The Dying Art of Liberal Arts Education & the Failure of the Human Education Project #edcmooc

The following includes my response to the Fuller talk posted in the Week3 #edcmooc materials: Steve Fuller – Defining Humanity.

1. Why does Professor Fuller say (almost as a joke) that education is ‘a dying art’?

Fuller is speaking of education in the classical sense. Education, as in Liberal Arts. He’s referencing the ‘humanities’ project of educating young people at the university around a prescribed classical curriculum. This is a curriculum very similar to the one of my undergraduate education which was developed around what are called “Great Books.”

I’ve been raised to think that a balanced and rich education included learning the content and philosophies in these classic works, and not just interpreting the works and their original intent but looking at the current world and interpreting what we saw through the lens of these texts. More than this my education seemed to suit me because it espoused and preached the value of exploration of the world around me via constant inquiry.  The key to benefiting from these ‘classical’ texts is having professors and peer who help you interpret and understand them not just in the context in which they were written, but to understand how the messages of these text apply or don’t apply to current day living, and perhaps I’ve outed myself as a “Classics Curmudgeon,” but I will stand my my defense of understanding these texts as necessary to developing critical thought.

Now, if you choose to measure the success the Liberal Arts  by whether or not it’s able to educate universally among all peoples and classes, then yes, it is a failure. And if you consider that most universities no longer offer Liberal Arts as an option because the market has demanded that graduates emerge from university with skills directly applicable to the workforce, then, yes, it practically is a dying art.

2. He talks about the ‘modern artifice’ of enhancement: how might this notion of becoming more ‘fully human’ via enhancement impact on the project of education?

The definition of what is human to the educators of the “Classical” period, as Fuller states, was not achievable by every person.  It’s still not achievable by everyone, but does it mean that it’s irrelevant?  It could be that I’m misinterpreting this question so I’ll restate what I think it’s saying: How does the notion of becoming more human impact the project of education? (to be frank I really don’t like how this question is worded and I feel that it could be framed much better. For example, How does the notion or goal of improving ‘humanity’ impact the project of education. Have we been able to attain any improvement, if so to what extent? ).  It really depends upon the current definition of what is human. I agree that social values and norms surrounding the definition of humanity, for example, ideas such as democracy and equal rights that are supposedly espoused as ‘ideal values’ that modern societies try to uphold are more broadly applied than they were in Plato’s day where class and social status determined if you were ‘human’ or not.  Having a whole class of ‘inhuman’ people made open slavery possible.

If you look at the dismal failure of NCLB in the United States, clearly this attempt to improve public education for all has really done nothing to improve the levels of education for students in the US. In fact, it’s done more harm than good by placing a greater emphasis on memorization and thinking within the context of the tests rather than helping students develop stronger creative and critical thinking skills that will help them participate in the a marketplace that requires higher level and innovative thinking to remain completive.

3.Professor Fuller argues that there’s historical precedent for considering only some homo sapiens to be ‘human’: what are the political implications of this in contemporary times? And how might such a notion position education?

If you think of the fact that basic human rights to regular nourishment, water and shelter are denied to billions of people then yes we haven’t even begun to successfully humanize the rest of the population. His argument is a painful reminder that this definition of humanity may still be only accessible to people in the more affluent nations. In our own times and as nations suffer from conflicts over the scarcity of resources, this idea that only a special few can reap the benefits of this world, only a few can become educated. If you want to continue to assume that humanity is a special club for a network of people. It’s no secret that the struggle to become human has been inextricably intwined with the struggle to conquer nature and become prosperous.  But in a world where a population of over 10 billion people could become a reality in the next century, this idea that we can all live these idealized prosperous lives becomes more and more preposterous. The idea that the world that exists in Graphic Novels about Zombie Apocalypses becomes more realistic than fantasy.

In "The Mark of Gideon," episode Star Trek envisioned a world that was so crowded from overpopulation there was no place to sit & think

In “The Mark of Gideon,” episode Star Trek envisioned a world that was so crowded from overpopulation there was no place to sit & think

4. He suggests that we are questioning the very existence of the ‘human’ because we have failed in the humanist project (for example, we are far from achieving racial, gender or class equality): do you believe this?

I think it’s still possible for people to obtain or achieve this version of ‘ideal humanity’ on a universal basis. However, there are structures in place, economic & societal that make this difficult to achieve. On the other hand this vision of perfect humanity being represented by the erudite and highly educated seems like an elitist paradigm. After all we can’t all become those ‘philosopher kings’ that have nothing to to all day but learn and figure out what’s best for the rest of humanity 😉 Maybe that’s why this old ‘human project’ is outdated. The object should be to educate a chosen few but offer the fertilizer to a greater part of the field and then help those who flourish become the new leaders of tomorrow. Think that recent history especially in the 20th century is replete with example of this in scholarships. But the MOOC allows even more people than those few underprivileged who win scholarships.

5. In claiming that ‘the old humanistic project should not be dropped’, Professor Fuller links his talk to our key theme of re-asserting the human. His stance seems to be that ‘you can only be morally credible’ if you are addressing issues of human freedom and equality. Thinking about education specifically, might we see MOOCs as an example of an ‘old humanistic project’, particularly in the promise they appear to offer for democratisation, equality of access and so on?

MOOCs are part of the democratization of the passing down of knowledge. The fact that it’s accessible to anyone is indeed democratic. The fact that a good many poor people around the globe still don’t have access to the Internet is not so democratic. But I prefer to see Fuller’s suggestion as a warning to change this view of ‘higher education’  and adapt the “Classical” curriculum as well as how and whom we deliver it to. Specifically the world is changed and world views have changed somewhat therefore, the works that are read. In India, a core group of educators is trying to educate one of their lowest social groups: Women. The argument, educated women defer childbirth and have less children. With less mouths to feed and less competition for jobs, the people as a whole become more prosperous.

Photo attribution: Mark of Gideon – http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/The_Mark_of_Gideon_(episode)

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