Written by Harrison Ho
As the boys of Welton Academy from the American drama film, Dead Poets Society, begin their school year, Headmaster Gale Nolan reminds the students again of the “four pillars” that have brought Welton students success:
Headmaster Gale Nolan asks for the four pillars and introduces the students into Welton Academy
If these “pillars”–tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence–constitute an exceptional, albeit restrictive, education in the eyes of Headmaster Nolan, would the ideal university follow the same tenets? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a university is “a school that offers courses leading to a degree (such as a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree) and where research is done.” If each university did follow this definition, then a university would differ little from a preparatory school education, as both inculcate knowledge into students and reward them with sheets of paper representing levels of achievement. Most undergraduates are not even allowed to research, as research is often reserved for professors and graduate students. However, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his essay “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning”, suggests that there is more to the university than just taking classes and declares that the function of a university is “intellectual culture.” A university “educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it” (Newman, 114). Thus, some universities, particularly those that teach the liberal arts, aim not only to pass on information but also to pass on the ability to use and understand that information. Still, as the liberal arts education has been challenged and modified over decades, a question comes to mind: what constitutes the ideal liberal arts program?
The True Goal of a University
For Cardinal Newman, a 19th century Irish philosopher of education, the goal of a university differs from that of primary school in that the former should help students to learn to think critically. He argues that “the true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University is not Learning or Acquirement, but rather, is Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge” (Newman, 124-125). In a university, “there is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them” (Newman, 120). Learning understood as the acquisition of knowledge is reserved for primary school, when students have not yet developed faculty of judgment necessary to make such comparisons. Because of this, he disdains the university “which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects” (Newman, 129). More important than absorbing information is understanding that information and being able to synthesize ideas. In “A Mathematician’s Lament,” an essay written by Paul Lockhart, a primary school teacher in Brooklyn, NY, the author discusses this idea of pure intake of material ad absurdum. He imagines a situation where “Paint-by-Numbers” is a typical set of core classes in which students learn about painting skills such as “dipping the brush into paint” (Lockhart, 2), but actual expressive painting is reserved for advanced students in higher education. Lockhart proposes that the approach to teaching mathematics in most American schools is just like this “paint-by-numbers” nightmare because the math curriculum nowadays focuses primarily on equations, memorization, and notation. True math is exploration of ideas and critical and imaginative thinking, which are left out in a math education. While Lockhart is most interested in younger children, this absence of higher level thinking from primary school suggests the even greater necessity in college to cultivate students’ critical thought processes. This idea does not apply only to math: many liberal arts subjects, such as philosophy, literature, and psychology, require higher level thinking. Newman states that “a great memory… does not make a philosopher, any more than a dictionary can be called a grammar” (Newman, 121). Therefore, the goal of a university is to support this high–level thinking, which may be absent in the previous educations of students.
Unfortunately, many universities fail to achieve this goal. In Bruce Macfarlane’s essay, “Re-framing Student Academic Freedom: A Capability Perspective,” the author argues that many common university actions tend to stifle the student voice, leading to the infantilization of students. First, he states that “attendance and engagement policies are part of a culture which treats university students as children rather than adults” (Macfarlane, 727). As teachers resort to other methods to test student abilities, they stray away from the real problems plaguing their classes, such as poor teaching and lack of interest among students. Second, he states that academic institutions often “benefit from commercial exploitation” of students, even though they are not employees (Macfarlane, 728). While students may participate in research, senior colleagues and professors often take credit for the work, decreasing the value of the students’ contribution (Macfarlane, 728). Third, “institutions have sought to increasingly domesticate the ‘student voice’” (Macfarlane, 729) to maintain the reputation of the institutions, as students often champion radical points of view. In particular, Macfarlane points out how faculty often manipulate students into giving artificially inflated ratings when evaluating professors and classes, undermining the student voice (Macfarlane, 729-730). This lies in contrast to the developing democratic online system of university evaluation, in which students “design and take central responsibility for evaluation” (Macfarlane, 730). Collectively, these university actions challenge student freedoms by treating students not as scholars but as children whose purposes are to accept the knowledge of professors without question. Immanuel Kant, in his essay, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”, argues that infantilization is a barrier to enlightenment. To define enlightenment, Kant proposes that “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity,” while “immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (Kant, 58). Understood in this sense, enlightenment is the goal of an education. However, students can never practice leaving this “self-incurred immaturity” when faculty disallow students to fully use their own voices.
Student Freedoms in the University
In general, education officials often misunderstand student freedoms. To clarify student freedoms, Macfarlane distinguishes between “negative and positive rights” (Macfarlane, 722): While negative rights exist without the interference of others and include the rights to life and free speech, positive rights require the influence of professors and mentors to fully develop and include literacy and education. (Macfarlane, 723). It is the duty of professors to encourage students to use and develop their positive rights for use in critical thinking; Macfarlane argues that a liberal education is “a key positive right” that allows students to better express their negative rights. Many universities work to ensure negative rights for students but mostly overlook positive rights. According to Macfarlane, these positive rights are perceived as threats to an education instead of a benefit. Macfarlane notes that a fear of liberal education is that it “[implants] specific sets of civic imperatives” (Macfarlane, 725) such as environmentalism. However, liberal education is not “domestication” but “empowerment” (Macfarlane, 725). Rather than injecting ideas into students to believe something, a liberal education should empower students to make their own judgments about ideas. This echoes Newman’s thought that students should not be “possessed with some one object” but instead develop “the elastic force of reason” to analyze new concepts or ideas.
Without the rigidity of an education that solely focuses on indoctrination or the injection of knowledge into young brains, students must instead use the freedom, which cognitive processing, or thinking, requires to explore for themselves. As a result, an education that supports high–level thinking must allow for a different kind of “academic freedom”. As Macfarlane proposes in his essay, discussions of academic freedom mainly deal with the rights of the faculty to publish on whichever topics they wish and to profess their educated opinions without fear of retaliation. Such a liberty has been given to scholars in as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries in medieval European universities (Macfarlane, 719). More recently, several groups and associations, such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), have published statements about academic freedom and promoted tenure and freedom of expression (Macfarlane, 720). While officials often discuss academic freedom with regards to faculty, they rarely discuss academic freedom with regards to students. For example, Macfarlane cites a statement on academic freedom created by the AAUP in 1915 which mentions student freedoms only when discussing the statement’s more central problem of teacher freedoms. (Macfarlane, 720). However, people should not overlook student freedoms: according to Macfarlane, “students, not just faculty, are scholars too” (720). The main goal of a university, as echoed by Newman, is to allow students “Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge” (Newman, 124-125), and students must become scholars to achieve this goal.
However, academic freedom for students also does not mean complete student autonomy; lack of structure in education leads to its own form of tyranny among students. Hannah Arendt echoes this sentiment in her essay The Crisis in Education. She proposes that in an exclusionary “child world” as imagined by certain idealists or even some proponents of the liberal-free paradigm, “the child has not been freed [from the adults] but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority” (Arendt, 178). As students often lose their bearings when encountering new material, a lack of guidance can lead to chaos as students cling to impulsive opinions, old habits, and preconceived notions about concepts as well as their own abilities. Without guidance, they may even summarily dismiss certain subjects and materials. Even though Arendt discusses children, her ideas apply to college students as well, who in starting their new education must reevaluate misconceptions and reexamine previous concepts. As a result, students must learn from faculty and engage in scholarly discourse in order to better evaluate themselves and to gain a new perspective.
A Partnership between Scholars
As Macfarlane emphasizes, college students are in the same intellectual community as professors and should not be denied university opportunities. At the same time, college students have not completed their intellectual journey. According to Arendt, “the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world” (Arendt, 171). A student cannot easily complete this initiation into the world alone. At the end of “The Crisis in Education,” Arendt declares what is education for both teacher and student:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. (Arendt, 193)
Education is a joint process, as teacher and student live in “a common world.” It is a delicate balance between the academic freedom expressed by students and the necessity of experts, specialists, and professional scholars to guide and support. Still, this joint process is only possible if both student and teacher possess a love for the world and a sense of purpose with regard to their being world. As members of the world, the duty of students is to grow up and eventually take responsibility for the world. This responsibility is only achieved if students feel a tangible connection with the world and if students learn about what the world has given to them. In Robert Harrison’s essay “Choosing Your Ancestor,” “guilt… refers to the debt I owe to my future” (Harrison, 98), while simultaneously we are guilty of continuing the legacy of our predecessors (Harrison, 98). Only when students are fully aware of the role between the “future” and the “predecessors” are they ready to become the leaders of the next generation and understand what to do with their lives. In fact, students come to this realization through the mentorship of elders and mentors; this balance between the knowledge of teachers and the personal desires of students ultimately leads to academic freedom.
Instances of this cooperation between students and teachers can be seen in examples ranging from classic texts to modernity. In Dante’s Inferno, the author “in the middle of the journey of our life” finds himself “in a dark wood” (Dante, I. 1-2). Virgil chooses to help Dante and becomes his “master” and “author” (Dante, I. 85-86), guiding him out of the dark wood and passing through Inferno. Still, while Virgil acts as Dante’s guide, Dante himself chooses to interact with those who have been damned and to experience what the damned undergo. As a mentor, Virgil does not impose his own beliefs and allows Dante to decide for himself what is Hell’s situation. While Virgil eventually becomes a father-like figure to Dante, in Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon frequently offers his advice to his son, Haemon, even if the advice is at times misguided. In the play, Creon, the newly crowned ruler of Thebes, sentences Antigone, the daughter of the previous ruler, Oedipus, to execution after Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, who has committed treason. Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone and who endeavors to speak on her behalf, first appeals to his father’s role as a mentor, acknowledging that Creon’s wisdom set his bearings for him (Sophocles, I. 710). However, when Creon tells Haemon to abandon Antigone, Haemon offers his own judgment, showing his father that it is okay, even for a powerful adult, to listen to others, “it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man, to learn many things and not to be too rigid” (Sophocles, I. 796-797). Haemon seems to suggest that Creon himself can learn from the situation and can still change his ways. In addition, rather than listening to his father words only, Haemon makes note of the city’s mourning of Antigone. Haemon goes against his father’s sentiment that a son should be “subordinate to [one’s] father’s will in every way” (Sophocles, I. 714). Instead of following his father’s words only or cutting himself off from any form of mentorship, Haemon argues matters with Creon, who in this instance is failing him as a mentor.
In a modern example, Paul Lockhart, in teaching his geometry classes at school, aims to help students create their own proofs of geometry theorems rather than having them memorize convoluted, unnatural proofs. He disdains the “unattractive” and “obfuscatory” (21) proofs that plague the modern geometry education and provides an example of such a proof:
Unfortunately, these proofs proliferate because their formattings are ideal for teaching millions of students around the country. However, forcing students to learn proofs in this rigid manner discourages creativity and critical thinking. In contrast, Lockhart attempts to instill in his students the ability to come up with proofs using their own intuition. He presents an example that one of his students has created:
While he admits that he has had to provide input in order to make his student’s proof rigorous and clear, his student has used her own collective knowledge to create the central idea of the second proof. The proof is a result of the student developing her own critical thinking. Analogously, a course in philosophy cannot succeed if students argue the exact same points that their teacher argues. Their papers, while masquerading as arguments, are ultimately repetitions of what a teacher might have to say. The better philosophy course would equip students to develop their own arguments and to possibly even hold discussions with their teachers over certain topics. This supports Macfarlane’s central idea that students and teachers are both scholars, and as such have the capabilities to present their own opinions. Through communication among students and teachers, students are able to reach their full potential.
This cooperation between students and teachers resembles the role of citizens in the public sphere. Kant distinguishes between “public use of reason” and “private use of reason” (Kant, 59) in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” Privately, people are to fulfill their obligations of their profession or role, including those of a citizen to pay his taxes and obey the law. Publicly, however, people should be free to question unjust laws or outmoded or inefficient practices. Hannah Arendt, in her essay “What is freedom?” declares that “to be free and to act are the same” (Arendt, 151), an idea present in the Ancient Greek polis “which provided men with a space of appearances where they could act” (Arendt, 152). Thus, a requirement for freedom is for people to use it. Kant, too, advocates for people to utilize their “public use of reason” to express their freedom. Kant presents an example regarding taxes:
The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; even an impudent complaint against such levies, when they should be paid by him, is punished as an outrage (which could lead to general insubordination). This same individual nevertheless does not act against the duty of a citizen if he, as a scholar, expresses his thoughts publicly on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of such taxes. (Kant, 60)
As Kant expresses, public and private use of reason are not contradictory; they are both part of “the [duties] of a citizen.” Thus, citizens can still achieve freedom, through speech and writing in a public forum such as a newspaper, even under a monarchy or the law, which Kant proposes will lead to enlightenment. Still, as imperfect beings, humans face many difficulties obtaining universal enlightenment. Kant proposes that group discourse facilitates this process, stating that “a public [Publikum] should enlighten itself is more likely; indeed, it is nearly inevitable, if only it is granted freedom” (Kant, 59). This situation in the public sphere strongly resembles that in education, as both citizens and students are “scholars.” In addition, students have the freedom of “public use of reason” and “private use of reason.” Privately, students are to learn from their professors. Publicly, students are to work with their professors and school officials by participating in discourse and joint research projects. Macfarlane says that both students and faculty “are members of a community of scholars” and that “both are, in essence, learners.” Thus, both public and private use of reason are available to students, contributing to the students’ pursuit of enlightenment.
Developing a Liberal Education
A liberal arts education that supports this kind of academic freedom must begin with a foundation. Without such a foundation, there is no basis for ideas to connect and build upon past knowledge. Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, attempts to rebuild on his own foundation in order to understand the truths of the world. He compares the process of education in real time with the expansion of a village over many years:
Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy, … one would say that it is chance rather than the will of some men using reason that has arranged them thus. (Descartes, 7)
Just as these “ancient cities” grow and become unwieldy, so does the mind become crowded and the content of thought increasingly incomprehensible. Without “will” and “reason,” the ancient cities are determined arbitrarily by chance. This randomness strongly resembles Newman’s idea of the knowledgeable but ignorant person:
…those earnest but ill-used persons, who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust, having gained nothing really by their anxious labours, except perhaps the habit of application. (Newman, 132)
Such a person described by Newman certainly possesses information, and perhaps some form of knowledge, but he cannot make use of it, reducing the mind to a receptacle of knowledge and little more. The person’s only achievement is “the habit of application,” a goal that is absent from the goals of a liberal education of expansion of mind and connection of concepts. As Newman states, much of the knowledge accumulation occurs in lower education; the goal of higher education is to make sense of all that has been accumulated, to exercise the mind, awaken judgment, practice opinion and articulation, and learn to change. Ideas do not come by “chance,” as Descartes describes of the cities; instead, ideas relate and build on each other. It is through a clear foundation that allows students to facilitate the understanding of new material.
From this foundation, students need to have the freedom to connect concepts and explore. This process is not as straightforward as drilling students on topics. Instead ideas should freely mix as students come to understand more of a certain subject. According to Dan Edelstein and Caroline Hoxby, two Stanford professors who developed the Education as Self Fashioning program, students receive the most fulfillment when content is merged with writing. In fact, the ESF program, which is still a work in progress, combines the “Thinking Matters” requirement and the writing requirements of the freshman year into one course. Edelstein and Hoxby hope that students will be able to understand better what they are doing and how a liberal arts education fits into their lives by taking ESF. Mixing ideas in a college course is not the only need in a liberal education: students of different backgrounds and foundations must work together to learn. Small class sizes not only facilitate discourse with the teacher but discourse among students. Newman himself declares that a university that “merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years” is better than the one which “gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects” (Newman, 129). Macfarlane supports this sentiment, saying that students are scholars and are able to learn from each other. In addition, having effectively two courses in one — a faculty seminar and a writing section — allows students to thoroughly revise material through both discussion and writing. This combination of intensive learning processes and discourse allows students to achieve the best understanding of the material and to expand their capacity for understanding generally.
There are still challenges to developing a liberal education. Conveying many ideas about topics in a non-mechanical process requires time. Edelstein admits that formulating the ESF program required compromises, such as decreasing seminar time to leave room for discussion. In addition, according to Edelstein the ESF pattern is not applicable to certain other Thinking Matters courses, which are often content heavy. In general, classes do not have enough time to express the complete beauty of certain topics. For example, in Leon Simon’s “Math 51H survival tips guide”, the math professor warns that he must present the material “at a pace which makes it difficult to fully appreciate the subtleties and significance of the various definitions and results” of linear algebra. In addition, Lockhart, who advocates for critical thinking in math in grade school, acknowledges that “Art is not a race” (Lockhart, 14), and students cannot expect to have a complete step-by-step understanding of math. It is in the nature of liberal arts that students cannot learn and understand everything about certain topics. However, it is not necessary for students to know exactly where they stand. Student academic freedom implies that students should have some degree of responsibility in choosing their courses and perhaps even in developing one’s own education. Each student should be able to have some judgment of what is his/her best option. As noted earlier, Kant defines enlightenment as “mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity” (Kant, 58), suggesting that the goal of an education is enlightenment. By the time students enter college, it is clear that university students have obtained some level of maturity, as students who have achieved this level of academic prowess are likely motivated. Students should continue to use this maturity to decide what are the best options and to actively participate through speaking and writing to pursue knowledge. This maturity should not be individual; students should be able to listen and discuss with fellow scholars, including both students and professors. This is the students’ duty as members of the academic public sphere.
In the Words of the Poetry Professor
In conclusion, the ideal liberal arts education should focus on academic freedom for the students. However, this freedom is not absolute: rather than being completely independent with one’s decisions, students must cooperate with other scholars to achieve their maximum potential. Academic freedom is the ultimate goal of John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in the movie Dead Poets Society. In one particular scene, he displays his disgust for the overly formal introduction of “Understanding Poetry,” a textbook written by the imaginary Dr. J. Evans Pritchard:
Mr. Keating asks Neil to read a portion of the introduction and subsequently asks his students to rip out the introduction
In reality, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard exists and is based off of Laurence Perrine, author of “Sound and Sense,” another introductory book to poetry. In a central chapter called “Bad Poetry and Good,” Perrine gives a description of judging poetry that inspires the movie textbook:
In judging a poem, as in judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? The first question we need to answer in order to understand the poem. The last two questions are those by which we evaluate it. The first of these measures the poem on a scale of perfection. The second measures it on a scale of significance. And, just as the area of a rectangle is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, breadth and height, so the greatness of a poem is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, perfection and significance. If the poem measures well the first of these scales we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales, we call it a great poem. (Perrine, 198)
However, Perrine acknowledges the fault of this sentiment, immediately stating that “The measurement of a poem is a much more complex process, of course, than the measurement of a rectangle” (Perrine, 198). Perrine suggests that while certain interpretations of poetry are better than others, understanding poetry is not as simple as applying an equation. Ironically, in the movie, while Mr. Keating successfully makes his students enjoy poetry, he ultimately fails in making his students learn poetry, focusing more on carpe diem and less on actual content of the poems. In contrast, Perrine advocates for patience with understanding poetry: “Having formed an opinion and expressed it, do not allow it to petrify. Compare your opinion then with the opinions of others; allow yourself to change it when convinced of its error: in this way you learn.” (Perrine, 203). “Tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence” are not the pillars of a liberal education, and neither is absolute student academic freedom. Instead, to engage in discourse with other scholars and to keep an open mind to concepts and relations are the true pillars of a liberal education.
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