Here on the ESN blog, we’ve often blogged about differing views of education, particularly the conflict between education as personal formation and education as professional training. I encountered these differing views in two articles recently. I expected to see competing visions of education to make an appearance in a column on faculty as role models for students, but it was a bit of surprise to find them in a light (so I thought) opinion piece on the “books for boys” genre.
First, the expected: last week, Inside Higher Ed published a column by Lee University’s Kevin Brown, under the unfortunate title Lacking the Mission(ary) Zeal. I say “unfortunate” because Lee is a Christian college, and the reference to missionaries only confused matters. The column actually addresses the mission of a university. Brown compares and contrasts his own university’s stated mission with that of four nearby secular institutions, focusing on universities’ vision for student formation and the role of faculty in that formation.
The conventional wisdom states that universities mostly gave up their in loco parentis role over the past few decades. Brown found that universities’ mission statements told a much different story.
However, out of the four institutions, three of them also mention some aspect of students’ lives that goes well beyond the idea of academic training and moves into the area of changing their lives in some rather drastic ways. The community college, for example, says that it will “enhance quality of life, and encourage civic involvement,” while the state university will “prepare students to lead lives of personal integrity and civic responsibility in a global society,” “conduct research, teaching, and outreach to improve human and animal medicine and health,” and “contribute to improving the quality of life.” Here at Lee, in addition to the spiritual goals we have for students, we hope to foster “healthy physical, mental, social, cultural and spiritual development.” Only the private institution does not go beyond the basic academic goals in its mission and values.
Brown’s next two paragraphs are key, but I won’t reproduce them here in order to keep this post from just becoming a long quotation. Read the full column instead. Brown makes two points worth considering:
- Most professors assume they have little direct role in the personal formation of students.
- Yet professors constantly attempt to shape their students’ lives and beliefs in all sorts of ways, sometimes quite radically.
We’re now in the same territory as Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time.
The second place I encountered these contrasting visions of education was wholly unexpected: a Wall Street Journal column on gross-out books for boys. Thomas Spence, who runs a conservative publishing house, notes the growing gap in literacy between girls and boys, and observes that common tactics for getting boys to read — “gross” books like SweetFarts or reward systems that “bribe” boys with video game time — are counter-productive and ineffective. Here’s where the column took a turn I didn’t expect. Spence cites Aristotle, Plato, and C. S. Lewis on education as the “formation of manners and taste,” then writes:
One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.
As the father of a young boy, this makes sense to me. As a parent who reads out loud to his children, I also would prefer to read Kidnapped than Captain Underpants. (Though I was also convinced by Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs that children need literature and other entertainments that don’t meet their parents’ approval.)
I won’t try to draw too many connections between these two articles, except to ask:
If personal formation begins in childhood and extends into our adult years, what’s the proper role of educators in the formation of their students?