“The only free mind is the insane one,” I had heard from one of my grad school profs (a Calvinist, mind you). I have had to rethink this, a bit. The craze at the moment in higher ed among Education Boards, Departments of Education, university educational committees, and accrediting agencies, is constructing a pedagogy around outcomes, goals, objectives and assessment. This is all the language of bureaucracy as applied to education, as if the progress of the mind can be measured (something inherited from the Logical Positivists). In history this means I have to go through the trouble of giving my final exam at the beginning of the term, showing that my students know next to nothing about the subject, and then incorporating what I want them to know in the course description (wherein I state my outcomes and objectives by simply putting my final exam essay questions in the first, now two page, paragraph), and then teach the whole course with the goal of my students showing on the exams that they have mastered what they previously didn’t know. This is all OK, I guess, when we are speaking merely about information, a sine quo non of the real goals of my department, and those once common among an older generation of Historians. The real goal is to produce self-disciplined minds that need not outward strictures to govern them, for they govern themselves, i.e., they are free citizens within a liberal republic. These goals still have a place among many Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation scholars, and I have found them as well among a few Enlightenment scholars (e.g., Alan Kors), and among many Americanists.
What this has done, because I cannot measure that second item, is turned my ever-expanding syllabus into a lie, or at least a really earnest fraud. I have a colleague at a very respectable liberal arts college who informed me that she has a colleague in German Literature whose syllabus is 80 pages. This is like the map that is so detailed that it is coterminus with the land it covers. I remember a number of classes in my college that had no syllabus. We showed up, the teacher told us what we were doing, what books we would read, and what we should write for a research paper. At the end of every week we were told what we would cover the next week. In Greek class I was expected to study an hour-and-a-half a night and stay on top of my vocabulary. What we learned as regards what we read from our texts and heard in class was thought of as but the basis for our education: what we were really doing was learning to learn, learning to address the larger questions, and learning to start unearthing the larger questions buried under our texts. If we discussed “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this prompted in us automatically the questions of what type of a being was man that he could examine his life, and based on what rule could this function happen and according to what standard? What things impeded the examined life (we would never have thought that it would be a syllabus), and how could they be overcome, were also avenues of pursuit. In my course covering Theological Anthropology, which also encompassed hamartiology, I began looking at why St. Paul termed “the man of sin” by that moniker. What type of human was this that could be characterized by that which itself had no existence of itself, and how did he remain human, if his chief characteristic was sin? Granted, part of what prompted me to that investigation (I was a freshman in college at the time) was that we had been arguing eschatology in the dorms: amillenialists and dispensationalists in cage matches at 4 in the morning. Was this figure someone who consummated our “present evil age,” or was he a character of specific relevance to St. Paul’s day? I look back now, bemused, but in truth, though the school I went to was pretty weak in a lot of areas, it wasn’t, at least my first year there – – things would change – – with respect to the lively debates we students had among ourselves about matters prompted not by the syllabus, but by our extra readings and the questions they and our classmates were generating.
The most important thing cultivated was a love of the chase: pursuing truth. How do you measure that? How do you write that into the syllabus? Our philosophy department (great people, each and every one) has been waging a war with our university assessment committee about having as one of their goals a love of learning. Well, you can’t measure that, they were told, so you can’t have it as part of your student learning plan. They wrote back that the very term philosophy means a love of wisdom, so how could they not make it so. In History we put such immeasurables in our mission statement and have yet to be called on them. What is all of this, but the destruction of the academy by educratic apparatchiks. Why? Well, part of it comes from the government meddling (i.e., dolling out money, which all comes with strings – – and it seems for most the goal is not the money, but the strings) which demands that schools show that what students (the government) are paying for they are getting. Thus, teachers and mentors are no longer free to teach within a Socratic framework, for the measurable information that I impart to my students is only the basis, the building blocks of real learning: that Charles the Great was crowned Imperator and Augustus of the Romans by acclamation of the Roman people and at the hand of pope St. Leo III on Christmas day, AD 800 is information. The significance of the event is something that needs to be drawn out in light of Rome’s relationship to Constantinople and to the Lombards and to the Franks, and in the relationship in turn, of the Franks (and the English educational domination of the Frankish church in Alcuin) to Rome, and finally both actors’ relationship to the Roman past. Yet it is not merely even this, but the ignition of the fire that drives students to see that more was going on, and that the matter is not merely what some Germanic king did or had done to him by some bishop. It has enormous consequences in modern questions about what is Europe, what is the structure of imperium (sovereignty), what distinguishes empire from kingdom, and both from ‘states.’ All of this and the pursuit of these questions last a lifetime, and you cannot measure that on a final exam. Further, could anyone imagine a syllabus whereby Socrates/Plato would teach what he had imagined in The Republic, and it still being The Republic? or one for what Mentor imparted to Telemachus, and entailing what any father imparts to his children, or specifically fathers to sons and mothers to daughters? Anyone? (crickets chirping). OK.
Free thought cannot be graphed. Information, yes. And I am not belittling information, not at all. My students need to know a great deal about the Merovingians and the Iconoclastic controversy and its implications before we get to AD 800, but information is only the beginning of knowledge, and even its measurement comes in all sorts of shades. No, what is free, truly free, is internally defined, and not externally constrained. I can erect all sorts of categories, but ultimately I want my students to come to the conclusions themselves. My one colleague said his vision of the perfect classroom is one in which a visitor would not tell who was the teacher and who the students. I don’t now if I would go quite that far, but instead rather that the visitor would be at great pains to know this. Perhaps I don’t dream big enough.
This brings me back to the insane mind. It is, in fact, not free, for ultimately it does not govern itself. Education’s goal, its real objective is to have minds who are disciplined enough to prompt and follow their questions, and to come to their own answers within the confines of Truth. St. James said that the law of God is liberty: like the rules in tennis, it sets me free to play the game. This is wisdom, and like the love of learning, it cannot be measured.