After much dipping of my toes in the water and gauging of the depth of the pool, I have decided to get back into blogging again. However in doing so, I want to make a fundamental change in the way I go about blogging and why I am doing it.
In the past, I have blogged about my observations on the world around me. Two of these blogs were about politics, and one was a travel blog which I kept during my initial travels around Europe in 2006-07. They were fun, but after a while I stopped keeping them, because I wasn’t really contributing anything that interesting. My politics blogs were mainly the views of an outsider looking in, and thus what I had to say was not particularly more noteworthy than what any other unprivileged observer might say. I think I realized this, hence my waning interest.
The travel blog was a somewhat different story. I did not stop blogging because I had stopped traveling. I stopped blogging because the way in which I travelled had changed. My first two years of travel were an almost overwhelming cacophony of new experiences, and the writing reflected that. Once I moved to Scotland, that changed. As I de-assimilated from American life, the rest of the world became less imposing, and that in turn made it less overwhelming to my senses. A blog predicated on quick, witty observations of what were to me entirely new cultures was no longer suitable to an experience of cultural immersion. And so the travel blog stopped because the format was no longer relevant to the world I was living in.
I hope that this blog will be something different. In the past, my blogging was reactive – commenting on a political event or travel experience. I want this blog to be creative. My mind today requires a different form of expression than it did even a year ago. While politics remain fascinating, I am pretty much resigned and resolved that politics will not be my life. So what will?
Since tutoring my first course at the University, I have become more and more interested in education as a field of thought for its own sake. I do not only mean teaching, but rather the philosophy of education. My new life, my life after Washington, DC, has been one immersed in two environments that had been foreign to me: the city of Edinburgh and its University.
Edinburgh as a city is remarkable because it is one of the few world capitals you will find where the number of statues of writers and philosophers handily outnumber those statues of generals and politicians. For a variety of reasons, modern Edinburgh is a place where the life of the mind has been nourished in a way rarely found in other cities. One of the ways in which that life of the mind is institutionalised and given form is in the University of Edinburgh, which since its chartering has always been an integral part of city life.
What this immersive experience has made me appreciate is the importance of the life of the mind and the ways in which this important aspect of both our identities as people, and of our quality of life, is one of our most important cultural heritages, and is also under clear and present danger of being marginalized by a society that appears to be moving on from those values. As my third year in Edinburgh closes, and year four begins, I have seen both the amazing things that can come from education, as well as the crassness and misunderstanding that threaten its future survival.
Education today is divided between humanist and economist educational philosophies. Those who place a priority on humanist education believe that the life of the mind is a goal worth pursuing in and of itself; their opposites, the economists, believe that the priority in education should be in preparing the recipient to participate in the (global) economy. While individual subject areas of each programme of study may overlap, at their essences the humanist and economist world views are not compatible. It is a fundamental difference over whether education is for building an autonomous actor capable of a wide range of intellectual activities, or an alienated component of an economy programmed for a particular (and hence limited) function with its identity imposed from the outside and defined in market terms. In short, will the product of an education be a creative humanist or a productive economist?
I do not believe that these opposing views can be reconciled, but they can be accommodated. A choice must be made between one emphasis or the other – to emphasize both is to emphasize neither. And that is where we are right now. In an effort to make the life of the mind relevant, humanist education has been justified in economist language. The result is satisfying to neither party, but this mistaken idea, that good analysts of poetry are thus trained to be good writers of business memorandums, is one that is gaining increasing traction as education reformers seek to split the difference in order to be more competitive in the global marketplace.
The purpose of this blog, then, is to examine what has gone wrong in the philosophy of education and how it can be made better. The purpose of humanist education is to make the student a better inhabitant of the world around him. If he is able to master all subjects but the one of his profession, then indeed a humanist education has failed him. But the solution is not to destroy humanism from within with economist sleeper agents in the form of standardized tests or “impact” assessments, nor is it to replace the humanist programme in its entirety with one of economist origins. Instead, the question needs to be how to make humanism better – and if humanism is failing to prepare students for life in all its complexity, including economic life, then this is a pressing and dire challenge indeed.