Understanding in Education

By Thomas Kazakoff

Individuals who attend university are faced with a multitude of varied challenges once they leave the comforts of academia. The function of any university is purportedly to provide persons with the skills to confront these obstacles, and overcome them, resulting in financial success. This rudimentary understanding of universities is promoted in public education, which underestimates the greater potential of a university experience. Rather than merely equipping outgoing students with practical job skills that lead to individual happiness, universities have the potential to serve as a communal beacon for understanding and collective knowledge. This discrepancy in the function of higher education institutions underlines a challenge in understanding the differences between three central forms of education: civic, liberal and political. A civic education instills the virtues of the state into potential citizens, allowing them to become good citizens. A liberal education aims for a holistic understanding of individuals, articulating what it means to be a good human being. A political education enables those with a liberal education to extend their understanding to others, developing a greater body of knowledge with the goal of fostering a prosperous community of motivated individuals with whom to grow and discuss. This expanded notion of universities is often not achieved, and it is threatened by a multitude of factors both internal and external.

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, recounts his experience in the changing landscape of universities throughout the nineteen sixties as a teacher at Cornell, identifying a central failing in the accommodating trends of universities. Michael Oakeshott observes a failing of universities with respect to the form of political education. Oakeshott explains that the general empirical, positivist rendition of political education presented in universities forgoes a nuanced understanding of political action. This misaligns political education to strictly practical ends, obscuring the larger communal “truth” oriented goals. Kenneth Minogue notes similar concerns in his work, The Concept of a University, expressing doubt about the function of the modern university. He suggests that universities have strayed from the path of “truth”, failing to put the “theory into practice.” This is similar to Bloom’s worries, but differs in content, while reviewing the evolution of the social and practical functions of universities. The three authors demonstrate a passion for all three forms of education, emphasizing the cohesion needed to fulfill the potential of a comprehensive education. This education is functionally administered through discussions and questioning, by and from students as well as educators. The experience of questioning is the modus operandi of fostering education and is primarily useful for political education. A thorough understanding of how best to provide students with engaging questions furthers our understanding of political education, and how it maximizes civic and liberal education to their fullest potential.

Imparting knowledge to students should not be understood as merely providing a checklist of facts to be regurgitated. Rather, one needs to guide intelligent discussion and foster thought provoking insights. This furthers the ultimate goal of building a thriving political community. The process of answering and then providing questions for students to consider is the linchpin in developing this political community as it allows students to develop their own insights. However, the difficulty lies in assessing what students are struggling to understand because their own questioning may not articulate these issues. Free-form discussion provides the best format to assist students in their development, as its naturalistic, conversational tone allows for comfortable reflection. Additionally, it provides the possibility for fun, something students often complain is lacking after trying to engage in a poor lecture. Discussions engage students in every discipline better than any other method except the most excellent of lectures, and it is especially potent for a political education. Asking questions empowers students with a sense of agency and exploration, while an educator’s questions allow for a natural understanding of concepts. This mirrors classical philosophical discourse, while also grounding discussion in personal interaction which is inherent to all forms of politics. Mastering discussion and questioning allows an educator to maximize liberal education. Universities provide an ample environment in which to develop political education; however, if the university is lacking in quality, it will not be able to achieve this. Allan Bloom notes that while modern universities attempt to provide an education to students through a combination of lecture and communal activities, they fail to achieve their goal: “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines… This democracy is really an anarchy… In short there is no vision… The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”[1] Bloom explains that universities originated in the classical Greek tradition of the Academy but have since become divorced from their foundations. The university is modeled after Socratic teachings in an effort to actualize the philosophic experience with a community of motivated individuals. However, the university does not succeed in this goal, and it risks losing its essence as a result: “The philosophic life is not the university. Until the nineteenth century most philosophers had nothing to do with universities, and perhaps the greatest abhorred them. One cannot imagine Socrates as a professor… But Socrates is of the essence of the university.”[2] Bloom recounts his understanding of the modern university to call attention to this problem and its larger implication for students entering higher education.

Bloom articulates his perspective on universities by first explaining how the American culture emphasizes individuality to the point of corrupting civic identity. This idea is explained with reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America, which explicates and predicts the effects of democracy on American civic education. Bloom explains that the civic education of America promotes the importance of each individual who regards him or herself as equal to all others. This results in a value system in which everyone’s value is relative in worth only to that individual, making the pursuit of an absolute “truth” difficult to comprehend. Bloom identifies the rampant “celebritism” of individuals who can articulate their worth to others: “Though the values, the horizons, the tables of good and evil that originate in the self cannot be said to be true or false, cannot be derived from the common feeling of mankind or justified by the universal standards of reason, they are not equal, contrary to what vulgar teachers of value theory believe… The individual value of one man becomes the polestar for many others whose own experience provides them with no guidance.”[3] Democracy in America, for Bloom, reinforces mediocrity of both students and educators, as each individual’s value system is considered important, thus resulting in an environment of un-challenging tolerance. This is threatening to the goals of a political education, as the occasional discomfort or “hard talk” serves only to advance the collective understanding of the community. Furthermore, this results in further stratification of individuals rather than bringing them together in a communal atmosphere, ironically contradicting the professed noble intentions of equality: “Simply, the university is not distinctive. Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made… What we see happening in general happened here [in Universities] too; the insistent demand for greater community ended in greater isolation.”[4] Bloom provides an intelligent examination of the structure of the modern university, and how best to avoid furthering the downtrend he laments. Oakeshott, in comparison, discusses the impact of empirical evaluation on political education propagated by mainstream educational systems. Political education, when framed within an empirical perspective, loses its essence and is undervalued.

Political education must encompass more than a reductionist or entirely theoretical account of learning. Oakeshott avoids mischaracterizing politics as merely abstract knowledge or education, instead defining politics from a holistic understanding: “We should not, therefore, seek a definition of politics in order to deduce from it the character of political knowledge and education, but rather observe the kind of knowledge of education which is inherent in any understanding of political activity, and use this observation of improving our understanding of politics.”[5] This comprehensive approach identifies the fallacy of assuming that political activity always precedes political ideology, when in fact, the opposite can be true. Political ideology is derived from the understanding of concepts that must be discussed and investigated at length to gain a complete comprehension. Empirically deriving political ideology exclusively from empirical observation negates this cumulative understanding, and misconstrues political activity as being purely ideologically motivated. Analyzing political activity is not without merit or worth; it should be avoided when it is practiced exclusively, as opposed to doing so in conjunction with ideological analysis. Understanding the nature of political activity engages the student in sympathy, a necessary process for those who aspire to effectively demonstrate their political thinking. Oakeshott is concerned about devaluing political activity through empirical investigation, advocating for a balance between qualitative and quantitative investigation. The relationship between political ideology and political activity should be understood holistically, and in education should be communicated as such. Oakeshott elucidates the importance of this relationship, highlighting the necessity of considering viewpoints outside of one’s traditional political thinking: “The fruits of political education will appear in the manner in which we think and speak about politics and perhaps in the manner in which we conduct our political activity… The more profound our understanding of political activity, the less we shall be at the mercy of plausible but mistaken analogy… the more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us.”[6] Oakeshott’s essay warns of the danger of limiting one’s understanding of political thought through any one framework, challenging political education to utilize multiple methods.

Minogue develops his understanding of the university by demonstrating the inherent differences between general education, society, and the rise of the notion of the practical worth of a university education. Universities are limited by the societal understanding of their practical worth; university is viewed as merely a stage of life that will prepare the student for the rest of his career. Minogue maintains that this perspective corrupts the quality of universities by shifting their priorities from the understanding of knowledge to societal concerns: “For all views that the university does or ought to serve ‘society,’ that it ought to be the instrument of something external to the academic world, are devices for denying academic independence, and for imposing alien values upon it.” This emphasis on the practical value of a university misconstrues the purpose of academic learning, lessening both the quality of the students engaging in education and the educators fostering it. The educator becomes focused on the quantity of research output, rather than quality, and limits their understanding of knowledge by modeling their lectures on efficiency. The student, therefore, is not given a proper opportunity to engage in the communal understanding of the material because the format of his/her path is limited by the societal goals set for the university. Minogue explains that the student enters the university knowing virtually nothing, necessitating the need for excellent questioning, and excellent answers: “The undergraduate is a Socrates, whose wisdom consists in the fact that he knows nothing. He is therefore a questioner; nor does he stop at a first question, but as an exposition proceeds he must be a continual questioner… even the most corrupt undergraduate… cannot help, by the tasks which his presence involves, going some small way to maintaining academic vitality.”[7] Minogue identifies this problem not to condemn the worth of practical experience, but to highlight its discordance with academic investigation.

He elucidates this through the use of an extended metaphor involving a society contained in a single house. The “House” has many “Rooms” dedicated to the production of food, religious worship, and academia. The “Academic Room” collects objects to retain knowledge from the past, reviews literature, and hosts teaching sessions for the young and interested. This initial group of students are descended from the wise members of the “House” who see the worth in an independent “Room” dedicated to knowledge. Eventually the people who regularly inhabit all of the others “Rooms” of the “House” begin to expect their children to attend the “Academic Room”, in order to attain the associations of intelligence and worth given to those who attend the “Academic Room”. Furthermore, they expect the “Room” that adjudicates polices that govern the whole “House” to begin drafting policy on the “Academic Room”, ensuring it will facilitate these larger societal goals. Minogue’s metaphor demonstrates that the goals of a civic education, when put into practice, change the nature of the liberal education to fit its description, justified through an already corrupt political education possessed by the citizens of the “House” through their understanding of their individual political thinking: “…the Academic Room in the House has become crowded with a new collection of people who do not quite understand what the point of the room is. They are half impressed by what they have found, but a little baffled also… They believe the Room is out of date and in need of a shakeup. If they get their way, they will have made the Academic Room indistinguishable from the rest of the house.”[8] Minogue recognizes the importance of the university as a distinct institution, capable of achieving its goals when unhindered by the interests of the larger societal body. Furthermore, Minogue recognizes that the university must avoid ideological mandates, or risk committing the same errors as the rest of the “House”. The independent liberal education provided in academia is distinct in its pursuit of “truth” and thus must be left unbothered by larger societal concerns.  The university can only hope to guide society through its understanding of knowledge.

It is clear that a delicate balance must be maintained between a civic, liberal and political education. Bloom articulates his understanding of the university to reinforce the importance of challenging students who enter the communal discussion, ensuring a truly diverse political community, and ultimately, superior citizens. Oakeshott notes that a comprehensive understanding of politics in academia results in the best understanding of political thought, as opposed to a strictly empirical or theological perspective. Minogue’s writings demonstrate an understanding of both these works, supporting the need for an independent education system to ensure the best liberal education through the articulation of the best political education. A good civic education naturally follows the proper implementation of liberal and political educations, as citizens are guided by the knowledge of the community of unconstrained academics. The improvement of society is necessarily tied to the development of an understanding of its own nature. Universities must continue to maintain their independent pursuit of knowledge, or face assimilation into the important, but ultimately misaligned, realm of civic education.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 337.

[2] Ibid, 272.

[3] Ibid, 200-201.

[4] Ibid. 337-338.

[5] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in politics and other essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 42.

[6] Ibid, 66.

[7] Kenneth Minogue, The Concept of a University (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1973

[8] Ibid, 102.