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Front Page

In This Issue: 

EDUCATION and the politics of intellectual liberalism

Þ The Enemy Outside

Þ Quality Education

Þ General Education



By  Ivan W. Parkins


As the learning of each individual becomes a smaller and smaller portion of society’s burgeoning total accumulation, those values and understandings that individuals share with one another become more fragile and more vital.  Specialization and research contribute to the accumulation of knowledge, but it is through shared values and understandings that we communicate and maintain a social order capable of supporting specialists.  America’s present crisis is attributable in no small part to neglect of common or general education in a system of higher education that is increasingly departmentalized and geared to the production of specialists.


In most instances, the general education of students is treated as a mere preliminary to specialized studies.  Required courses in general education are usually committed to the hands of instructors whose personal hopes of advancement lie within a particular academic discipline and department.  Neither the student nor the instructor has incentive to exert his or her self fully in general education courses.


General education requirements, their placement in the curriculum, the motivation of students, and the departmental loyalties of instructors may appear to be matters of academic administration.  They have philosophical implications, and those are reinforced by value assumptions prevailing in the academic community.  Creativity is ordinarily conceived of as unique individual discovery; rarely, is it recognized to include that political and ethical leadership which the classical Greeks described as being “architectonic.” From an individualistic concept of creativity, used as an axiom, are derived a rationale for nonconformity, and—not quite logically—nonconformity as a value in itself.


The recent movement of some students and professors toward greater involvement in the political and ethical problems of American society might be a healthy development if higher education had something more constructive to offer.  Unfortunately, the attitudes and styles now prevailing in academia reflect the particularism of higher education.  Most academics are better prepared to offer criticism and to cite alternatives to beliefs and practices of the larger society than they are to participate in nurturing common values or in developing common understandings.


A partial solution to this dilemma might be achieved by changing general education in our colleges and universities.  Specifically, courses dealing largely with values and public policies should be made inter disciplinary and extra-institutional.  Nonacademic people, when they are available, should participate in instruction.  Furthermore, such courses, if organized about a program of readings and televised lectures, might enroll both a wide variety of full-time students and as many adults from the community as are interested.  The latter would be entitled to college credit if they paid small fees, met minimal admissions standards, and performed well on examinations.


The primary purpose of organizing general education in the manner just described would not be to provide some adult education or a way of opening college admissions, though both of those might be valuable results.  The primary purpose would be to give general education a framework in which generality of appeal and universality of acceptance would be more valued than disciplinary orthodoxy of interpretation and style.


Just as the great problems of man cannot be departmentalized, the means of understanding them cannot be reduced to any particular methodology.  Most great problems stem from the feelings of a variety of people toward one another.  The capacity of varied human beings to extend their cooperation with one another is no less a vital characteristic of Homo sapiens, of man the knower, than is the capacity for individual discovery.  Unnecessary segregation of intellectual groups tends to limit the understanding and cooperation, and perhaps to limit the survival, of us all.


By Ivan W. Parkins


By the end of 1963, Americans had a new reason for grief and fear.  One of the most confident and charming Presidents in American history was dead by assassination.  No replacement uniting so much political sagacity with a gay and sophisticated life-style was in sight.  New programs of social improvement, including subsidies to higher education, might be initiated, but voices of gloom and hysteria would assault the spirit of America, from the intellectual left as well as the right.


For me, there was the promise of escape.  The man who had been my dean was appointed president of a small college in a geographically beautiful and socially tranquil environment.  Again, it was a two-year community college to be converted to a four-year academic program.  This time, however, there was state financing, an enlightened board of trustees, a community relatively free of extremist elements, and the settled goal of creating a liberal arts college.  Nothing outside stood in the way of academic success.  I became ranking faculty member, head of social sciences, and a member of the principal committees.  


The reality soon turned as bitter as the dream had been sweet.  What is a liberal arts college?  What is quality education?  Allowing that the community makes little active effort to interfere, to what extent should the community be considered?  The president and I disagreed about nearly everything.  The question regarding community was particularly crucial there, and it is to the discussion here.


That community included a national depository for weather, coastal survey, and geodetic records, as well as a state geological laboratory.  Because of those unique resources, I recommended that an earth sciences program be among the first things that we developed.  The prospect of an especially strong science program did not appeal to the president.  He insisted that the humanities are the heart of liberal arts, and he recruited a faculty heavily weighted in that direction.


When we began designing our four-year curriculum many of our students were already enrolled in business and other vocational areas under the old curriculum.  Business being within my jurisdiction, I submitted a proposal calling for a small number of business courses within a new department of economics and business, an arrangement borrowed from the most prestigious college in the state.  My plan was rejected by the liberal arts purists on the curriculum committee.  They felt that retaining any business courses would defile the program.  (Three years later, prompted by static enrollments and growing impatience in the board of trustees, the president initiated changes similar to those in my original plan.)


Our enrollment situation was especially revealing.  The students already enrolled in our college, and most of those who showed an interest in coming, were not the kind likely to succeed in a program that lacked vocational motivation.  At no time in the initial planning was there a study of the numbers and interest of students likely to attend.  Later, on a committee assignment, I attempted to gather data on the numbers and academic qualifications of students available in the area; my estimates were replaced by others based upon the desires of the president.  Once, in a moment of exasperation, I remarked that I thought we were agreed upon the desirability of a liberal arts college, but that we differed over whether to build it from the ground up or the clouds down.


The point of this reminiscing is that I am now convinced that many of my academic colleagues, especially those who pretend the greatest commitment to liberal arts, are “clouds down” people.  They want not merely freedom from censorship of their views and from harassment; they seek to live apart from the practical considerations and responsibilities that are concomitants of life in society.


While the meaning of liberal arts is disputed, it has clear negative implications for many academics.  In the college that I helped to develop, secretarial science was easily disposed of, business courses were ruled out (though they had to be restored), journalism was excluded, the nurses program was killed, drama was permitted a brief and tenuous existence, physical education clung to life, and a minimal teacher’s certification program was tolerated.  All of those were judged to be to “practical,” or vocational, for a liberal arts college.  New courses were literally, and sometimes successfully, defended before the curriculum committee with the argument that they had no possible practical applications.


By Ivan W. Parkins


By the end of the 1950s, burgeoning college enrollments and consequent shortages of qualified faculty members pretty nearly assured that professors would enjoy reasonable pay and freedom.  The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 touched off a wave of public emotion in the United States, focused upon shortcomings in American education.  An unfortunate aspect of new quality education emphasis was that “quality,” apart from selective admissions and competition, had no clear meaning.  Especially in higher education, the meaning that emerged was often designated “liberal arts,” and it extolled culture for its own sake after the European tradition.


I spent the late 1950s and early 60s at a small institution in the South.  Led, and sometimes driven, by an energetic young president, who had previously been a professor in a liberal arts college, we were attempting to convert a community college into a university.  Increasing the liberal arts component of the curriculum was the key to our plan of improvement.


Much of the struggle to improve education in our institution was a struggle against the community.  The struggle against an enemy outside contributed to unity within.  On the one hand there was a constant search for financial support; the community donated parsimoniously, and with all the condescension of charity, the difference between existence and some improvement.  On the other hand there was harassment by right wing extremists, some of them affiliated with the KKK and John Birch Society.  They thought us subversive, and they were well represented among our trustees.  Our president took an unflinching stand against their charges, a stand embellished by his Silver Star, several Purple Hearts, and other decorations.


We talked in our faculty committees of quality education and the liberal arts.  Insofar as that talk implied an effort to make our lectures more thoughtful and our assignments more meaningful, it may have contributed to better education.


Actually, we were a somewhat extended community college, offering vocationally useful but not especially profound education, in spite of an uncomfortable relationship with the community that we served.  If we sometimes looked down our “enlightened” noses at the community, at least that particular community deserved it.  Among other things, its entire public school system was disaccredited, and every member of the city commission indicted, within the next few years.


Next to the president, whose outspoken courage shielded me, I fought more verbal battles with off-campus groups than any other member of the faculty.  In dealing with pseudo-patriots, I usually took the position that contemporary America was both more successful and more true to its past than they gave it credit for being.  Over several years of devising such arguments I became quite committed to the point of view.


I was due for a shock.  Early in 1963, a dean of students from the state university addressed a convocation of our institution.  He was, I now realize, ahead of his time.  The man was a former speech professor, adept at the art of rhetoric.  My emotions alternated between anger and disbelief as I sat among my faculty colleagues on the platform.  The dean’s appeal was remarkably similar to that of the radical rightists whom I had been opposing.  Contempt for the present state of American culture, distrust of our political institutions and policies, and a general impugning of American character were all included.  It was cast, however, as a liberal and intellectual appeal.


When the speaker concluded, the student body rose in a standing ovation; the faculty, with one shocked exception, joined them.

Editor’s Note: The following series of articles were written in 1970 and published in the Daily Times-News.  Additionally these articles were a part of a compilation of essays  titled CULTURE, POWER AND MASS MEDIA by Ivan W. Parkins published in 2004.  These articles  represent the intellectual liberal politics of the education system.

Reference: Opinion Column, 1992, Detroit News- “Nouveau Savants”

Reference: Letter to the editor, 1971, University of Chicago Magazine                         “Rebellion of Youth, Is It Necessary”