The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The End of Learning

Just taking a moment to reflect on a passage from Simon Raven's The Roses of Picardie (1980). I haven't mentioned this in writing about Raven, because this politics are the least interesting thing about him, but he's the most conservative novelist whose works I like (Robertson Davies is a parlor pink in comparison). He can, on occasion, be virulent in his conservatism, but more often he's amusing and trenchant. In Roses, he brings back from Places Where They Sing (1970), Ivor Winstanley, a conservative member of his fictional Cambridge institution, Lancaster College, and has the older, established fellow discussing education with "Len," a junior who wishes to be a fellow:
"That's just what you would think, Ive. Here's that grotty Len, you think, just a typical lower-class student, choosing one of those absurd new subjects which we have to let them do because they're too stupid do anything else and we've got to go with the political fashion and find some excuse for letting them stay here. So this Len, we let him write a thesis about some rubbish called creative therapies, which keeps him happy, and stops him making trouble. That's what you think, isn't it Ive?"

"Roughly....I must admit...yes."

"You don't understand a thing, man. You don't understand that what I really want....what a lot of us really to be just the same as you. Only we can't be, see? We weren't brought up to it; we weren't taught the right things. We weren't taught the ancient languages, or even the modern ones, so's you'd notice. We weren't told about French Painting or Classical Music, or how many balls on a baron's coronet or how to talk. We weren't even taught proper history, only the the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the crappy-arse labour movement; no kings or battles for us, no Boargias, and no Caesars. . . . Now, Ive, we were just crammed full of balls full about self-expression, and equality, and a new society, ad told to go forth and build the bloody thing. And since it was the only way out, since it was that or the shop floor, we obeyed; we went along with their terms, Ive, which for most of us meant strictly social studies. Science or medicine we were allowed if we had a bent for them, but your sort of Latin and Greek palaver--never."
Now, this explosion (rather like Raven's splenetic animosity to student movements in Places Where They Sing--is readily assailable on specifics, but it seems to me that there are two notes that ring true.

The first, that education is becoming coterminous with career training was highlighted in 2015 when Wisconsin Scott Walker proposed changing "the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with 'meet the state’s workforce needs.'” {Yes, Walker denied having intended the deletion; as the linked article shows, the denial conflicts with the evidence.]

My point is not to hold out Walker s a uniquely bad actor, but rather to suggest that his viewpoint has become too widely held. Back in 2013, I quoted David Brooks's distinction between "technical" and "practical" knowledge, and asked:
Guess what doesn't even make the cut in Brooks's schema? You guessed it, what Schulman describes as "the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years," or, as Werner Jaeger, encapsulating the education of the ancient Greeks would put it, padeia, "the shaping of Greek character through a union of civilization, tradition, literature, and philosophy." (See Clara Claiborne Park's more recent (1982) appraisal and critique of Jaeger's magnum opus.) The point of education is education, not merely equipping the student for her or his role in the market economy; that kind of technical equipping vision of education smacks a little bit of the feared "Huxlean Nightmare" predicted by Collins and Skover in the 1990s. Up through my own law school years, most of the academics I met believed, however wryly, in the dream of an expanded base of education until it became effectively universal; education as finding and unlocking the potentialities of each student, as well as equipping them professionally. With enrollment at an all-time high, universities with unprecedented resources and means of disseminating and sharing information, they nonetheless seem to be by degrees, dwindling into an extended orientation course.
There's another aspect to Raven's critique: Class. The role of educational attainments in establishing one's role in the social hierarchy. Knowing one's way around the Greek and Latin tags that demonstrate membership in the club. That seems to me to be very much on the wane. And that's, as Raven intimates, a very good thing.

Or would be, if the classics were becoming more widely known and appreciated. Instead, we're drowning in content, and all of it is equally disposable--or so it seems. And Raven's not wrong to key these changes to the min-to-late 20th Century; I'm shocked when I consider my own ignorance under the 19th Century's standards--I wince when I look at the Harvard Classics reading list, and realize how many I have never read. And yet I pass as an educated man!

None of this has much to do with the point of Raven's novel--it's one of the two books that pivot between Alms for Oblivion and The First Born of Egypt, and it's the first where his flirtation with the supernatural begins to drift center stage...

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