The entire educational system will, if you like, resemble a great sphere. Children land upon the sphere at different points, depending on their primary culture; the task is to help them explore the globe in a way that permits them to glimpse the deeper meanings of the dramas passing on around them. At the end of the journey, however, the now mature citizen has every right to locate himself at the very point from which he began--just as he may also strike out to discover an unoccupied portion of the sphere. (Bruce Ackerman, Social Justice in the Liberal State,1981)|
Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and universities are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitation of his local circumstances and from the wants he may have happened to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed....they are, then, sheltered places where excellence may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. (Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, 1989)
Both evoked in The Ethics of Identity,
October 17, 2005
I was raised in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia--a rural (and religious) locality through which runs a major throughway. A couple of decades ago, I took that road out, trying to leave behind me the parochial world in which I was raised. Visiting colleges with my youngest daughter during our fall break this past week, I was reminded that, by settling in the urban north, and devoting my adult life to college teaching, what I have been seeking (and have largely found) is just what Oakeshott describes, above: an expansion of horizons, exposure to a larger world--in which I have been able to become larger than I was (or was meant to be).
And yet, whenever I go south again (as I did this weekend, for my family's annual fall hike and picnic), the world always seems bigger to me than it does from the classrooms and offices of Bryn Mawr. Looking across the vista of several mountains, laughing and arguing with friends and family members whose aspirations and investments are very different from my own, the academic life and intellectual conversations in which I invest so much of my own time and thought come into a distant--and different--perspective....
For instance: I have, from "the beginning" (joke), been a regular hewer--and viewer--of this current discussion of Evolution and Intelligent Design. Reviewing that history now, across the perspective of several mountain ranges (as well as the Mason Dixon line and the religious/secular divide) three things are clear to me:
Each camp in this stalemate sees the other as falling short: creationists fault evolutionists for their refusal to look beyond what they (and their sophisticated instruments) can see; evolutionists fault creationists for their short-sighted (if not blind) need for a designer. But we need both of these angles of vision: the attempt (of science? of the story of evolution?) to describe places and times outside of human scales, and the insistence of intelligent design that the theory of evolution is simply not explanation enough. How 'bout we all agree...
that nobody, but NOBODY, has got the whole picture? That we can all profit from an acknowledgement of the limits of our own angles of vision? And a look through a range of other lenses?
I started this reflection with some passages quoted by Anthony Appiah, who is paying a series of visits to Bryn Mawr this semester, and who is interested in the process of what he calls "educative soul-making." Appiah closely follows John Stuart Mill in his two central claims: that
Mill: "To human beings...it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves"....
Appiah: "it is the differences we bring to the table that make it rewarding to interact at all....In a single city state there is no wisdom."