Breadth Work

I would love to share ideas and to be critiqued at work. But it is not that kind of environment. So instead, I torture myself by reading the works of authors from the past who I doubt I will ever live up to.
My experience at the educational institution where I work has been that though I inherited nothing, I am expected to give, and not say anything when my resources are poached - though that means needing to find something new to use. My view on this overall state of affairs is that I should only share some, not all, of what I have assembled. (Well, I think I actually would have spilt all my tools in the instance when I was asked to hand over sections of a course. I would have done so because in some respects I am about as advanced as a 4-year-old ripe only for board games "in which there is no strategy". Except I encountered a hostile heir, who was possibly even unable to take it all in. So in that case, I only passed some things on. Please note, what I am passing on here are merely carefully amassed resources, ranging from exercises, to expectations, to objectives, gathered out of necessity as I have found typical college handbooks to be seriously wanting. So I wish to stress that what I consider I possess is not actually my own, but rather what I have synthesised in order to pass on to students what I consider to be a full and working tool box.)
All of this to say that it is my assessment, since I am mostly self-taught in pedagogy, that I must therefore be wild and in need of serious scholastic grooming. But every now and again I come across resources that seem to spell out in neon that, even if I am untamed, I am on the right track.

One such orienting resource is the list published by Sophie Blumet guiding a study conducted with Howard Gardner (the Harvard educationalist) as to the parameters of a liberal arts education, which include:
  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines;     
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural/physical sciences;     
  • Engendering communication skills in various media;     
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities;     
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives;     
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them; and     
  • Reflecting on ways to contribute to society as a citizen.
It almost verbatim echoes the definition of a university education forwarded by Giambattista Vico in his speech addressed to students on the meaning of a university education entitled, "The Heroic Mind".
When I began teaching, at which time I desperately strove to imitate the kinds of classes I had taken at my Ivy League alma mater, before the age of the internet, and before I became clearer about pedagogy, I had perused Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct, and retained from that book what I will shorthand as 'breadth of approach'. The Blumet/Garnder list above captures the gist of what I understood breadth to mean, even back then. I would like to point out the ubiquity of this breadth, conspicuous even in the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, which falls short just where it fails to conceive of the telos of education as the formation of a good citizen.
This past week, I suddenly felt a need to revisit Barzun, and am astounded by just how much what he wrote is being reformulated by the contemporary educationalists that I try to keep up on. Barzun's breadth of approach is multidisciplinary, and includes an awareness of the political implications of thought. This should be straight forward to anyone - we all know it was to his possibly more famous colleague, Lionel Trilling.

Trilling writes that if politics is not understood as imagination and mind, imagination and mind will become a kind of politics we don't like. That kind of statement can only be made if one is attempting to gain a grasp of the bigger picture. Trying to see it requires asking bigger questions. As I mentioned, Gardner (in his recent work) is a proponent of the need to tackle big questions. One of his recent posts, asking, "Should we require all students to take philosophy?" ends by responding to attacks on philosophy as lacking practical knowledge by calling on its ability to ponder life's bigger questions in the best possible way.
I would add to that defense what I feel to be of burning importance at this time: the need to tell all students - regardless of their field of study - that philosophy, as conceived by Aristotle, has an ethical prerequisite involving exercises in discernment. Without this, no politics for anyone!
So, going back to Barzun, consider this: "And when the mind has grasped in several contexts the effect of circumstance, the nature of partisanship, the role of chance, and the influence of leaders and bunglers, the student of history who has discussed with others these potent imponderables may become not only a better judge of public policy and politicians, but also a more tolerant person." What a beautiful summary of how broad (so also historical), attentive reading can be an exercise in character building - or should I say character bildung (sorry, bad Humboldtian pun).
Another gem essay of Barzun's, which outlines another of the values on the Gardner list cited above, is entitled, "Math and Science are Liberal Arts".  It demonstrates through effective examples how basic compositional skills are needed by scientists if they are to get their point across. It also shows how the lack of common sense in the teaching of these subjects leads to their popular demise. It shows many interesting things that he says so effectively, summarising it does it a disservice.
And while comparing one's own capacities to those evinced in such works shows just how far one has yet to go, others would have educational goals narrowed at this time. For example, a green colleague who was asked to list the various ways in which a topic can be approached, claimed that any kind of list is off-putting, including those that serve as reminders of the topics of invention. Yet not one breath later this same person wanted a list where this would narrow down their job. So, the problem is not in lists but in the work of the responsibility of the freedom of having options.

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