Just a Suggestion

Several years ago there was competing institution here in town that had a stupefyingly bad marketing slogan: "Earn your degree without changing your life." Of course I know what they meant. They had an evening/weekend accelerated program and wanted to reassure their target audience that returning to school was not going to disrupt their lifestyle. Nevertheless, I still recall looking at that slogan on billboards and thinking are they nuts? Who would ever go through the ritualized annoyance of earning a degree if their life was not changed by the experience?

We expect education to change people. The big question is what that change should be. For Stanley Fish, students should be changed by learning to think well in the evidence-based disciplines that comprise a traditional general education, and that's all that should happen (see I Can't Save the World... ). Any talk of engineering shifts in values or attitudes, of making them more tolerant, civically virtuous--what have you-- is preaching, not teaching. As I mentioned before, I find myself sympathetic to this view, but perhaps that's because I've seen my discipline abandon the idea of an aesthetic experience as an aesthetic experience. Ideologically-driven literature critics have done a lot of preaching over the past few decades, but with little result other than to demonstrate the hoary truth that clever folks can easily argue something away from its primary intelligibility.

Having said that, I can also see one compelling objection to Fish's preacher-free approach to higher education. Let's call it the Nussbaum/deBotton/Johnson argument. Okay, that's a mouthful so let's call it the "Just a Suggestion" argument. It goes something like this. Years ago I had to teach "Cultivating Humanity," a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. In it she laid out a case for liberal reform of higher education. Now Nussbaum values rigorous critical inquiry every bit as much as Fish, but she also values awakening in students a "narrative imagination," which she defines as a capacity for placing ourselves in the experience of others. Indeed, she argues imaginative literature has a unique capacity for stretching us beyond our own egoistic worldview. It may even trigger in us an empathy for people whose experiences are quite alien to our own. This empathy, or compassion if you prefer, may even affect how we behave toward one another by causing us to pause or have a deeper awareness of the "other" before we act, judge, or dismiss a person.

In a sense, Nussbaum is arguing that we need educated hearts as well as educated minds. And she asserts that fiction can be a tool for accomplishing this goal. Stories, especially when they take us far from our own experience, may be edifying exercises if they arouse our empathy. After all, would you call people well educated if they lacked the capacity to imagine themselves in someone else's perspective? (Isn't that also the definition of a sociopath?)

Now at a certain point Nussbaum has to deal with Fish's objection. There's just no guarantee that people will have their narrative imaginations awakened by reading literature. Let's face it: lots of people can read novels, watch movies, or read poetry without feeling a thing. I can point to dozens like this in my classes right now. So employing literature in an attempt to transform people is terribly inefficient. More often than not, it probably fails.

But here is where Nussbaum really sells the idea to me: just because there's no guarantee that this change will occur is no reason not to put that opportunity before people. And that is what Alain deBotton and others argue on behalf of the aesthetic experience. Beautiful works of art suggest the better selves we might like to be, but they are not in any way guarantors that we will become such people. Similarly, service learning experiences are no guarantee we will graduate more caring people committed to bettering their communities, but that in itself is no reason to dismiss service learning as an opportunity for change to occur.

Sometimes, too, I think of Hugh Johnson. He was the helicopter pilot in Vietnam who one day found himself hovering over the My Lai massacre. Looking down from above, Johnson saw American troops herding Vietnamese women and children into a ditch for execution. Without much reflection, he landed his helicopter and ordered his gunner to train a 50-caliber machine gun on the GIs. He then ordered them to stop and was even able to get some of the Vietnamese to safety. For this act, Johnson was ostracized by his fellow soldiers. He even received death threats and eventually had to leave the military earlier than he planned. Much later, however, he was given a medal for bravery and even lectured cadets at West Point about the rule of law in war.

Funny thing, though. Many people over the years asked Johnson why he did what he did. After all, others were there and did nothing. Perhaps if we knew what triggered Johnson's heroic response we could better train soldiers for these situations. For the most part, though, Johnson was unable to say why he acted as he did. Sometimes he would mumble something about having seen a film about the holocaust in high school and how what he saw from his helicopter looked a lot like that film. So he acted. Now I am not a betting man, but I'd say there is almost no chance that that high school history instructor had the intention of producing a Hugh Johnson when he showed that film. Truth be told, he was probably hung over and happy to get an easy day at work by slapping on a movie and snoozing in the back of a darkened classroom.

In the end, there is no surefire way to manufacture a Hugh Johnson, a Rosa Parks, a Ghandi, a Socrates. But that in itself is insufficient reason for not putting opportunities to become such people before our students. One might even say this is true for all education. There is no guarantee that any of it will ever help to accomplish much moral good. After all, the men who planned the holocaust had degrees from the finest universities in Europe.

So perhaps our educational competitor was onto something. It is possible to earn your degree without changing your life. But here's a suggestion: let's not advertise this fact to students. Rather, let's modestly and humbly suggest that change is something they just might want to consider.

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