whole human being, allowing him/her to fulfill the essence of his/her humanity. This is a humanistic approach which is mindful of its Socratic origins, clearly present when classical education was reborn in Italy in the era of Humanism preparing the Renaissance (the rebirth of Greco-Roman civilization). The opening of the first University at Bologna in 1088 was a harbinger of such a renaissance.

A general humanistic approach always keeps in mind its Socratic origins, i.e., that within an institution of higher learning the universality of basic knowledge and the unity of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good ought to be the overarching goals pursued by both students and by teachers who have the added duty of being role models. Within a maieutic (i.e., mid-wife) Socratic approach the teacher’s role is not so much that of imparting facts and knowledge and truth, but that of searching for them with the students, of assuring a safe birth and delivery of the truth. On the contrary what is at work in today’s academia (often within the humanities themselves), are skeptical professors who, having espoused a radical scientific, positivistic relativism, or even nihilism, teach by word and example that there is no such thing as truth, and that in fact, the very faith in reason, the Greek foundations of Western Civilization, is dubious at best. There are only instrumental truths, there is no such thing as the concept of beauty, and as mentioned above there may be goods but no such thing as a transcendent principle called the Good.

The burning question then is this: What exactly do we professors profess? If it is no longer the quest for truth what then? A mere Machiavellian/Nietzschean “will to power” wherein freedom is preeminent and truth secondary? Should that be the case, are universities worthy of their very name? Is an authentic Kantian sort of freedom as the foundation of ethics, devoid of scientific determinism which reduces the human to a mechanistic means to an end, still possible? In their frantic search for what is modern and technologically advanced, have universities forgotten their original “raison d’être”? I would suggest here that the kind of answers one gives to those questions will determine in turn one’s philosophy of education.

To recover the logos, i.e., the point of it all, the essential essence and meaning of education, means to recollect that truth comes before freedom just as theory comes before praxis. Freedom without truth turns out to be a mere mindless license. Much activism nowadays is imbued w freedom devoid of truth. However, within a classical idea of truth there is a clear hierarchy of meaning: there is a knowledge that is essential and basic and there is a knowledge that is secondary and trivial, mere techne by which one learns the how of one’s occupation. The secondary knowledge is found in the famous Platonic cave where one is a slave of opinion, appearances and shadows reflected on the cave’s wall by the fire in the cave. The essential primary knowledge is found outside the cave where the primary light of the sun shines. I dare say that such Platonic myth of the cave is still instructive some 24 centuries later. Indeed, the task of any authentic educator is to show the difference between the two kinds of knowledge and to convince the student that the least knowledge about the higher things is more valuable that a lot of information (passing for knowledge) about secondary and trivial things.

The computer will beat us at chess most of the times since it is superior in the speed of its rational operations. But the human being is more than the sum of its rational intellectual operations as Descartes misguidedly thought, it is a being with a passion (philo) for truth and wisdom (Sophia) which allows that such a knowledge is applied correctly, as the ancients clearly perceived. Ours is a human nature, a being which is able to perceive and hear life poetically, as a computer will never be able to do, no matter how perfect are his logical-rational operations. Pascal has it on target when he reminds Descartes that “the heart has reasons that reason knows not” and similarly Rousseau has it on target when he turns the Cartesian saying up-side-down and declares that “I feel, therefore I am.”

What the greatest of humanists (such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Petrarca, Dante, Vico, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus) have always argued for, is a unified vision of the whole vast field of knowledge which will yield complete human beings who then specialize and become good doctors, good engineers, good mechanics. I dare say that such a unified vision is far superior to a fragmented specialized knowledge which knows much about a tree but misses the forest. To return to Albert Einstein who was a humanist first and a good scientist secondarily, he once declared that “concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

What exactly is the role of humanism within higher education? If there is a philosopher that can be considered the culmination of Humanism, that philosopher is Giambattista Vico. As such, his notion of what a university is all about can be placed within the above described humanistic framework. In antiquity, Socrates’ majestic intellect cast him as a whole university. For Vico, who was a modern philosopher, that role could only be played by the university, by a community of scholars who are both within and apart from the civic community.

In his Inaugural Orations (1699-1707) and his Study Methods of our Times (1709), Vico develops the idea of the ambivalent and even scandalous quality of the university: the university is both integrally part of, and subjected to, the city, and is, at the same time (and this is the paradox) insulated from, marginal to, and transcendent of, the values of the marketplace. From the famous figures of the past that he loved most—Plato, Campanella, Bacon—Vico had learned that all speculations about education are monotonously, unavoidably placed within a utopian setting. His own speculations are quite different. He muses on education in the context of the university structure, as if it were his utopia. This does not mean that the thought of The Republic, The City of the Sun (1602), and The New Atlantis (1626) as mere essays in utopian political theory. They are utopian politics to the same extent that they are about education. Vico directly faced the truth of this insight.

We have to keep well in mind that Vico lived in a Cartesian world of scientific research, a world within which it is science that established values. He knew that Bacon had traveled to a new continent in order to find in Bensalem a utopian society organized along scientific lines—the values of peace, justice, truth and honor. Vico, who sympathized with Machiavelli’s skepticism about Utopia in chapter XV of The Prince (1513), had no doubt that Bacon’s utopian foundation of education was in fact a strategy of Machiavellian power. This critique of Bacon’s cultural enterprise is unmistakable: the Baconian interpretation of nature, as the opening paragraph of the Study Methods of Our Times remarks, is a thinly disguised project of the Cartesian conquest of nature.

Book VII of The Republic describes the logic of the university curriculum. At the heart of Plato’s educational idea there is a double polemic: one is the banishment of the poets, because poetry poses a moral and intellectual danger, because poets are useless, and because the indulgence in illusionism confused values, and have no idea of the truth. The other is against the sophists, who live in and by the law of the marketplace and make market knowledge a market commodity. Understanding this double polemic is crucial for grasping Vico’s critique of Plato’s vision of the university in ancient Greece, because Vico’s own idea of the university focuses on these two correlated Platonic questions. In The Study Method of Our Times Vico argues for a necessary coordination of the various disciplines into a single unified system as is consonant with a university. As one can easily gather from his Inaugural Orations delivered at the University of Naples where he was an assistant professor, the university is primarily a politeia—a place where students inspired by pragmatic utilitarianism, gather for careers that grow rich. Yet this does not completely exhaust the possibilities of a university. The university also forms a boundary between itself and the world; it is in many ways an anti-world which resists and counters the political-utilitarian values of the world. The alliance between the city and the university—this is Vico’s oblique argument—dissolves exactly because of ethical and political questions.

Ethically, like the Petrarchan Republic of Letters, which he views as an institution apart from the university, the university must be regulated by what he calls honestas. This term is used by the adherents to the Republic of Letters—such as Spinoza and Leibniz—to mean acknowledgment of other possible points of view. Historically, the term honestas was deployed to counter the skeptical ideology of the libertines, those intellectuals who reduce the world of objects for their own despotic dominion.

Politically Vico insists that “No one of you [i.e., the students] will have to swear an oath of fealty to any professor, as happens so often in the sectarianism of the schools.” Thus, a place where individuals teach different things in flat contradiction to one another, the university transcends the particularism of the city interests and the tyranny of individual viewpoints. It is because contradiction is exactly what he expects from the university and from the new knowledge he envisions, that Vico puts “The Discovery of the True Homer” at the very center of both his New Science (1725) and the university curriculum. Indeed, “The Discovery of the True Homer” is the encounter and leave-taking from Plato’s Republic, as it turns into a passionate interrogation of the truth of discovery which makes it coextensive with antiquity.

Like Plato, Vico knew that poetry can neither give moral guidance nor be used to “edify” us. Should we approach literature in that spirit, we will simply reduce literature to an approximation of what we think we need to know, and we will not get anywhere. Against Plato, who no longer believed that Homer could or should be the educator of Hellas, Vico thought that we must look to Homer and Dante (the Tuscan Homer) if we want to penetrate realities denied to the prosaic intellect and hidden by the poetasters, those who are busy promoting themselves and their one-sided views. We read Homer and Dante because their voices cannot be reduced to one single discourse. Homer’s poetry was for Vico the model of the politics of the university. Like the university Vico envisions, Homer and Dante present a universal knowledge made available by an imagination capable of cutting through all partitions and bounderies. The is no lying at the heart of such knowledge—as Plato believed—because poetry is subjectively always true.

Vico, a master etymologist, knew what a university ought to be. In the Middle Ages the word for university—universitas—was thought to mean an universitas facultatum, a school in which all the faculties or branches of knowledge are represented. This etymology, as medieval documents reveal, is false. The word universitas has a legal origin: it designates a plurality or association of persons, such as a college, a guild, or a corporation. Vico exploited this double sense of the word: the university professes to teach universal knowledge, knowledge of the totality of parts, because universum means all-inclusive, composed of many parts—literally “turned into one.”

For Vico, there can be no opposition between scientism and humanism, the offshoot of the misguided quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, a red herring issue promulgated by assorted Straussians in the US, if there ever was one. It also means that for him the university stands halfway between being necessarly subordinate to the government of the city and being a continued oppositional force to it. The university, in short, is best embodied by the contradictory nature of literature, which Vico also makes the model for a necessarily fragmented social order—a unity made of independent parts. Divided against itself, self-contradictory like the Homeric poems, but never neutral—this is the poetic philosophy or Vichian vision of the university, its value, and its bad conscience.

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Lucinus2011-03-31 01:49:09
"Like Plato, Vico knew that poetry can neither give moral guidance nor be used to “edify” us...The[re] is no lying at the heart of such knowledge—as Plato believed—because poetry is subjectively always true."

Is the above meant to be altogether subjectively true but objectively false?

Emanuel Paparella2011-03-31 12:24:30
I am afraid that to remain stuck in logical rationalistic either/or dichotomies such as form/content, subjective/objective, is to utterly miss both the point of Vico’s insight on the poetical and the imaginative as well as the point of the above article on the philosophy of education and the university. To grasp those points one needs to imagine both/and. Even physical reality suggests it, given that at the subatomic quantum mechanic level light can be both a wave and a particle at the same time, and a thing can be in two different places at the same time, and the observer can subjectively change the objectivity of the observed. Of course Mr.Lucinus can retort “so much the worse for reality,” but to deny physical reality is to lose any hope of reaching metaphysical reality out of Plato’s cave; it is in fact the the stuff of logical positivism and extreme rationality devoid of the imaginative and the poetical parading as universal enlightenment… Therein lies the road to madness rationalizing what ought never be rationalized, or to say it with Vico: "alla fine impazzano" [at the end they go mad].

Emanuel Paparella2011-03-31 15:50:09
The memo below from the Yale Universiy President is an encouraging sign that there are places in the world who still treaasure a liberal arts education.

To: Faculty, Students, Staff, Alumni, and Friends of Yale University
From: President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey

We are very pleased to report that, with the enthusiastic support of the Yale Corporation, we have reached agreement with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to create a new liberal arts college that we hope will become a model for Asia. The arrangements and terms outlined in our September 12 memorandum to you have been reaffirmed. In the past six months, we have benefitted from the counsel of faculty, alumni, and students, and we are grateful to many members of our community for their constructive suggestions that have helped to refine our thinking and improve the shape of our partnership with NUS.

In the nineteenth century, Yale was the architect of liberal education as it has come to be practiced in the United States. The Yale-NUS College in Singapore provides the opportunity to adapt and modify that paradigm in collaboration with a leader of higher education in Asia and to develop a new model of residential education for the most populous region of the world. The Yale-NUS partnership allows us to re-imagine liberal education for a new century and build a college literally “from the ground up.” The new college will incorporate four elements that are still uncommon in the region:

(1) The curriculum will synthesize Western and Asian perspectives as part of an integrated general education program spanning the first two years before students concentrate on a major. A substantial period devoted to general education is very unusual in Asia, where students ordinarily choose to specialize in a field of study or pursue a professional degree before they matriculate.

(2) The pedagogy will emphasize critical thinking and classroom interaction. Most of the classes will be taught seminar-style with fewer than 18 students.

(3) Residential colleges, modeled on those here at Yale, will be devoted to creating a sense of community where living and learning are intentionally integrated.

(4) A rich array of extracurricular activities will focus especially on developing leadership skills and teamwork and encouraging community service.

We expect that the curricular and extracurricular innovations introduced in the college will spread back to our own campus. We also believe the new college can have a profound impact on the massive investments now being made in higher education throughout Asia.

Most of the details of the new partnership were developed by faculty committees during the 2009-10 academic year. They were explained in our September 12 memorandum and refined during the course of the fall 2010 public discussion of this initiative.

Our agreement with NUS incorporates the language protecting academic freedom that we shared earlier and affirms consistency with Yale’s policies on non-discrimination. At the suggestion of several members of the Yale faculty, we are also creating a standing consultative committee composed equally of faculty from Yale and NUS that will help bridge cultures and address differences in approaches and practices. It will be available to all faculty, students, staff, and administrators at the new college who may have questions about the college’s operations.

As we reported previously, half the members of the Governing Board that oversees the College will be Yale nominees. And students will graduate from Yale-NUS College with a degree from the National University of Singapore.

The campus is being designed for a student body of 1,000, with a faculty of about 100. The faculty will be hired by search committees comprised initially of Yale and NUS faculty. Thereafter, candidates nominated for tenure by the faculty of the new college will require the approval of the Provosts of Yale and of NUS. Although we expect the college to hire its own permanent faculty, we are hopeful that Yale faculty members will wish to teach a short course there or visit for a semester or a year. We are delighted that there have already been a number of volunteers.

When we wrote to you in September, we were not yet assured of a capital budget sufficient to create a campus appropriate to our aspirations for the new college. We are pleased to report now our thorough satisfaction with the progress made in designing the college campus, and the funding that has been made available for the college’s construction. And, as we indicated in September, Yale will not be required to provide any financial support for the new college.

The campus will include three residential colleges of approximately 330 students each. We are delighted with the progress that has been made in designing a facility of which Yale can be proud; we are fortunate that one of the architects retained to design Yale-NUS College is Stephen Kieran, who has been responsible for the renovation of six of our residential colleges.

Although the final architectural plans will take time to complete, the design of the residential colleges will include all of the features recommended by our faculty committee. There will be a separate dining room for each residential college that can serve as a hub of residential life, and each college will have its own courtyard, buttery and common room. There will be office suites and residences in each college for both the master and residential college dean (who will be called rector and vice rector). Students will live in four- or six-person suites, and there will be freshman counselors in each college. More faculty will live in the residential colleges than at Yale, and each college will have numerous classrooms and faculty offices.

In addition to the three residential colleges, the core campus will include space for academic and extracurricular activities. Students and faculty will also have the benefit of access to the facilities of the main NUS campus, which is across the highway from but well-connected to the new college.

The plan is to admit a first cohort of students for the 2013-14 academic year, and a search to identify a President for the new college will begin immediately. Meanwhile, as reported in September, Charles Bailyn, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics, will serve as the inaugural Dean of the Faculty. Charles will lead the faculty recruitment processes, and he will go to Singapore for the first year of the college’s operation. Faculty interested in teaching in Singapore should contact Professor Bailyn or one of us.

We are well aware that there are challenges associated with embarking on such a bold initiative, but the opportunity to help educate a new generation of global leaders and thinkers for Asia is a compelling inspiration. Yale’s traditions have placed it at the forefront of educating capable leaders for centuries, and the collaboration with NUS offers a chance to help do so more directly in an important region of the world.

After extensive discussion and reflection, we are confident that the leadership of the National University of Singapore shares our intention to create an outstanding and innovative undergraduate program that is unparalleled in Asia. We are excited by the prospect. We will provide periodic reports on progress as we proceed.

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