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42 review for Liberal Education

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Mayer

    Mark Van Doren (along with Carl Van Doren and Mortimer Adler) was one of the most well read intellectuals of the 20th century. As much about philosophy as it is about education, this book (one our recently reclassed books books I see) is brimming with great quotes (I have about 17 slips of paper marking passages and quotes I am revisiting) from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Emerson. Written during WWII, his criticism of American education, particularly the college elective system, is just as Mark Van Doren (along with Carl Van Doren and Mortimer Adler) was one of the most well read intellectuals of the 20th century. As much about philosophy as it is about education, this book (one our recently reclassed books books I see) is brimming with great quotes (I have about 17 slips of paper marking passages and quotes I am revisiting) from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Emerson. Written during WWII, his criticism of American education, particularly the college elective system, is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. This gist of this book is that we need to return to the knowledge offered by the great books, that learning is a life long process--you can't start soon enough and it never ends, and that we can never be educated enough. If you have read and enjoyed Adler's How to Read a Book, you will derive much joy from this one...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ardyth

    I mostly review books beyond the West on here, and don't say much about classics of the Western canon... it's not because I have issues with them, but because I'm sick of hearing about them from people whose sincerity is questionable, and whose endless discourse is so tedious that (in my opinion) it hurts the Liberal Arts cause. Imagine my amusement at realizing these blowhards are as traditional as the trivium and quadrivium they like to drone on about. A generation ago Frank Moore Colby observe I mostly review books beyond the West on here, and don't say much about classics of the Western canon... it's not because I have issues with them, but because I'm sick of hearing about them from people whose sincerity is questionable, and whose endless discourse is so tedious that (in my opinion) it hurts the Liberal Arts cause. Imagine my amusement at realizing these blowhards are as traditional as the trivium and quadrivium they like to drone on about. A generation ago Frank Moore Colby observed that those who congratulated themselves in the press upon their classical educations -- the classics, as usual, being under fire -- were singularly inhumane. " 'Philonius' and 'Scientificus' come out about even in dullness, and when old 'Philomathicus' writes from Warwickshire about all that Virgil has done for him, everyone with a grain of good taste is sorry Virgil did it. To the mind of an impartial witness it always ends in a draw. If they did not brag about it, you could no more tell which of them has had the classics and which had not, than you could tell which was vaccinated, if they did not roll up their sleeves. The only thing you can make out of the affair, with scientific certainty, is that in every case either the education is wrong or the wrong man was educated... Men turn to the classics in the hope of meeting precisely the sort of people who would not write these articles on the classics." (p 44) What struck me most about this book (originally published 1943, updated in 1948 and reprinted in 1959 -- the edition I read) was the extent to which Van Doren recognized problems with Cold War era "education" that plagued my own upbringing and US discourse now. Noteworthy to consider that this was composed well before the 1960s, an era frequently blamed for contemporary issues in education and book quality, and of course well before social media -- our 21st century scapegoat for all large-scale social ills. "The educated person is free to disagree; and to agree. The first is now the more familiar act, so that many must believe it the sole proof of independence. Either can be proof, and both must be present before we acclaim the man. For only then are we convinced that he has taken truth for master." (p 15) "But the subject of man, always inseparable from the subject of education, remains difficult and obscure, with paradox at its heart because those who deal with it are themselves men. It was never more worth exploring than it is now, when so much that happens dehumanizes, and when there must be a corresponding hunger for knowledge of what after all the human is. Our studies have not been taking this direction."(p18) "When the liberal arts fail to do their work, civilization is a disease." (p 75) That last is one I might have thought excessively dramatic, or even rather droll, only ten years ago. Yet it seems Van Doren knew what he was about. These concerns are certainly relevant to 21st century American troubles. "Tradition is dangerous to the intellect which does not know how to love it, for it can weigh heavily upon weak heads. To accept it is to borrow trouble, for it heaves with controversies and unanswered questions. It has been said that to inherit the tradition of democracy is like inheriting a lawsuit, and this goes for tradition in general. But tradition is most dangerous, and most troublesome, when it is forgotten. It gives strength as well as takes it. It brings life as well as threatens it. It is life fighting to maintain itself in time... We return to tradition not for answers but for questions, and some of those we find are capable, like live wires, of shocking us into a condition of dizziness or extreme heat. It is dangerous, and it is to be feared. But it fears us as well." (p 119-120) "The worst indictment against elementary education at present is that while it sends a minority on to better discipline it leaves the mass of us able to instruct and amuse ourselves only with the cheapest press in history. The indictment is heard every day, nor is it a new one." (p 97) ​ There's a lot of Neil Postman in there! This is not a cry to repeat the educational pattern of what some purveyors of homeschooling products like to claim is "classical education" or "the liberal arts tradition." Rather, it is an examination of what the Liberal Arts, at their root, are meant to achieve, and some thoughts on how to establish college curricula in light of that objective. The Great Books are the means, but much depends on how they are used or misused. Which tradition are we trying to follow, and why? An education in the literatures of Greece and Rome -- particularly Greece -- ought to be a great thing. But for centuries it has been less than that, and a few years ago it was possible for Alfred North Whitehead to say, finally and funereally: "Of all types of man today existing, classical scholars are the most remote from the Greeks of the Periclean times." (p 43) ...the progressive education has got hold of a good tradition; it is not physically brutal, and it makes no monstrous claims on the child's reason. Also, it assumes that the child is to be happy while he learns. So far there is nothing in it newer than Plato, just as there is nothing in it with which a sensible and humane adult could disagree. (p 92) "Modern imagination," says Scott Buchanan, "is notoriously weak and spastic"; and his explanation is our failure in schools to train the memory so that it can hold on to good things. But the good things have to be put there first, no matter with what effort... Education is of the hand as well as of the head and heart... The child comprehends nothing which he is forbidden to touch. (p 96 - 97) Again -- this was written during what is generally considered America's Golden Age. His point is a fair one, but of course the Cold War era was not known for long thinking. Interestingly, Van Doren argues that knowing the East is as important as knowing the West. How few self-proclaimed proponents of the Liberal Arts have bothered with this important continuation! Van Doren shares his thoughts on elementary (we would call "regular") schooling, on university (we would call "graduate") schooling, and on learning in adulthood. His primary focus, however, is the college... an institution which, even in the 1940s, seemed lost on what its role should be. Between high school and university, when degrees were becoming more specialized and focused on usefulness, what should a college do? These days, the problem is even worse... college and university are nearly-interchangeable terms in conversations about American higher ed. To his mind, the years in college are the time for Liberal Arts education. Earlier is too early; university is for specialization and professions -- further studies which don't appeal to or suit every human. But each human deserves, even requires, the Liberal Arts years. Some moments here reminded me of Charlotte Mason: references to Matthew Arnold, a theme of relations between ideas. And some reminded me of the education of Paul Atreides (doubtless because I'm in the middle of rereading Dune). :-D Ultimately, it's about a broad and interdependent feast of subjects, no longer divided into subjects. Art imitates life imitates art, after all. Van Doren sees our choice to divide them as convenient for textbook publishers and a disaster for society. We are irrational artists and illiterate scientists; or at any rate this is true of the intellectual who is proud that he knows no chemistry, and of the technician who reflects his contempt for poetry in the childlike character of his moral and political opinions... Once again there is history behind all this. Bacon's two-fold order of truth -- truth in things and truth in words -- has borne bad fruit; and the determination of Descartes to abandon the study of letters for an education in 'the great book of the world' has done less for the world than he hoped, at the same time it has withered poetry. The poet of an older time who assumed that he could know as uch as any man -- and half a dozen of his species did -- exists no longer... The scientist who is proud of having no imagination does not realize that to this extent he lacks a mind. The poet, meanwhile, who ignores or abuses his intellect seems not to know, though the rest of the world does, that his imagination has grown feeble. (p 147) Unfortunately, by the end, all this elegiac theory without any hints of praxis is a bit frustrating. Van Doren's plan for how to get from here to there: a committee of concerned educators should get together and figure it out. Even if it takes a thousand years. Uh... okay? How, though? His words in this regard are the ultimate ivory tower talk, showing no signs of understanding professors / instructors as people with all the normal people-y loads on their 24 hours each day. I'm left wondering who was his intended audience, and what he thought they would do after reading this. Just talk some more? I don't know! I'm glad I have only myself and our kid to worry about, because I agree with Van Doren that there is a lot riding on this. "To be indifferent which of two opinions is true," says John Locke in language very different from Dante's, "is the right temper of the mind that preserves it from being imposed upon, and disposes it to examine with thst indifferency till it has done its best to find the truth. But to be indifferent whether we embrace falsehood or truth is the great road to error."... The open mind is the one which has begun to think, but we act as if it were one which had stopped doing so because thought can be serious and because it is hard work. We do not doubt well. The good doubter doubts something; we dismiss everything... The thing not to be tolerated is bad thinking. (p 177) "There is but one world in common for those who are awake," said Hericlitus, "but when men are asleep each turns away into a world of his own." It is the love of truth that makes men free in the common light of day. (p 178) As another reviewer mentioned, Van Doren excludes women from every minute of his reflections. Whether this is because he doesn't think women can/should study the vaunted Liberal Arts, or he simply fell into that era's trap of pretending "man" is a synonym for "human" I don't dare speculate. Both seem likely. Even so, for me, as a human / parent / autodidact just trying to make my way in the galaxy, there was a good bit here worth my time. I am reminded again that my natural inclinations towards history and literature are good, but limiting myself to those is grossly limiting myself, period. Van Doren would prescribe working through the old philosophical STEM books right alongside the humanities books: Aristarchus, Euclid, Newton, Einstein, etc. But the very first stop: Pascal and his Pensées. N.B. all emphases are mine. Also, apparently I have almost as much to say as those aforementioned blowhards! ;)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Having served for the past year on a faculty committee charged with revising general education at my university, I thought I would look at this noted past attempt to define liberal education. Reading Van Doren, you begin to realize why the idea has never much caught on in a democratic culture. This is a narrow, fusty view of education--class-bound, agonistic, and absurdly masculinist (in a book filled with quotations and allusions, Van Doren never once cites or refers to a woman). While each sen Having served for the past year on a faculty committee charged with revising general education at my university, I thought I would look at this noted past attempt to define liberal education. Reading Van Doren, you begin to realize why the idea has never much caught on in a democratic culture. This is a narrow, fusty view of education--class-bound, agonistic, and absurdly masculinist (in a book filled with quotations and allusions, Van Doren never once cites or refers to a woman). While each sentence is crafted with lapidary precision, the argument itself--that a free society requires men to lead it who possess a critical sensibility trained by classical reading--is simply repeated rather than developed. The liberal arts need better advocates.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alan

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gary

  6. 4 out of 5

    Syed Hasan

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brian Hauser

  8. 4 out of 5

    Johnny

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jay

  10. 5 out of 5

    Luke

  11. 5 out of 5

    Andrey

  12. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Abeja

  13. 5 out of 5

    Poetry Train

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bob

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kolit

  16. 4 out of 5

    K. P.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Alice

  18. 5 out of 5

    Larry Orr

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rolland

  20. 5 out of 5

    Faith

  21. 5 out of 5

    Seth

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rob Squires

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  24. 5 out of 5

    Scott Shirk

  25. 4 out of 5

    Todd

  26. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

  27. 5 out of 5

    Abdelkhalek Benallou

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bakunin

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  30. 4 out of 5

    Reza رضا

  31. 4 out of 5

    Sophie

  32. 4 out of 5

    bdm

  33. 4 out of 5

    An IncandescentFirefly

  34. 5 out of 5

    Tyson Houpt

  35. 5 out of 5

    SJ Barakony

  36. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

  37. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  38. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

  39. 5 out of 5

    Rohban Zahid

  40. 4 out of 5

    Erwin Nigg

  41. 5 out of 5

    Ahmed

  42. 4 out of 5

    G Hasan

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