Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Students Should Learn in College

This is a finished version of a post first drafted in 2005.  On the way are posts about some of the books I've been reading this month.

K. Anthony Appiah in Slate on what students should learn in college:
I've been on committees at a couple of great universities charged with the task and, putting aside the political difficulties (which I guess you can do, if you have a magic wand) you come to see it's one of those problems you can't solve, only manage. Here's the basic dilemma: If you say that a general education should teach you all the stuff worth knowing, there's far too much to fit around a major in a four-year education. If you say, on the other hand, that it should teach you only the essentials, there's too little. You can live a perfectly decent life with what you have to know just to get out of high school; indeed, many people do.
That dilemma is why you can't put aside the political and, more broadly, the philosophical.  Prof. Appiah has settled on a combined platform of equipping students with mathematical tools to participate in the policy debates of society and also broadening them beyond a parochially national perspective.  Call it technocratic cosmopolitanism.  Dude, at least it's an ethos.

But, it is an ethos.  This is a solution to a philosophical problem.   Assuming the purpose of teaching is to improve students' lives, answering the question, "What should a university teach?" requires answering the question, "What is the good life?" or "How shall we live?"  When we seek to answer that question in a communal context, like a university, and act on our answer, we're also engaging in politics.

But seeking to set aside the political, which in our society almost always involves setting aside normative philosophical judgments, prevents us from judging the solution in the proper context.

Some colleges judge knowledge of the Bible to be more important than courses in statistics or a junior year abroad.  If he hadn't set aside the political and, by implication, normative philosophical considerations, Prof. Appiah might be able to persuade them.

Bonus Big Lebowski/Walter Sobchak/Slate content: "Walter Sobchak, Neocon: The prescient politics of The Big Lebowski".

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