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Archive for July, 2009

Learning And/OR Doing?

Looking back at my posts from earlier this summer, I see that I am fixated on how liberal arts education can or should work.  This obsession might  explain why I would spend the money to buy a hardback book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” First, a word of warning about the book: reading it feels like stepping into the mechanic’s shop, or some other “man cave.”  I found lots of the language and metaphors rough and insulting to females, and I am not an easily offended girlie-girl.  ( I can honestly say that I own no other text that uses and extends the metaphor of the “cheap whore” and I wouldn’t have paid the money for this one if I had known that was the case) Once I was able to tune out all the chest-thumping machismo noise, I was able to find some ideas worth exploring. For example, I enjoyed learning more about the history of “work” and what he sees as the turn toward separating “thinking from doing” and the denigration of craftsmanship. I found myself reflecting on various jobs I have worked, and considering more about the concept of “satisfying work.”

The part I was most affected by, however, touches on ideas of learning, and most of those ideas he draws from a work by Iris Murdoch called “The Sovereignty of Good.”  Crawford says:

Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of  “unselfing.” “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and realism is to be connected with virtue…[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” (99-100)

His interpretation of this is that by working on a problem with an objective reality and real consequences, (as doctors and mechanics do) brings to the worker both humility and

“the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just…” “[It] is achieved in an iterated back-and-forth between seeing and doing.  Our vision is improved by acting, as this brings any defect in our perception to vivid awareness.” (100)

This is the whole idea behind active learning, isn’t it?  And I am 100% behind us increasing the amount of active learning, both K-12 and also in higher ed.  But I have to disagree with the notion that the only way to do this is through the trades for this reason: life is more than work.  People may or may not find a way to earn money in a way that “their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger” as Buechner would say.  But they will certainly live among other people and have to sort out relationships and make decisions as citizens, and in all ways live a life.  And so I have always believed that the liberal arts is a way of studying that goes beyond curriculum and that addresses how to live a life. (At least, that is how many of us see it, as in this article in Insider Higher Ed today)

And here is my “real life” example: my son just came back from working at a camp for special needs kids, and he was describing to me the challenges of figuring out how to work with a severely autistic young man who was about the same age as he was.  He had to find ways to get through the mysterious veil that seemed to surround the boy, and my son did find some success at this.  But he was forever changed, I think.  And he said “I couldn’t help but remember the stories I read by Kafka, and sometimes I would get upset thinking of what it must be like to be stuck inside your own mind that way.”  Kafka’s stories were an anchor for him, a way that he had experienced a little of what his camper might be experiencing.  Contrary to the implication that reading books is the same as living in your own head, reading stories is a way to get inside someone else’s head, to experience what they experience, maybe to touch what we call “universal human experience.”

My conclusion, then, is that a good, rich, full, useful education can not be one or the other–learning or doing.  Rather, it is by definition, a combination of learning and doing, reading and visiting important places, making mistakes, moving forward, getting uncomfortable and talking about it, reading what someone wrote hundreds of years ago, and realizing that it is still true, and that we all struggle, every day.

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