Center for Courage & Renewal

Al DeCiccio: A new look at the purposes of education

BOSTON I was able to hear Stanley Fish speak at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in January 2004. Fish, a literary critic, had become dean of arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)—a position he has now vacated. Fish has published widely, usually upholding the ideals of our nation’s colleges and universities in his writing. His stated aims for educators were that: educators should do their job (and only their job) well; that educators should not attempt to do the jobs of others for which they are not qualified; and that educators should not let others do their job.

Here’s a provocative passage from Fish:

"You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computational, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is really iffy) install in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts. You won’t always succeed in accomplishing these things—even with the best of intentions and lesson plans, there will always be inattentive or distracted students, frequently absent students, unprepared students and on-another-planet students—but at least you will have a fighting chance given the fact that you’ve got them locked in a room with you for a few hours every week for four months.

"You have little chance, however (and that’s entirely a matter of serendipity), of determining what they will make of what you have offered them once the room is unlocked for the last time and they escape first into the space of someone else’s obsession and then into the space of the wide world.

"And you have no chance at all (short of discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic. You might just make them into good researchers. You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.''

Unless he is being playfully ironic, which is possible, I think Fish has it wrong, because I think these are the aims of education: that educators should assist students in waking eager from dreams to return to the conversations of their classes, clinicals and internships; that educators should encourage their students to share their social and cognitive gifts in those classes, clinicals and internships; that in those classes, clinicals and internships, educators should model for students how to have respect for the other; and that in those classes, clinicals and internships, educators should prepare students for transformative action.

What I want to emphasize is that educators can nurture what John Henry Newman described as “good members of society” through their teaching and the courses they develop, thereby preparing a generation of people who can help to mend a broken, post-9/11 world.

Such development can occur only if colleges and universities hold mature conversations, informed and robust dialogues that will lead to an abundance of ideas, strategies and solutions for repairing our globe. I believe in the abundance of talents or gifts that reside in our students and that we will all enjoy the fruits of that abundance on the campuses and in the communities we will all enter, refusing to acquiesce to the illusion that a scarcity of ideas, vision, ideals and character is the inevitable condition of human existence.

Engaging faculty and students

These mature conversations that educators orchestrate in their classrooms will be the preparation their students will need to engage in the public debates about the important questions of the day. How do we prepare students and faculty to hold these mature conversations? I have spent hours with the faculty members asking the following eight questions—questions that, when addressed with students, I think will be crucial to initiating these conversations in higher education institutions These questions are based on the work of Russell J. Quaglia, who has founded centers on student aspirations:

  1. How do I create a culture of belonging in my classroom?
  2. How do I try to be a role model in my classroom?
  3. How do I inspire accomplishment in my classroom?
  4. How do I build excitement in my classroom?
  5. How do I promote curiosity and creativity in my classroom?
  6. How do I promote adventure and risk taking in my classroom?
  7. How do I prepare those in my classroom for leadership?
  8. How do I prepare those in my classroom for taking responsible actions?

Attempting to answer questions like these will certainly help the faculty prepare students of character who may enter, with confidence and conviction, the various discourse communities to which they will be invited in their lifetimes.

Fish out of water?

To be fair, Fish may have a point in asking educators to do best what they have been prepared to do: teach, research, create, produce and disseminate. Sometimes, when educators allow their political ideologies and social programs to take precedence in their classrooms, they risk losing their hold on teaching the content for which they are credentialed and risk dismissing the educational needs of their students. Fish may also be following a tradition in offering his own perspective to the so-called culture of suspicion to which 19th-century thinkers such as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche contributed. In such a culture, the idea of character formation cannot thrive and will not be accepted.

Fish’s critique of character-building efforts by educators becomes less biting when one recognizes that his own theories about making meaning of texts are predicated upon a notion—social constructionism—which advances collaborative learning (i.e., dialogue among peers leading to understanding) as its pedagogical practice. In some ways, Fish wants it both ways. Fish asks faculty to nurture the intellectual life, in a community of knowledgeable peers, ultimately, teasing tender minds into thought—what he attempted to do at UIC after his tenure on the faculty at Duke. Fish surely must recognize that passionate engagement is the hallmark of the college or university. It is this passionate engagement which leads thinkers (Fish’s knowledgeable peers as well as those who wish to become known as knowledgeable peers—their students) through conversation toward community and the quest for truth and, ultimately, against that narrow perspective which curtails conversation and debate.

Roughly 2000 years ago, Quintilian recognized the importance of three disciplines—grammar, or the study of texts; rhetoric, or the production of texts; and logic, or the critical thinking ability to discern and to formulate a rational qualitative or quantitative argument—as he tried to assemble good men to carry on the ideals of Roman culture in his Institutes of Oratory. Today, in colleges and universities, we may return to these ideas and Quintilain’s trivium, even as we acknowledge new literacies brought about by technological advances, new genre studies that prepare young men and women for the public discourses that await them, debates about the environment, stem-cell research, human reproductive health and so forth.

General education and core curricula, at colleges and universities address the“greater expectations” advanced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities by preparing students for living in and contributing to a world in which individuality—human dignity, individual rights, personal choice—is more and more interconnected with global systems of commerce and telecommunications.

At colleges and universities, the curriculum can initiate this process by using reading, oral and written communication, critical and analytical reasoning, and reflection to explore the interaction among individuals and the various communities within which personal identity is cultivated. And they might advance these skills in multicontextual teaching and learning communities, both inside and outside the classroom. Educators have always accepted a responsibility to manifest hope and love in their teaching. These virtues, embodied by the professor and passed on to be embraced by the student, will help to heal our broken world.

Can education create from the outset conditions for students and faculty to engage in mature conversations about values and beliefs, maturity and self-understanding? Can it lend itself to being collaborative, multicontextual and transformative?

The engaged classroom within the “rooted” campus

National Urban Alliance President Eric Cooper points out that America practices a pedagogy of despair, particularly for persons of color and for lots of others too. Scholar Lisa Delpit writes, “When one ‘we’ gets to determine standards of learning for all ‘wes,’ then some ‘wes’ are in trouble!” Such a debilitating stance is very much like the oppressive banking approach to education that Brazilian educator Paolo Freire described and denounced almost 40 years ago: Its process involves “P”rofessors, with a capital P, depositing information into “s”tudents, with a lower case s, and withdrawing from the students the dividends of their deposits in exams and papers.

Fortunately, Cooper also advocates a pedagogy of hope, a problem-posing pedagogy in which learners become teachers and teachers become learners—face to face and virtually in educative communities of which the classroom is but one to which everyone contributes and in which everyone participates. By practicing such a pedagogy, argues Freire, people “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Surely, it will take transformative thinking to show us all how to use our abundant talents to confront the racial, social, political, ideological and cognitive challenges of our post-9/11 world.

It should now seem abundantly apparent that a college rooted in mature conversations is a community in which those in it see how much everyone has to offer to it. In such a rooted environment, educators will neither be isolated nor sullen nor downtrodden, seeking sustenance elsewhere—at professional meetings, away from their campuses, away from the persons they should be bringing inside their disciplinary circles and teaching their particular habits of mind. The current practice for encouraging faculty to revitalize themselves is to send them away to professional meetings or to provide them sabbatical leaves of absence. And these are fine and necessary benefits to provide the faculty. But a complementary course of action might be to offer faculty strategies to fashion a sustaining community through transdisciplinary programming that aims at extending to all the academy’s constituencies an opportunity to be contemplative and then to take action that will effect positive societal change.

Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, in Seattle, has noted that when we allow ourselves to be brought down by a perceived scarcity of resources, the end result will be isolation. As Palmer asserts, if we can be buoyed by the abundance that results from the sharing of resources, then the happier result is hope. The rooted academy is that place where people share—through dialogue, conversation and engagement—what gifts they have and are willing to receive these gifts, adding to what they already possess cognitively and socially, constructing a hopeful future.

Al DeCiccio is vice president for academic affairs at Labouré College, in Boston. This piece is based on a talk he prepared for the opening of the 2015-2016 academic year and was first published  on the Web site of the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org).