Saturday, December 10, 2011

JOHNSON ON PHILOSOPHY AND THE HUMANITIES


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "These are difficult times for the humanities. Are you concerned about fewer students seeking a degree in philosophy? Are educators downplaying the importance of this discipline? What are the implications of this?"

I recently had a very pleasant dinner at Serafina restaurant in Seattle with two of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department at the University of Washington (last April we did a special event together on philosophy and literature, which can be viewed at Moral Imagination: A discussion of literature and moral awareness on Vimeo), and two of their Ph.D. students, one white, one black. It pleases me to say that UW's Philosophy Department is doing well, attracting undergraduates, graduate students, and has a strong faculty of men and women who are passionate teachers. In fact, we seem to be witnessing a renaissance of interest in philosophy right now, perhaps because when times are difficult men and women more deeply question the world they live in (We should remember that the golden era of ancient Greek philosophy begins after Athens experiences its devastating defeat during the Peloponnesian War.) 
 
 
However, during our dinner conversation I was surprised to learn that this department is eliminating its language requirement for the doctorate. Some years ago the language requirement was also dropped from the MFA in UW's Creative Writing Program, a move that baffled me insofar as anyone living in the increasingly knowledge-based, global economy of the 21st century---a world that has grown smaller---is at a cultural disadvantage if they don't know at least one foreign language. Writers especially should know one or more foreign languages in order to better understand their first language, the one they are born into.
 
 
So if I'm concerned about anything, it is the relaxing of a demanding curriculum in the humanities. Our students want that. They want to be challenged. Consider an opinion piece written by Ian Engelbeck, a senior at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wa. It was published on December 8, 2011 in The Seattle Times. And this young man begins by addressing the budgets cuts in education:
 
 
             "WE are the future," he writes. "It's a phrase that gets thrown around a lot as students once again speak out against budget cuts to our education system. The powers-that-be must invest in 'the future,' they say....Cuts must be made, they allow, but not from the education system! The future must be protected, and cared for and coddled. It's in the hands of the politicians to keep the future alive and bright."
 
 
But in his next paragraph, Mr. Engelbeck says, "Well, there's one problem right there. Another problem is that these students seem to forget whose future it is. It isn't the future of the politicians. It's ours. So why are we letting the politicians do what they want with it? It's our future, and we need to take direct responsibility for it." He then launches into a rather eloquent discussion of what today's students need to do:
 
 
"Like any student, I've had good teachers and bad teachers. Our schools are never going to be filled with only good teachers, but there is one lesson best taught by a bad teacher: The responsibility for one's education can only be one's own.

"It's an often-quoted fact that one of the greatest scientific and political minds this continent has produced only had two years of formal education. This trivia about Benjamin Franklin is sometimes used to point out his unique genius. However, Franklin's genius is not unique. Why did one of 17 children of a candle and soap maker become so successful? As a child, Franklin quickly learned that nobody was going to do anything for him, and this was certainly true of his education. So he read. Franklin was self-educated and self-motivated and every student can be, too. Whether you go to a top-rated school or not, the value of your education is always going to be proportional to the effort you put into it. Students today can learn a lot by Franklin's example.

"Our state and our country are struggling. What is it about students that make us a special class of citizens who cannot be asked to make sacrifices? It is true that young people are the future of our nation, but we limit and paralyze ourselves when we expect to learn exclusively from teachers and professors, especially as we live in a time when information is more accessible than ever.

"Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney and Thomas Edison all dropped out of school at some time or other. Yet they are some of the people who pushed the limits of human knowledge and experience. The purpose of our education system is to mass-produce general knowledge. It is not designed to turn out new Edisons or Einsteins. Students have a choice: How would we like our education? Mass produced? Or made just for us? Surely the answer is "made just for us," for the same reason that the quality of a product handmade by a craftsman outstrips things that come off a production line.

"But craftsmen must be paid for their individual attention. The state cannot make an affordable education system based on that model. But students can. Every student is the craftsman of their own education, whether they realize it or not. We as students must dismiss the idea that we are entitled to a good education. We are not. Good education is not our country's duty to us, but our duty to our country and to ourselves. We cannot forget Kennedy's words: 'Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.' We are the future, with all the responsibility that brings. We are citizens, with all the obligations of a citizen. We must shoulder these responsibilities; we must ensure for ourselves that we are well-educated. Nobody, not teachers or politicians, can do it for us."


I admire very much the wisdom that young Mr. Engelbeck has learned at such a young age. When he goes off to college next year he will be an ideal student, a delight for his professors, and most likely he will be a life-time learner never satisfied with the portion of knowledge he has at any given moment. Perhaps even if the academic department he studies in drops its foreign language requirement, he will pursue language study on his own in recognition that every curriculum by its very nature cannot be complete, and that it isn't true that "one size fits all." His op-ed opinion piece reminds of what I said in a Freshman Convocation address, "Four Years of Adventure," that I delivered at the University of Washington on September 29, 1996, which is reprinted in Charles Johnson: Embracing the World (Authorspress, India, 2011.) In that keynote address, I said:


         You cannot hold the university responsible for your intellectual life.  The only person ultimately responsible for the diversity of your skills and the depth of your knowledge is you.  You must bring the curiosity.  You must bring the passion to--as the Greeks put it--"now thyself."  The only thing your teachers can provide is a strong yet flexible foundation for learning, one that we expect you will build upon for the remainder of your days on this earth.  I think educator Mortimer Adler sums this up very well when he says:

       "What is the real end of learning?  What is the ultimate goal toward which every part of schooling or education is directed?  I think you all know the word that describes it.  It is wisdom.  We would all like to be a little wiser than we are--to have a little more understanding, a little more insight, a little more comprehension of the human situation, of the conditions of our lives, of the world in which we live; to know better the difference between good and evil.  But how long does it take to become wise? The answer is, a lifetime.  Certainly we all know that we cannot become wise in youth.  Nothing would be more preposterous than the supposition that a boy or girl graduating from college could be wise.

       "Nor can you ever have enough wisdom, or too much.  No matter how wise we become little by little in the course of a lifetime, we are always less than perfectly wise, nor are we ever as wise as we can be.  Hence, if wisdom is the ultimate goal of the whole process of learning, then that process must go on for a lifetime.  For any of us to attain even the little wisdom we can acquire in the course of our whole life, there is no stopping short.  We can never become wise enough to say 'Now I can stop learning or thinking.'  Wisdom is hard to come by and is slowly won..."


As the old saying goes, education is not "filling a bucket," but rather "lighting a fire" in our students so that they can go beyond what we as educators and the schools at any given time can offer them, and even challenge and correct us in the future, for all knowledge is provisional and must be constantly refined and revised.

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