Saturday, April 3, 2010

Liberal Education, Faculty Responsibility, and Public Comportment

DISCLAIMER: THE HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION DEPICTED IN THIS BLOG ENTRY IS TOTALLY FICTIONAL. ANY SEMBLANCE TO EVENTS OR PERSONS, REAL OR IMAGINED, IS ENTIRELY COINCIDENTAL.


Liberal Education is based on the ideal of rational study without prejudice—that is, the dispassionate evaluation of a topic with an open mind without prejudgment. Though I myself continually fall short of achieving this ideal, Liberal Education has provided the framework for my entire academic career, both as professor and as director of the ethics center.


In open public forums on controversial—hence, in my view, interesting—topics, Faculty have the responsibility to serve as exemplars of the ideal of Liberal Education.


One way Faculty can discharge this responsibility in open pubic discussion is to demonstrate an understanding of the fundamentals of a speaker’s argument, and then point to potential problems with that argument. In fact, this is what we expect of good students. The worst example a Faculty can set is to treat a topic with prejudice devoid of any demonstration of understanding the issues at hand; and, to make this scenario even worse, to mock the speaker; and, to make this worst-worst-case scenario even worse, to publicly decry “who brought in this idiot? I am so sick and tired of this [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE DETESTATION HERE] drivel.” This type of behavior violates on several levels the core principles of Liberal Education.


Consider an example. Suppose a colleague in Earth Science brings to campus one of the most esteemed climatologists to speak on the topic of global climate destabilization. After a detailed presentation based on logic and empirical data, you (let’s say a faculty member from some other discipline) stand up in front of several hundred persons—faculty, students, and other members of the campus community—and ask “does this mean Hell is going to get hotter”?


In one daft move, you have (1) demonstrated your inability—or unwillingness—to understand and assess an argument without prejudice, (2) devalued the work—possibly life work—of the visiting scholar, (3) made a mockery of the topic itself, (4) embarrassed your institution as host, and (5)—perhaps unwittingly—made a public fool of yourself. Yet most egregiously, (6) you have violated your responsibility as an exemplar of the ideal of Liberal Eduction.


As members of the professoriate, let us all be keenly aware of the responsibility that we bear in upholding the ideal upon which the entire edifice of higher eduction in the Western Intellectual Tradition is based.

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