Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Bussey

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014



Bussey, M. (2014), "Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Bussey", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Bussey

Article Type: Authors' Comments From: On the Horizon, Volume 22, Issue 1

There is a wide range of papers in this issue, each with its own unique approach to the problem faced by liberal education in the higher-education institutions of the early twenty-first century. The strength of the papers lies in their ability to locate the liberal arts in the tradition from which they emerge (Conrad, 2014), to explore the rich possibilities for enquiry into the human condition (Anderson, 2014; Maxwell, 2014; Paino, 2014), to align and/or lament their diminution in the higher-education institutions of today (Graber, 2014; Jennings, 2014; Pollard, 2014; Bussey, 2014), and to point at the deep shift in the economics of knowledge and its alignment with neoliberal drivers (Abeles, 2014).

This is the thumbnail sketch. A number of thoughts arise in reflecting on this lineup. First, it is a thoroughly Western roll call. I would love to hear what Ashis Nandy (2004), Ranajit Guha (2002), or Ananta Giri (2009) would have to say about the shifting context of liberal education today. A post-colonial turn would challenge the liberal-education myth with which we so closely align. It is easy enough to rail against the demise in critical thinking in higher education; but seriously, how much critical thinking has ever been "taught" in universities? How free is it of the Eurocentrism that suggests, as Maxwell (2014) does, that rationality lies at the heart of critical emancipation?

Theodor Adorno (2003) frames this question in a devastating way when he asks, "How do we educate after Auschwitz?" He asked this because – and Andersen brings this up – it was a lovely liberal-educational environment that was behind the conceptualisation and execution of genocide under the Nazis. So for Adorno, the first question before post-war civilisation was how to educate us beyond barbarism and the liberal platitudes that so meekly give in to it:

The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. lts priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it. I cannot understand why it has been given so little concern until now. To justify it would be monstrous in the face of the monstrosity that took place. Yet the fact that one is so barely conscious of this demand and the questions it raises shows that the monstrosity has not penetrated people’s minds deeply, itself a symptom of the continuing potential for its recurrence as far as people’s conscious and unconscious is concerned. Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against (Adorno, 2003, p. 19).

The second thought that comes to me is that we all have the tendency to slide over the surface of the "liberal." We all tend, and I am frequently guilty because there is a rich pleasure in it, to fall back on the rhetoric of critique. I am thinking here of George Lakoff’s (2005) wonderful exploration of framing, and his observation that we do not think rationally but habitually (Kahneman (2011) makes a similar point), and follow narrative patterns that are familiar and offer us identity security.

Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid (Lakoff, 2005, p. 17).

To dig deeply into the territory inhabited by the Liberal is a perilous matter because so much of our identity is based on this. Look at the lineup for this special issue. Look at the demographic: our average age would be over 50, all white, all male, all western! For sure, we are a bunch of nice, well-meaning guys, but…? What would a black female critical pedagogue like bell hooks (1994) (deliberately lower case) have to say? She would certainly point to our membership in that elite group she happily chastises as "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy" (hooks, 2003, p. 166). Ouch!

As I reflect on this point and the question of liberal education and the absence of women and voices from the global South and the Rest (as opposed to the West) in this special issue, I see this omission of gender and race as indicative of the problem for legitimacy in higher education that liberal education faces today. A call for papers usually elicits a range of voices. Why is it that only a specific group rose to this challenge? Perhaps it is that liberal education is seen as "white man’s business" and is irrelevant to the concerns and aspirations of women and non-Anglo Saxon/European types? This is an interesting question. Certainly liberal education has a strong colonial and elitist track record despite its purported intent. Read that amazing critique by Walter Mignolo (2003), The Darker Side of the Renaissance. As I see it, the "law of two feet" has already spoken and this question of the place of liberal education in universities is now a case more for the history books than for the future of higher education. That is why I argue in my paper that liberal education has left the academy in search of both greener pastures and redefinition.

Third, for me I see that what is special to the liberal-educational model is special to all models of quality, holistic learning – the link between values, actions, and inquiry. This is based on what my Reformation hero Sebastian Castellio (Guggisberg, 2003) called the "art of doubting"[1]. Now this art is based on the ability to speak to the system, the episteme, and the metaphoric in our world. This shifts the pedagogic focus from passive recipient to expansive critique in which the form is libratory rather than liberal – the latter being too much caught in the trap of its own history. It was Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 108) that reminded us that "we lack resistance to the present." I find that libratory education is a model for thinking beyond walls of all kind (Bussey, 2010) – it is a co-creative knowledge process that happens wherever people gather to make the world – their part of it, at least) a better place. Such work is based on the Freirian (Freire, 1998) concept of "conscientization". We cannot escape our own habitus, but we can wrestle bravely with its shadow. Adorno points to the shadow of liberal education; his words have yet to be addressed in any substantive way.

I feel that a libratory education is a form of sharing in the making of meaningful and plural knowledge forms that capture what Ananta Giri calls forth in his evocation to knowledge communities in education:

Knowledge is neither a noun nor a possessive pronoun, but a verb. As a verb it is not only activistic, but also meditative. Knowledge is a multidimensional meditative verb of self-, co-, and social realisation. Knowledge as verb involves practices of knowing together, which in turn involves both compassion and confrontation. In practices of knowing together, we create a compassionate community and help each other to learn. This is also a space of solidarity, a solidarity which is always in a process of fuller realisation rather than a fixed thing (Giri, 2011, p. 100).

To look at liberal education in higher education is therefore to look well beyond the systemic expression of a historical form and see rather the relationships defined in our current learning modality. This takes us beyond definitions of learning and history into the creative realm of culture building involving both deconstruction and reconstruction. Education on its own cannot "fix" this situation because it is a tool in maintaining the current power-knowledge nexus. Thus as Jean Anyon remarks so dryly:

We have been attempting educational reform in U.S. cities for over three decades and there is little significant districtwide improvement that we can point to. As a nation, we have been counting on education to solve the problems of unemployment, joblessness, and poverty for many years. But education did not cause these problems, and education cannot solve them (Anyon, 2005, p. 3).

To move from liberal to libratory is to move out of the shadow and towards (not into) a more open and creative space in which education is about possibility and empowerment and not reduced to the metrics of our dominant capitalist culture.

What follows are some further thoughts on some of the papers in this special issue.

Thoughts on Graber’s "Why is liberal education so incoherent?"

Graber identifies liberal education as an enabler of innovation and creative expression. He anchors these qualities in the fact that liberal education is incoherent. This is a powerful insight, for it is in incoherence that humanity finds the opportunity to create connections. As Graber develops his argument, he explores the tension in culture between tradition and innovation. The tendency to see culture as conservative arises from a strong reliance on anthropological definitions, which have had, as Johannes Fabian (1983) famously critiqued, a heavily Eurocentric tradition that sees the object of study as passive – hence conservative. The dynamic nature of culture that Graber does acknowledge is, from a world historical perspective (see McNeill and McNeill, 2003), the stronger contender.

As a futurist who works a lot in non-western countries, I have observed that culture has two faces (Bussey, forthcoming). The first is the tradition face that offers us security and confirms identity within a set context, whilst the second offers us expansion. This sits well with the insights of thinkers such as the Indian Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar (1982) and the post-structural philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Both, in very different ways, describe the longing found in culture for expansion. The multiplicity and complexity of culture cannot be contained within human systems, no matter how hard they try to control this energy.

The historian Eelco Runia (2010) argues that this is why continuity, as ascribed to culture and outlined in much traditional history, must at times succumb to the seduction of the discontinuous. For Runia the human urge to create pattern – as narrative – gives way at times to the vertiginous desire to "leap" into the new. Now this provocative idea calls educators in the liberal tradition to rethink their praxis. To educate for the new of course requires an entirely different skill set – to be free to innovate within a system demands of us that we have a strong hold on tradition, whilst not being bound to it. Thus freedom of thinking – the exploratory and the nimble and the risky – are fostered when liberal education is understood as open-ended, chaotic, and joyful. This mix sets the scene for greater levels of innovation. It is a human quality of conservative disruption that allows individuals and societies to explore limits, leap over limits, and create new orders from the dynamic mix that is a defining element of our times.

To capture this point I call on a poet and a philosopher. The poet is the great Wallace Stevens, who wrote about a man playing a blue guitar who manages to bridge the distance between tradition (who we are) and possibility (a tune beyond us). This is so because things are changed upon the blue guitar, a metaphor here for the aspirations of a liberal education. Yet of course the contradictory fear of change is also to be captured when the guitarist’s audience cry out for the security of the known, whilst paradoxically evoking the longing for the unknown:

But play, you must,A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,A tune upon the blue guitarOf things exactly as they are (Wallace Stevens, 1982).

The philosopher in question is the mischievous Michel Foucault (2002), who describes a form of critical being that I think Graber is evoking in his call for an open, unfettered, and robust liberal education. Foucault argues that we need to nurture critique as a central feature of our being empowered citizens. For Foucault this critique is what enables us to be governed a little less. To be governed less does not simply imply being less constrained by any given system of being; it also points to the intellectual and psychological resilience necessary to navigate the complexity and aporia inherent to the modern condition. When liberal education is fully enacted, individuals experience a pedagogy of possibility (Bussey et al., 2012) that rolls back habit, and enables the imaginative possibilities that lie at the heart of our humanity. This is the potential and the danger of this tradition: it is why the apparatchiks of the nation capitalist state so fear it.

Thoughts on: Contemporary liberal education: slowing down to discern – Victor R. Delclos and Randall P. Donaldson

This is a wonderful and thoughtful piece in which the inner work of learning is linked to its social and existential function: liberal education is an invitation to discernment. At its heart lies the potential of critique. In the hands of Igatius Loyola, this is a spiritual critique in which the world is measured via an ethical and inner orientation to meaning and social justice.

I am reminded of the work of Cornel West (1999), who describes a prophetic pragmatism as the cornerstone of a Christian critique of the world. Such a critique is founded in the inner work that a liberal education holds in potentia. Turning from West to the Quaker educational theorist and advocate Parker Palmer (1993), we can see this character as linked to a courage to teach. For Palmer this courage is linked equally to his faith and to his vision of a holistic form of learning that is relational. I believe that the most sustaining learning lies in this relational domain, and that it involves multiple positioning: one’s relationship with one’s self, and with one’s peers and teachers; one’s relationship with other traditions from other cultures and civilizations; and one’s relationship with the world we inhabit, and also with spirit.

This in turn leads me to look eastward. Ananta Giri (2011), for instance, argues for a knowledge creation which is based on the co-creation of knowing. Knowing, for him, is a verb that challenges us to engage with others in robust dialogue. Behind this lies what another Indian, Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar (1982), calls the "longing for the Great." Such a longing is an existential, spiritual calling that leads human beings to never settle for what is given, but to always ask that critical question: How can we realize our potential more completely?

The slow education that Delclos and Donaldson (2014) point to grows from this open, creative domain from which can emerge deeper relationships and more sustaining lifeways. As in the slow-food movement, in slow education we can turn to liberal education wherever it is to be found and draw the cultural and personal sustenance to keep faith with future generations, to whom all our learning surely must be dedicated.

Thoughts on Pollard’s "Men grow old"

Pollard directs attention to two important and mutually-reinforcing dimensions of institutionalized learning. The first is that it is all about control – the compulsion of systems to order, coordinate, manage, and assess process. This is at the heart of what George Ritzer (1995) called the MacDonaldization process. Pollard correctly identifies this as a much more serious violence than any usually carried out under the influence of youth. Structural violence (Lord of the Flies not withstanding) is very much the provenance of the mature, who have too closely identified with the structures that bolster their identity and their authority. The second is that, as Foucault (1995) reminds us, we internalize structure and become our own (and others’) police. The panopticon is at work, and with it comes self-editing and amnesia. Liberal education has been caught between the system that orders meaning, and the subjective states that collaborate with this ordering. Is there a way out, or do we just stand like Siegfried before the sleeping Brunnhilde?

Thoughts on Paino’s "Reflective practitioner"

What catches my eye here is the interplay between independence and interdependence. The space between these is the important element in this formulation. For all independence is illusory, and all interconnectedness, potentially stifling. The arena of critique and the becoming citizen lies between the two and is where education functions as a field of possibility. Of course this field is very much reflective of the civilizational priorities that frame meaning and possibility. In fact it is a truism to state that in order to understand a society, look to its educational system. The educational system not only reflects the value-set of the elites, it also models the form on which they base their power. So our schools and universities appear as factories. The degree of reflection is thus curtailed by the manner in which knowledge is ordered and learning defined. Yet precisely because the space between independence and interdependence is beyond the control of authority, it holds possibilities for inversion and surprise; it is the creative heart of all culture. Liberal education holds the promise of Western educational renewal even when it seems most fragile and most lost.

What we need now is to rethink the liberal focus on the binary of independence and interdependence, along with the directive to uplift the masses, and offer instead the much more opaque and paradoxical between. In such a space the libratory potential of education emerges as a challenge to dominant modes of constructing the social as an open terrain in which merit stands as the handmaiden of freedom. Instead, such a libratory education will help us recognize that no furtherance of the democratic ideals upon which liberal education is based will occur without challenging the economic and intellectual relations that determine what is of value in education.

Comment by Marcus Bussey, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, Australia.


1. A formulation I am sure Foucault would have approved of.


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