Witness today: the pathetic — and uncanny — Washington circus concerning the debt and the debt ceiling crisis; the economy is still moving at a snail’s pace, now reacting even more negatively to Washington’s ideologically based idiocies; evidence of climate change is everywhere around us; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan baffle the mind, forever responding to terror and poor Western management; U.S. public education is in the toilet, put there by more controversial political brinkmanship, and continuing to ensure we live in a bifurcated society; unemployment is stagnant, as a result, and more and more people out of work or working in jobs well below their capacity; production is at a standstill, and in some places, such as Ohio, industry has left town — Main Street is emptying out; children and women, some of the most vulnerable in our society, are without health care; the gap between the richest of the privileged white and Hispanics and blacks is wider than it’s ever been in history; some of our cities — Newark for instance — are being left in the dust kicked up by the materialism of the few.
These tragic items are but the results of our manmade decline. Let me say this again: if you look around — health care, education, finance, industry, the environment, our deteriorating infrastructure, the decline of certain cities, particularly those inhabited by people of color and immigrants — every single problem we have today exists because we’ve made it so. Our educated elite have taken us down.
How can the most powerful nation in history come to this? The answer, I dare, is simple: we’ve educated the elite — politicians, lawyers, doctors, CEO’s, and so on — into beings that have long ago left their humanity at the curb, supplanted by delusions of grandeur, the avarice that so carefully destroys everything it touches. Education has become school for profit and self-gain.
As I’ve said in these pages before, what we have here is a crisis in — and about — EDUCATION, writ large (see here, too). Education has forgotten — or repressed — it’s allegiance to Humanity, its very real purpose of creating empathetic, creative citizens.
We can learn something from the models we say we follow, in this case, the Greek Stoics. The Stoics had a radical point, as Martha S. Nussbaum tells us in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, “that we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, not temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings.” We’ve moved far from this goal, this reality; it’s no longer a compass point.
Of course, the failure of our EDUCATION — the educating for excellence, efficiency and production, education focused solely on the means of production and accounting, the creation of cogs on the wheel of mediocrity — is devoid of any moral posture. It is an immoral education.
When morality fails or is oppressed, ideologies spring to the rescue. In every tragic circumstance, we face today, each can be said to be driven by ideologies — not rationality, not dialog, compromise and bargaining, the hallmarks of Democracy.
Ideologies give us a false sense of reality, an artificial view of the world — and ourselves. Ideologies, as we can see today in Washington, scorn knowledge; these are motivated or, better, are narrated by the corporation. Who will win, whether or not the debt ceiling is raised? Who will win if US ratings are reduced? That’s right: the banks, no matter what happens, win. They win the world. (This is, of course, the grand example, the ultimate example of inverted totalitarianism, where the corporations dictate and the witless masses, sleeping away in illusions of plentitude, are lead to slaughter.)
How did this world come about?
The rise of industrialism influenced not only the structure of mass education but also its organizational culture. Like factories, schools are special facilities with clear boundaries that separate them from the outside world. They have set hours of operation and prescribed rules of conduct. They are based on the principles of standardization and conformity.
Robinson could be describing the modern prison, instead — separate …from the outside world, prescribed rules of conduct, standardization, and conformity.
What schools have done is effectively standardize and conform and, therefore, shut down the imagination, killed creativity, in the words of Ken Robinson. What then can grow from here? What we have, says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, is a “human … reduced to a measurable value, like a machine or a piece of property. We can choose to achieve a high value and live comfortably or be dumped unceremoniously onto the heap of marginality.”
Can we change this? Can we combat this?
Yes, we can. There are examples. One primary example is Bard College. This institution is not held to a separation from the outside world; it is in the world, creatively addressing our culture’s greatest challenges.
Leo Botstein, Bard College President since 1975, is perhaps the best and, likely, the most enlightened of college presidents. He has led this college from prescribed — and accepted — rules of conduct and carefully defined new rules of conduct that follow a moral understanding of our human responsibilities to each other. This is, indeed, for my money, the only real example, today, of a classical liberal arts education.
Bard has embarked on several endeavors: Bard High School Early College seeks to provide an alternative to the traditional high school, a “rigorous course of study that emphasizes thinking through writing, discussion, and inquiry.” Imagine if other elite liberal arts colleges learned from Bard and took up alternatives to high schools like this? What can we do? Bard has announced its collaboration with the Newark Public School System as well.
The small college is involved in the Bard Prison Initiative, creating opportunities for incarcerated men and women to earn Bard degrees. In From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a Degree B. A. Behind Bars, a PBS special story about the Bard Prison Initiative, we can see the essence of the liberal arts education at work.
But Bard has not stopped there.
It has a Masters of Arts in Teaching Program, too, allowing students to be certified in New York and California. It is a program focused on “both rural and urban-high needs school districts.” No one is doing this. Absolutely no one. Bard is in the vanguard.
And if this is not enough, Bard has established an Honors College in collaboration with Al-Quds — the Al-Quds – Bard Partnership, in Jerusalem. Along with St. Petersburg State University, Bard has developed “The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences … the first Department in Russia to be founded upon the principles of liberal education. It emerged from Smolny College (officially the Program in «Arts and Humanities»), which was created in 1994 by St. Petersburg State University in close collaboration with Bard College (USA). Bard College’s interest in curricular innovation and the reform of international education coincided with the interests of a group of creatively-minded scholars from St. Petersburg State University.” In other words, in the international arena, Bard is not going to the usual places, as all other schools do; rather, Bard has opted to go where there are obvious challenges — and opportunities.
How is it possible that a small school in Upstate New York can do so much? Endowments of other liberal arts institutions tower over Bard’s, approximately a mere $270 million. How is it possible to do so much with what in higher education is so little these days? It has 1800 students. A faculty of about 224 professors. The cost of attending Bard is comparable to other elite liberal arts colleges, $55 — so what’s the difference? It has a beautiful campus. It has all the accouterments we expect from these schools — the arts, wonderful grounds, athletic facilities, new technologies abound. So what gives?
Answer: imagination and will, a conviction that what we must do in education if we’re going to contribute to the reversing of the tide of malaise, complacency, avarice and the blind pursuit of materialism is not compete, but rather, join hands and cooperate, collaborate, listen and learn by thinking critically, dialog and bargain. Like no other institution for its size Bard is doing more for humanity than most larger — and more distinguished — universities.
Might we jump on this wagon and see where creativity can take us, rather than staying on the ideological tracks to despair?