Why I teach Plato to plumbers

A philosophy professor at a community college, Scott Samuelson explains in The Atlantic  Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers — and  nurses’ aides, veterans, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, etc.

Many seem to think the goal of an education is economic advancement and technological power, writes Samuelson. If that’s true, why “should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history” — or Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

It’s hard to predict who will value the liberal arts, Samuelson writes. After teaching in schools from Emory to Kirkwood Community College (Iowa), he’s found “there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.”

I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer. I was surprised, because I hadn’t assigned the German pessimist. The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination. When he didn’t find what I’d quoted after reading all of volumes one and two of The World as Will and Representation, he started in on Parerga and Paralipomena, where he was eventually successful. Enclosing a short story that he’d recently written on a Schopenhauerian theme, he wrote me a long letter of thanks for inadvertently turning him on to a kindred mind.

. . . I once had a janitor compare his mystical experiences with those of the medieval Sufi al-Ghazali’s. . . . A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?” 

The liberal arts aren’t just for the children of the elites, he concludes. “The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?”

Two-year college students get no respect

Community college students get no respect, writes UCLA Education Professor Mike Rose in Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. Adult students at community colleges and remedial programs want job skills — but they also want an education, Rose writes.

Self-improvement is an American tradition, notes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

. . . Rose crafts rich and moving vignettes of people in tough circumstances who find their way; who get a second, third, or even fourth chance; and who, in a surprising number of cases, reinvent themselves as educated, engaged citizens.

. . . Rose bristles at the way experts talk about students who drop out of community college programs. . .  “People will leave once they develop sufficient skill to get a job,” he says. “This has a positive economic impact [but] . . . is often cited as an illustration of poor people’s inability to delay gratification and form long-term goals. In my experience, most of the people taking those immediate jobs do so because the rent is due, children need to be fed, members of the family are sick.”

Rose worries that remedial education is turning to modules and computer labs, breaking academics into bite-sized skills instruction and multiple-choice quizzes. He wants community college students to “enjoy the best of a liberal education,” Mathews writes.

“Rose’s idealism is the best kind: informed, tough-minded, self-aware,” writes Jim Cullen in a review on History News Network.

(Rose) advocates a more richly contextualized approach attentive to the lived experiences, social capital, and intellectual curiosity even the least prepared students bring to the classroom. (Such an approach would require comparable attention paid to the faculty for such courses, who are typically poorly trained and compensated for such work.) He argues for a similarly integrated approach to vocational training, with literacy and numeracy woven into the fabric of instruction.

Rose ” insists on the civic dimensions of even the most utilitarian of educations,” Cullen concludes.

Colleges will teach cultures, democracy

Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation: Difference, Community, and Democratic Thinking will “infuse questions about difference, community, and democratic thinking into transfer courses in the humanities” at 10 community colleges. The Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment: An American Community College Initiative announced the curriculum and faculty development project, which will be funded by a three-year National Endowment of the Humanities grant.

In the face of ever increasing diversity, intensified globalization, and hardening political polarization, it is more urgent than ever that higher education—and the humanities in particular—offer vehicles through which students expand their knowledge of each other’s cultures and develop skills to work across differences toward shared goals. As a microcosm of our nation’s diversity, community colleges are the ideal public space to infuse such learning, and the humanities—steeped in the practice of entering imaginatively into other people’s lives and worldviews through literature, history, and philosophy—are particularly well-suited to cultivate these capacities.

Ten community colleges will lead the Bridging Cultures project: Chandler-Gilbert Community College (AZ), City University of New York –Kingsborough Community College (NY), County College of Morris (NJ), Georgia Perimeter College (GA), Kapi’olani Community College (HI), Miami Dade College (FL), Middlesex Community College (MA), Mount Wachusett Community College (MA), Lone Star College –Kingwood (TX) and Santa Fe College (FL).


Educating citizens, not just workers

Pressured to prepare graduates for the workforce, America’s higher education system must not forget its civic and democratic mission, asserts A Crucible Moment, a report released today by U.S. Department of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Too few graduates are prepared to be active citizens of a democracy, writes Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, in a guest post on College Inc.

American colleges and universities—and yes, our community colleges too—were created first and foremost to ensure the future of our democracy.

Concerned about global competition, “many public leaders now are actively promoting witheringly reductive versions of college learning” that treat  “history, world cultures, anthropology, philosophy, literature and the other humanities” as an “unaffordable luxury,” Schneider writes.

. . . with short-term certificates, for-profit trade schools and pared-down degree programs now widely touted as models of admirable efficiency, we are far down the path toward creating a two-tiered system in which some students still get a horizon-expanding and civic-minded liberal education, while too many others receive narrow training that is palpably indifferent either to any responsibility for democracy or to the needs of a vibrant economy.

A national forum today, “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Its Civic Mission,” will push back against the focus on college as workforce preparation only.

College majors—including those that prepare students directly for jobs—need to play their own part in teaching students how their chosen fields intersect with a democratic society.

. . . Those preparing for careers in science, health, engineering, education, public service, business, accounting and the trades all need practical experience in examining the kind of public questions with which every field inevitably wrestles. Today’s students need—both for democracy and the economy—not just to analyze issues, but to work together with others from different backgrounds in finding achievable solutions to actively contested questions.

Miami Dade College, which educates more than 150,000 largely first-generation students, has made civic responsibility a degree requirement, Schneider writes. Some universities now require public service or projects that benefit the community.

A Crucible Moment calls for expanding campus-community partnerships, so students can tackle real problems in their communities.

“We do not have to jettison our commitment to civic learning in order to prepare students for success in the knowledge economy,” Schneider writes.