Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America

by Donald N. Levine

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It is one thing to lament the financial pressures put on universities, quite another to face up to the poverty of resources for thinking about what universities should do when they purport to offer a liberal education. In Powers of the Mind, former University of Chicago dean Donald N. Levine enriches those resources by proposing fresh ways to think about

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It is one thing to lament the financial pressures put on universities, quite another to face up to the poverty of resources for thinking about what universities should do when they purport to offer a liberal education. In Powers of the Mind, former University of Chicago dean Donald N. Levine enriches those resources by proposing fresh ways to think about liberal learning with ideas more suited to our times. 

He does so by defining basic values of modernity and then considering curricular principles pertinent to them. The principles he favors are powers of the mind—disciplines understood as fields of study defined not by subject matter but by their embodiment of distinct intellectual capacities. To illustrate, Levine draws on his own lifetime of teaching and educational leadership, while providing a marvelous summary of exemplary educational thinkers at the University of Chicago who continue to inspire.  Out of this vital tradition, Powers of the Mind constructs a paradigm for liberal arts today, inclusive of all perspectives and applicable to all settings in the modern world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
What does it mean to be liberally educated in 21st-century America, and what is the role of liberal education in a democracy? These are the basic questions that motivate very different works by B rub (literature, Pennsylvania State Univ.; Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child) and Levine (sociology, Univ. of Chicago; Visions of the Sociological Tradition). Both works share an interest in addressing limitations in the conservative criticism of higher education that began with works like Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. B rub takes aim at the oft-repeated charge of liberal bias and skillfully rebuts many of the claims made by critics such as David Horowitz (e.g., The Professors). Levine, by contrast, focuses on defining a curricular structure for liberal education (rooted primarily in the evolution of undergraduate programs at Chicago, which he calls exemplary). While both works will appeal to those with an interest in higher education, they are for different audiences: B rub provides an effective liberal counterpoint to the conservative criticism of schools while also providing an extended review of his own work in the classroom; Levine provides a historical analysis of the development of undergraduate education at Chicago and a proposal for a contemporary model of liberal learning. The distinction, of course, is in how one defines the word liberal in reference either to politics or to education. Like Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, both works help create balance between conservative and liberal volleys in the "culture wars" in higher education and will appeal to many readers. Recommended for academic collections, though note that the first part of B rub 's work is likely to have significant appeal to a broader, more popular audience. Scott Walter, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Carol Schneider

"Writing as scholar, teacher, and dean, Levine provides rich evidence that current debates in the world of liberal education are part of a continuing negotiation that has deep but frequently forgotten roots. This study also reminds us that the norm of a four-year undergraduate experience, complete with majors and general education requirements, was not preordained and that the aims are more enduring than the forms."

Lee S. Shulman

Powers of the Mind will become an instant landmark in the history and analysis of education in the liberal arts. Donald Levine understands that liberal education is more than the content of a curriculum; liberal education is a set of pedagogies, an approach to assessment and evaluation, and a conception of intellectual and moral development that transcends particular authors and works. He does not stop at description and analysis; he courageously offers a compelling proposal for the reinvention of the pedagogies of the liberal arts for the future. I love this book and look forward to savoring it repeatedly.”

Mark D. Jacobs

“A truly significant book—both timely and timeless. Liberal education is challenged by the commercialism and indeed commodification of the university, exacerbated by growing aimlessness. In Powers of the Mind, Donald Levine recenters the necessary conversation about the reconstruction of liberal education by reflecting on its best traditions in the context of its present situation and mission. It’s hard to say which is more thrilling: the sweep and originality of Levine’s narrative about the history of liberal education at the University of Chicago or his own pedagogical and curricular prescriptions, based on a lifetime of engaged teaching, learning, and administrative leadership.”--Mark D. Jacobs, George Mason University

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University of Chicago Press
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Nature of Human Society Series
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Meet the Author

Donald N. Levine is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, where he served as dean of the College from 1982 to 1987. He is the author of several books, including Visions of the Sociological Tradition,The Flight from Ambiguity, and Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture.

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Powers of the Mind The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America
By Donald N. Levine
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47553-0

Chapter One The Place of Liberal Learning

"Liberal learning" is a commonplace. Locating that place requires four rough distinctions.

One rough distinction concerns the timing of what is learned. To begin with, individuals learn what they must know to become human beings in their particular society. This learning happens early and involves widely shared patterns. A second phase occurs during adolescence and after; it involves learning special, often specialized, matters humans must know to function as adults.

A second distinction concerns the content of what is learned-whether it concerns ways to engage in social relations and play social roles or the complex of ideas whereby people impart meanings to their environment. The term socialization refers to the former, that is, experiences whereby persons learn their positions in networks of social relations and how to behave toward others in those networks. On the other hand, the process of assimilating the meanings in one's culture we designate as enculturation.

Both distinctions reflect features unique to humans. The exceptionally long maturation period of humans accounts for the distinction between primary and secondary phases of learning. The distinction between learning social roles and absorbing cultural symbols indicates that while other animal species exhibit well-defined patterns of social interaction, humans alone rely essentially on symbols.

These two distinctions combine to identify four sites of learning experience:

1. Primary socialization teaches general ways of relating to people-for example, to be loyal to those to whom they are bonded or to show respect to people according to their social status. 2. Secondary socialization teaches how to play special adult roles: how to be a carpenter or a healer, organization man or entrepreneur, political leader or church follower. 3. In primary enculturation, individuals internalize the common features of their society's culture-its language and music, heroes and holidays, beliefs about the world and basic values-whether piety, industry, military courage, beauty, or the like. 4. In secondary enculturation, individuals acquire ideas reserved for adults and, often, only for selected adults.

Liberal learning figures as a particular form of secondary enculturation. It evolves when special teachings are adduced to create what is considered a "higher" kind of human being. It instantiates a third distinction, between the acquisition of adult popular culture, common to all adults, and some form of elite culture. Elite secondary enculturation (distinct from elite secondary socialization, which prepares persons for high-status governance or technical occupational roles) has taken two main forms. Associated with the ethics of two world-historical cultural transformations, this pair of forms embodies a fourth distinction, between what I shall call civilized learning and liberal learning.

Sites of Secondary Enculturation

COMMON ADULT CULTURE In speaking of the popular, commonsense form of secondary enculturation, I refer initially to small, undifferentiated societies where a homogeneous culture is shared by virtually the whole adult community. Although such societies may possess lore known only to specialists such as shamans or chieftains, their basic religious notions, magic, science, and artistic forms are common property. Secondary enculturation takes the form of initiating young people into this adult lore. Such initiations may involve dramatic transitional rites-through such ordeals as scarification, prolonged fasting, or circumcision-when the young person is taught the sacred myths and traditions of the community as well as the names of their gods and stories of their works; or it may occur casually, with youngsters educated informally by relatives and village elders.

Comments of Australian Aborigines exemplify this sort of learning, which prevailed over most of human history. "I tell my kids stories when they come hunting with me. I show them how to hunt, fish, get bush tucker-these are good things to eat." "In my life when I was young he was teaching us how to hunt and telling us stories every day. I always remember the things he was teaching me-language, places, skins, clans, djang (dreaming) sites, sacred places. He is still teaching me." Such teaching was unwritten; it was unstructured; it occurred anywhere and everywhere; it involved no specialized lore. And it was essential for a group's survival. When such teachings were lost, individuals might find new subsistence skills, but their culture could not survive and their lives were drained of meaning. Another Aborigine said, "When I look at a lot of aboriginal people who don't have their culture I feel sad for them. You don't really feel that you have a place of belonging."

And so, for example, young people of the Kuku Yalanji clan would learn to use juice of green ants to heal sore throats and chest colds; to make and use fire sticks; to climb trees to collect honey, possums, bird eggs, and fruits; to build traps to snare scrub turkeys. They learned what to do with water lilies (eat their roots and stems, make cakes by wrapping their ground seeds in the lily's leaves and cooking them in sand under hot coals); who among them could eat stingrays or eels (elders only); who could eat food a child brings from hunting (only the godparents); what to say when someone dies (not mention their name); how to identify "sacred" or "dangerous" places created by the First People (marked by cairns, stone arrangements); and what rules to follow and obligations to assume with respect to people, animals, and places. Before outsiders with superior weapons forcibly intruded, these people lived smart, alert, often happy lives, in tune with the surround of nature, their community of people, and their encompassing world of spirits. What they learned was common to all, at least to members of the same age and gender groups, and all of their learning related to ways to survive and live together effectively. For them, a higher level of human being amounted simply to anyone who conformed particularly well to customary expectations.

"CIVILIZED" ELITE CULTURE Ancient forms of liberal learning emerged from a long process of differentiation from the customary thoughtways of commonsense culture. The germs of these systems appeared in speculations about life and the world that took shape in what Paul Radin described in Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927). Over time such notions developed into traditions of philosophy, theology, and fine arts transmitted through formal schools of instruction. These traditions formed the cultural core of what we refer to as historic civilizations.

The historic civilizations evolved separate tracks for secondary enculturation. We sometimes speak of their cultures as divided into a high culture and a low culture, what Redfield called a "Great Tradition" and a "Little Tradition." For illiterate members of such societies, secondary enculturation would follow the commonsense pattern. But for those who, by special position or by talent and ambition, learned how to read, secondary enculturation could also take the form of acquainting them with the great texts of their high culture. In Imperial China this enculturation involved study of the analects of Confucius and the historical writings of Confucian scholars; in Hindu civilization, the Vedas and Upanishads; in Jewish civilization, the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash; in the Christian tradition, the Old and New Testaments and other sacred literature, with variants such as Ethiopian Orthodox Christian texts and an esoteric type of poetry; and in Islamic civilization, the Qur'an and the Hadith.

Notable in all these traditions is a shift from using cultural forms solely for purposes of adjustment to natural and social worlds to ways of honoring them as guides to transcending worldly habits and thereby producing a higher, "civilized" type of humanity. Most of their prophetic works appeared around the sixth century BCE-a crucially formative period in world history, which Karl Jaspers ([1949] 1953) has described as an "Axial Age"-when a number of powerful cultural developments took place independently in China, India, Iran, Palestine, and Greece. An era of simultaneous destruction and creation, the Axial Age redirected cultural symbols from a basically utilitarian, adaptive function toward a self-conscious striving for transcendence and self-determination. Jaspers represented this historic transformation as a process of spiritualization (Vergeistigung), whereby humans came to reorient their lives through adherence to transcendent spiritual directives. The elevated character of these texts meant that the primary outcome of studying them was to reinforce their sacral authority.

"LIBERAL" ELITE CULTURE In contrast with those types of elite enculturation that focused on mastery of the texts and doctrines of an Axial civilization, another type stressed the production of an especially cultivated type of person. In ancient China, this type became the preeminent ideal of the gentleman-scholar. During the latter sixth century BCE,, Confucius described this ideal as one who possesses wisdom, courage, and magnanimity, and who is accomplished in courtesy, ceremony, and music. He stressed the virtue of sincerity and held that education was a means to gain an enlightened mind, enlightened in the sense of coming to grasp the remarkable harmonies of nature. Classical Chinese education attempted to produce a broadly cultivated man through a program that included both literary and martial training. The curriculum codified during the Chou period consisted of six subjects, sometimes called the liberal arts of classical Chinese education: rituals, music, archery, charioting, writing, and mathematics.

A Japanese variant of this conception employed the idiom of "polishing" the person. In medieval Japan, this idiom became crystallized in the ideal of bu-bun, the cultured warrior, who received training in the various arts of combat and in such other arts as calligraphy, poetry, and tea ceremony-arts closely associated with traditions of Zen Buddhism.

In the West, the form of liberal education designed to produce elite persons is usually traced to ancient Greece around the sixth century BCE, reaching generative depth in the "educational century" of Athens, from about 450 to 350 BCE. The educational ideal formulated there, paideia, denoted an aspiration to use culture as a means to creating a higher type of human being. The Greeks believed, we are told, that education in this sense "embodied the purpose of all human effort. It was, they held, the ultimate justification for the existence of both the individual and the community" (Jaeger 1939, xvii).

This type of elite learning celebrated not the authority of sacred texts but the formation of adults with special qualities. Aristotle's Politics (1255b, 1258b, 1337a) remains a locus classicus of this formulation. Aristotle distinguished between education that is liberal, meaning appropriate to a free man (eleutheron), and education suited for slaves and servile classes. The distinction was made on the basis not of subject matter but of the spirit in which a subject is pursued. One may pursue a subject out of necessity, as learning a trade may be necessary to earn a living. One may study something for its utility, as reading is useful because it enables one to decipher signs. Or one may pursue a subject because of peer pressure, as the fashionable "thing to do." But by definition, to act from necessity is not the mark of being free; to seek utility everywhere is not suited for those who are great-souled and free; and to follow some pursuit because of the opinion of other people, says Aristotle, would appear to be acting in a menial and servile manner.

In contrast to motives of this sort, Aristotle describes motives to learn that befit a free person: learning that is undertaken for its own sake and appropriate for promoting a good life. Although Aristotle certainly does not deny the need to study useful arts, he insists that they should not constitute the whole point of learning. Free people should study drawing, he urges, not merely to avoid being cheated in buying and selling furniture, but for the liberal reason that this study makes one observant of bodily beauty.

Aristotle's notion of what this education should consist of rested on the teachings of Socrates and Plato and featured the philosophical pursuit of truth. This view of liberal education was by no means shared by all prominent educators of the time. Indeed, the "education century" was marked by acrimonious competition among educators. Isocrates, who commanded a larger following than Aristotle, emphasized civic activities and therewith promoted arts of discourse as the most suitable education for free men.

Proponents of both views directed their teachings to those who were of high status-free, not slaves or servile, and wealthy enough to have the leisure time to spend on educational pursuits. They believed that the ennobling education proper to free persons should include a physical as well as intellectual component. In later centuries, cultivation of the body disappeared as a component of liberal training, so that intellectual arts alone emerged as suitable subjects for liberal learning. The Greeks named these intellectual arts arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. During the Roman Republic, the prominence of legal and political issues disposed educators to feature the cultivation of rhetorical skills as the prime component of liberal teaching. Looking to Isocrates as a model, these proponents of oratory, most notably Quintilian and Cicero, identified a set of arts proper for free citizens, which they designated as artes liberales.

Although early Christian fathers were wary of such "pagan" subjects, by the fourth century CE, figures such as St. Augustine were able to embrace major parts of the classical liberal curriculum. When invasions swept aside traditional Roman schools, the church, needing a literary culture for its clergy, sustained educational traditions that Rome had adapted from the Greeks. By the sixth century, Christian educators including Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville codified the liberal arts into an encyclopedic education. Their curriculum organized human knowledge into seven fundamental disciplines, divided into two groups: the trivium, consisting of the disciplines of grammar, logic (sometimes dialectic), and rhetoric; and the quadrivium, comprising arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the ancient Pythagorean program of mathematics). Transmitted by monastics for centuries, this curriculum entered secular universities during the Renaissance.

The liberal arts tradition came to the United States with the Puritan divines in Massachusetts. It was instituted in American colleges in a framework that combined Protestant piety and mental discipline, a term that came to embrace the approach to disciplines found in the Renaissance curriculum. The core of this curriculum consisted of Greek and Latin languages and literatures, biblical studies, and moral philosophy. Well into the nineteenth century, the political and cultural elites of Western Europe and the Americas were groomed on curricula of this sort, programs of liberal cultivation inspired by Renaissance culture.

The Modernity Revolutions

From the eighteenth century onward, Western philosophers of education came to evolve new rationales and directions for liberal learning. They and the educational administrators who followed in their wake were responding to momentous changes in their societal and cultural environments. For thinking about those changes, the notion of modernity, however ambiguous its sense and contested its meanings, offers a point of reference. It symbolizes the sense of a radical discontinuity between earlier forms of social order and the sense, perhaps for the first time in Western history, that the "modern" or novel did not have pejorative overtones.


Excerpted from Powers of the Mind by Donald N. Levine Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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