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Liberal Education as Civic Disengagement?
So I want to call your attention to a fine article by Jonathan Marks in Inside Higher Ed, the daily online newspaper of higher education. Marks writes at a level several pay grades higher than most educational experts, and he contributes memorably to the continuing project of deconstruction of the "cant" or pretentious nonsense spewed forth daily by most of those experts.
I've written before against the experts who want to reduce higher education to the acquisition of a set of measurable competencies required to become a productive member of our workforce. There's nothing wrong with becoming competent, but higher education is more than that.
Higher education isn't mainly about becoming an engaged citizen either.
People should be both responsibly productive and good citizens. They should also be loving spouses and parents and reliable and devoted friends. They should care for the unfortunate and do what they can to sustain the environment. And they should, of course, pay due attention to their health. They should, of course, not be indifferent to or thoughtlessly deny the existence of God. If they have the gift of faith, they should lovingly serve the God in whom they believe.
We can hope and even reasonably expect that someone with a liberal education would have all those virtuous qualities required to flourish as a truthful and relational being in a free society. Liberal education is certainly about inquiring into who each of us is and what each of us is supposed to do. But it does so in a relatively disengaged way.
I don't think, as some do, that liberal education is all about the questions and not about the answers. But it is about really asking and really, really thinking about the questions before you think you have the answers. The expert temptation today is replace thought with engagement. Engagement—being a good citizen—is a responsibility we all share in a democracy. But you shouldn't get college credit for it.
So Marks says Socrates should be at the center of liberal education. But even Socrates should be, I think, more of a question than an answer. No liberal education is complete without reading Nietzsche on "the problem of Socrates." Or Aristophanes on Socrates' ridiculous self-forgetfulness. Or St. Augustine on how both contemplation and charity should be parts of every person's life. (There's no Platonic dialogue on the charitable Socrates.) Or even Machiavelli's not-so-veiled criticism of Socrates as a parasite who never did free people—and even free thinkers—much good at all.
The most serious Athenian citizens had some good reasons for questioning the character of Socrates' civic engagement. He didn't seem to care about being a citizen very much, and he was very uneven in doing his real civic duties. He also seemed indifferent to the effect his "teaching method" would have the youngest of Athenian citizens.
So we often think it was the "religious right" or patriotic nuts who were responsible for killing Socrates. But anyone who's checked out the evidence knows that explanation is too simple.
Socrates ticked everyone off by saying he just didn't know enough to have a complete theory of education. For good citizens, education means learning to respect and obey the law. For Socrates, they make the mistake of thinking that the law is equivalent to wisdom. But the truth is that especially democratic law is typically lacking in competence or genuine expertise. So Socrates would chasten some conservatives these days who are about the kind of "civic literacy" that present the American founding as perfect or lacking in nothing.
But Socrates equally criticized the sophists—the experts—for thinking that education is only about technical competence. They know stuff, but they make the mistake of thinking that what they know is all there is to know. A merely technical education leads to power without virtue. It makes people worse by neglecting the moral dimension of who we are. Or if "worse" seems judgmental to you, admit that it can easily make them more dangerous.
For a dumb example: Experts these days think sex education is completely about learning the techniques of safe sex—dressing up vegetables and so forth. They're right enough that you can't be sexually responsible without knowing the bare facts. But being good can't be reduced to being safe. Sexual morality can't be detached from the attendant natural and relational responsibilities. So "social conservatives" are partly right that sex education has to do with "family values."
For human beings, education is some combination of technical competence and reasonable, relational moral discipline. The sophists are half right, but the devoted citizens are too. Socrates didn't know enough to bring the insight of the expert with the insight of the citizen together into a comprehensive theory of education. And so he angered both the experts and the devoted citizens by saying that he—unlike them—didn't yet think he knew enough to be an engaged educator, to provide his country the definite guidance it needed. His profession of his invincible ignorance (so far) mainly serves to chasten those who choose engagement over thought, over both technical excellence and deep moral reflection. For Socrates, the excessively engaged are typically both too confident and too angry.
So Socrates did think he had a "civic mission," which was to remind the Athenians of what they didn't know in such a way that that each Athenian couldn't use that ignorance as a lame excuse not to care for one's own soul—one's own virtue—above all.
If our colleges and universities have a "civic mission," it surely isn't to change the world through students' civic engagement. Their students and graduates, if properly educated, won't think that they're too wise or too free to be good citizens. But they should enter the world not thinking that they know more than they really do, and so their education should prepare them for engagement marked by the intellectual virtues of prudence and moderation. They should be free from the vanity and the anger that limits the authentic effectiveness of most political partisans.
A person with a liberal education knows that we're all citizens, but we're all also more than that. A person with a liberal education is not so libertarian as to believe that we can dispense with government, but is not so "engaged" or so "republican" as not to respect the limits of government. For one thing, all social engagement isn't and shouldn't be political. The virtue of charity, after all, is much more personal—more relational and more loving—than the virtue of justice.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.