Professing Education
A publication of the Society of Professors of Education
December, 2006. Vol.5 No.2

Editorial: A Marketplace of Ideas
Ken McClelland

Welcome to this issue of Professing Education. As professors of education we often find ourselves asking, "What should our students be learning in college?" Richard Rorty, in his book Philosophy and Social Hope directly challenges the merits of asking such a question. It is a question reflecting a remedial task, and for Rorty, the extent that nonvocational institutions of higher learning have to take on the kind of remedial work that should otherwise be accomplished at the lower levels represents a diminishment of the democratic potential of a humanistic higher education. Asking the question, "What should [students] learn in college?" is a bad question to be asking at the college or university level. To ask this kind of question, says Rorty, is to "suggest that [non-vocational] college faculties are instrumentalities that can be ordered to a purpose" (p. 125). Rorty continues with these words:

The temptation to suggest [that faculties can be ordered to a purpose] comes over administrators occasionally, as does the feeling that higher education is too important to be left to the professors. From an administrative point of view, the professors often seem self-indulgent and self-obsessed. They look like loose canons, people whose habit of setting their own agendas needs to be curbed. But administrators sometimes forget that college students badly need to find themselves in a place in which people are not ordered to a purpose, in which loose canons are free to roll about. The only point in having real live professors around instead of just computer terminals, videotapes and mimeoed lecture notes is that students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes by actual human beings. That is why tenure and academic freedom are more than just trade union demands. Teachers setting their own agendas _ putting their individual, lovingly prepared specialties on display in the curricular cafeteria, without regard to any larger end, much less any institutional plan _ is what non-vocational higher education is all about. (p. 125)

For Rorty, the university is an intellectual culture. It is meant to draw the forming (rather than the already formed) student into the eros of learning. Professors `putting their individual, lovingly prepared specialties on display' are fulfilling a function of freedom and growth within an intellectual culture. Their task is not to open the tops of their students' heads and dump information in. Their task, at least from a liberal education perspective, is to fire their students' imaginations. In many ways it is the task of creating the conditions of novelty. As Rorty (2000a) said in a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art: "The thing to do with novelty is just to be grateful for it, and to create the socio-political conditions which will ensure that there will be a lot more of it" (p. 5). Getting students to be comfortable with novelty and change is turning into an uphill battle.

It is very easy in administrative and government circles to put the majority of efforts into fine-tuning the expectations of what it is a university education should be offering and to lose sight of the individual. In the name of establishing those relevant "facts" that one should know in order to be considered an "educated" person, or in establishing curricula that will ensure solid career opportunities, students end up becoming mere receptacles for information, empty tool-boxes that need filling.

No wonder students get less and less joy out of learning and turn to an ever-increasing variety of quick-fix (and more entertaining) alternatives. As most such entertainment is now the product of the broader marketplace (rather than the intellectual/cultural marketplace of the university) so the university comes increasingly to be viewed and treated by students and their parents as an economic marketplace. One great misfortune then, is that today's young people who come into the university are from the outset disconnected from the intellectual culture of the university. Young people still have a joie de vivre inside the university institution—partying, gaming, carousing, chatting online, having sex—but less and less are their joys and passions connected to what they learn and the larger intellectual environment of which they are a part. It is not that the other "fun" things are without importance. They are, in fact, centrally important to the forming of young people into adults. But such is only a facet of this forming and surely the university must stake its public reputation on more than merely being a funhouse for forming young adults whose intellectual passions are fused by no more than antecedently established career ambitions.

We invite our readership to a consideration of the climate that now dominates our higher (nonvocational) educational environments. As professors of education what do we profess in this marketplace? Enjoy this issue of Professing Education

 

 

 

Editors: John M. Novak & Kenneth A. McClelland
Associate Editors: Dirk Windhorst & Rahul Kumar
Publisher Coordinator: Robert C. Morris
Web Publishing by: Rahul Kumar & Herman Yu
Webmaster of the Society of Professing Education: Jan Armstrong

For this and past issues, visit http://profed.brocku.ca