Mark Kingwell on astronomy and core curriculum

Like the philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic – always part of my Intro syllabus – I’m going to lay down seven laws about education. This ideal might never be realized, but maybe it can help move the debate along.

1. Education is a public trust

This may seem obvious in a country where postsecondary education is publicly funded, there is no legacy system to benefit the scions of wealthy graduates and tuition remains low. But the rhetoric of education has never been so dominated by the reductive logic of return on investment, of tuition traded for jobs.

This reduction is perhaps inevitable in a moment of economic uncertainty. What is not inevitable is the assumption that the only other possible value of education is purely personal, a kind of luxury good of the mind. Job-training centre – or mental spa.

No. Liberal education is about citizenship, not job training or simple personal enrichment – though it may incidentally provide both. Postsecondary institutions should be in the business, primarily, of creating critical, engaged citizens. This is not the current dominant view; it is nevertheless the correct one.

2. The world changes rapidly, but speed is not itself a value

Important social institutions combine innovation with tradition, sustaining past achievements as living ideas. Change and novelty should never be pursued for their own sake, or because the world at large is driven by them. This isn’t nostalgia.

We philosophers don’t value Plato because he has been around so long; he has been around so long because he’s valuable. Whenever I lecture about his analogy of the cave, for example, whether in a campus lecture theatre or at a downtown men’s shelter, it’s the vivid depiction of political deception that matters, not that it was written in Greek.

3. The most important skill is critical thinking

We say this a lot but don’t do much about it. Here’s what we need: courses in informal logic, so students can recognize fallacies in public discourse; in economic theory, since economists think they rule the world, and politicians believe them; and in computer programming, because you can’t see the biases of the system unless you know how it was coded.

Also, the widespread view that technology is value-neutral, inevitable and always here to help, needs to be exposed as the dangerous ideology it is.

4. Okay, what else?

Well, the basics: history, philosophy, world religions, political theory, mathematics and literature. But also social justice, community service, languages, media criticism, diversity awareness and etiquette. (Stop looking at your phone while you walk!)

On the ancient Greek model, music, art, architecture and physical activity also belong. And why not some life-skills training while we’re at it: cooking, banking, public speaking, relationships. Some things are too important to be left to chance, advice columns or roommates.

5. Great – now, how do you teach all this?

Traditionally, for the most part. Sitting together in groups, with a shared text before us, still works as well as it did two millennia ago. And many innovations, such as flashy PowerPoint slides or “clickers” that rate instant comprehension, are just gadgets. Gadgets can be fun, but they are no substitute for reading, writing and discussion. (Also, see 3, above.)

Liberal education is a conversation, not a data transfer that might be accomplished as well online. That conversation starts in a room, with other people. It can even be a large room, if the professor is engaging and enthusiastic.

6. Socrates was right: The unexamined life is not worth living

This holds for societies as much as for individuals. More knowledge is better than less, wisdom is its own reward, and society as a whole benefits from an educated citizenry.

7. I know: you’ll say I’m gazing at the stars

Yes; but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to find our way.

Mark Kingwell teaches at the University of Toronto and has won its President’s Teaching Award. His latest book is Unruly Voices.

Globe and Mail, Oct. 14/12