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Friday Interview: Excellence in Education

Stephen Balch discusses the problem with higher education today

Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Mitch Kokai discusses excellence in education with Stephen Balch, president and founder of The National Association of Scholars. Balch recently addressed a conference sponsored by The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. (Go here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: In your speech, you outlined some basic principles. First, we shouldn’t leave a liberal education solely to educators. Why do you say that?

Balch: Well, I think educators have certain interests of their own that are not consonant with the interests of students and with the larger interest in liberal education. First off, they have an interest in specialization; that’s the way they get ahead. But the kind of education that students need at the core of their experience is a broad framework. So, educators don’t have a vocational interest in doing that. Secondly, they have an interest in displaying cleverness, which often degenerates into a kind of skepticism, nihilism run amok. And, if part of education is kind of inculcating the deposited wisdom of the past, that type of attitude — a reflection of this preoccupation with cleverness — carried too far is counterproductive. And, thirdly, many educators, again, I think, by virtue of their calling, tend to be true believers. And if you are so wrapped up in your own ideas and the conceit of your own infallibility — and that is an occupational hazard — you convey doctrine and true belief rather than the kind of complex picture of the world that liberal education should convey. It should convey content, it should convey wisdom, but it can’t convey simple mindedness. And often, in a clever way, professors can be very simple-minded.

Kokai: You also said it is important to emphasize what a liberal education could do, and not what it can’t do.

Balch: It could try to do too much. If it falls into the trap of trying to turn all undergraduates into savants, if it falls into the trap of somehow aiming at unlocking the deepest mysteries of life, it is going to fail. It can’t do those things. I mean, there are some people who want to assay that kind of course, who want to plumb the depths, but it is not what the vast majority of people going through a university want or need. They do need to be taught how to think, but they need more than that — a kind of exposure to rich content, to knowledge, to sound interpretive judgments, to a sense of what is valuable and what isn’t. And if we fail to do that, ultimately we fail to sustain our civilization. A civilization is nothing if it isn’t a set of judgments about what is beautiful and true. Presumably, it is not a set of simple-minded judgments. It is a set of general judgments within which much disagreement is allowed. But it is a set of judgments, and I think the chief priority in educating undergraduates is to convey some sense of those wise judgments and general body of facts. That is important to sustain civilization.

Kokai: A third basic idea from your address, “What is Excellence,” is that education doesn’t invade liberal society. What did you mean by that?

Balch: Liberal society is the product of an organic evolution. Its major institutions were not kind of thought out in advance, but developed over time through accretions, through cumulative experience, and through reflection to some degree as well. What you often have in the university — because of the proclivity of academics toward visions and kind of utopian schemes — is an effort to impose through education on that organically developed society, some set-piece blueprint, some straightjacket that seems inspiring to the ideological, but in fact, is going to be cramping and destructive to the society itself. That is one of the reasons why giving too much influence, or giving complete influence over education to educators, is a bad thing. It is a trap into which they tend to fall. Whereas, people out in the practical world, in life as lived, at least up to this point, I think, are more reliable carriers, by and large, of the basic ethos of liberal society than at least a vocal, aggressive and sometimes controlling minority of the professoriate are. So some degree of balance, I think, is required there.

Kokai: People of all persuasions might agree with your next point: Education should be designed to provide students with what they most need to know. But I could see some differences of opinion in defining what students most need to know. What do they most need to know?

Balch: What I think they most need to know — and educators can kind of debate this — but what I think they most need to know is the very exceptional character of the world in which they live, of the kinds of societies they inhabit. The fact that the freedom, the security, the wealth, the convenience, the safety that we have in this society are not the human norm, have not been historically and is not even today, worldwide. They have to get a sense that they can’t take their world for granted, they can’t assume it’s pretty much like every other world in every other society. They have to understand that it is exceptional and needs to be preserved. We can have a lot of debates over exactly what are the strongest parts of it and how it should be preserved. But conveying its exceptionality and its preciousness, I think, probably is the number one task. We can’t assume it happens by itself. It’s what educators need to strive to do without becoming dogmatic — nonetheless, need to strive to do it.

Kokai: So, what do we do to get back on the right track?

Balch: Well, I think we have problems nowadays, in part because the academy is no longer organized to deal with the general, to give people a sense of the horizon that surrounds them. And I think it is also true that, within the academy, there is now a very strong utopian sectarian current, which is illiberal. So, in order to restore liberal education to its true excellence and its true mission, we have to find a way of rallying, both within the academy and out, those individuals who understand its purposes best. This will involve, I think, increasing to some extent lay influence within the academy — again, we can argue over how that is best done — and using that alliance that builds inside and out to gradually try to set things right.