It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.

Introduction to Writing Fiction

They told me, when I was younger, that this is not how you write a paragraph.

A paragraph must be more than a sentence long, they said. Longer than two, too.

And when writing a paragraph, you must stick to the same idea throughout. When playing soccer you should stay in your position. And recently I learned that when working, you should keep to your assigned tasks, and that it doesn’t pay to go outside your job description.

Four sentences per paragraph might be okay. But if it’s a four-sentence paragraph, you must keep to the same idea throughout it, and you should be very careful — very very careful; extremely careful, if I was to emphasise the point — of how you link different paragraphs together, to ensure that your sentences don’t run too long, and to make sure that a single paragraph is not dominated unnecessarily by extraneous and overly verbose vocabulary. Make sure your paragraph doesn’t do that.

When your paragraph is of a suitable length, there are other things to watch out for. For instance, don’t repeat the same word like “vocabulary” over and over again, because that makes the vocabulary overly repetitive, and repetitive vocabulary makes for a repetitive story, and no one wants to read a repetitive story.

And a good paragraph will start with a thesis sentence stating what the paragraph is about. “It will then include a quotation”, my teachers told me, “to provide evidence for what you are saying, since you are not yourself an authority on the topic you are writing about.” The rest of the paragraph is where you can offer your analysis of a quotation. It is true that I am not an authority figure on structuring a good paragraph, but the question I wish to raise here is whether my teachers were, either. After all, how do they define “good” in a good paragraph?

Show, don’t tell. My thesis in this piece of fiction (make sure you don’t state your thesis either at the end of a paragraph or in the middle of your essay, they also told me; and remember that fiction needs not state a “point”) is that eminent writers have always in their prime broken the established norms of writing. If they did not break the norms of established writing, then they did nothing new, nothing worth remembering. But the paradox of eminence is that to break established rules is to immediately open yourself to criticism, to be rejected by those who are already eminent.

I want to learn to write good fiction. And what they told me was, whatever you do, make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end; that it has a theme and a setting, a protagonist and an antagonist, and, most importantly, a turning point. If it does not have those elements, then it is not a story. It would merely be a personal essay, and a bad one at that, with bad paragraphs, and it would be boring to read.

They told me, basically, not to write a story like this. And most importantly, don’t write a story like this that ends in a paragraph only one sentence long.

That wouldn’t make a good story, and that wouldn’t make a good paragraph.

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.

The Standard Answer

In most contexts there is an answer to every question that people take to be the standard or norm. From issues like the death penalty to democracy, or the interpretation of a painting or poem, our cultural contexts push us more readily to one perspective than another.

In most contexts there is, therefore, an answer to every question that people take to be “challenging” the standard answer. This is the answer that is quite simply less common. It is the answer that in an educational context is taken to be either a sign of dubious morals or intelligence, or a prime example of critical thinking, depending on the situation.

But what if there existed a context in which there was no standard? What if you were asked about your view on democracy or Confucian values, and felt neither pushed nor pulled toward one answer or another? What if, rather than feeling afraid of the consequences of presenting the “challenging” perspective, you saw equal consequences whichever answer you gave?

I’m talking about an environment in which cultural contexts meet, where no “standard” prevails. That’s the kind of environment that Yale-NUS College is. There is no majority. You never know where you will meet praise or resistance in views you present, but you are guaranteed that both praise and resistance exist.

And in that environment what you are left with are your own opinions, and the necessity of presenting them clearly and rigorously. You cannot hide behind the assumption that people will take you to hold the majority’s view, for there is, to repeat, no majority. The poles of opinion are spread far apart, and opinions exist at every point between; you must state where you lie, while knowing that some will agree and others will not.

The Meaning of School

At what point or time would we ever come to reflect on the true meaning of a word (and, really, a world) we have understood so clearly since age four or five?

School is the place we went every day between ages five and eighteen to sit in classrooms with rows of desks, to listen to teachers, to read books, and to work hard. It is a place, it is an environment, it is an idea, and yet even being all those things, we have no reason to question it. School is, in many ways, our childhood and our adolescence.

But in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes nonchalantly of how skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meant leisure. It is from here that we derive the English school, meaning, to most of us, leisure’s opposite.

The etymology struck me as only the most obvious ideas, too long hidden, seem to do. Of course school, a place of learning, should be derived from the idea of leisure. Studies have shown that students accelerate most in their learning over summer holidays (which explains a large part of the effect of socioeconomic status on learning outcomes, as students of wealthier families will have more books and other resources at home). Most students themselves will know they learn a great deal when reading for pleasure. Some of the most productive learning time may be spent relaxing on a couch, staring at a laptop screen while stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Waking up on a Sunday morning in summer with nothing to do all day but read a book has been the most meaningful time I’ve spent learning.

And yet school is a place of hard work. It is hectic, rushing between classes, there is homework each day, there are exams to cram for, too many books to read. From the Greek word for leisure we now derive an institution of busyness and hard work, which the original etymology shows us is precisely the opposite to how learning was thought to take place. Whence and why the shift?

I suppose Ken Robinson’s answer in his famous TED talk may come closest, the idea being that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education that brought it to replicate a production line. But regardless of the cause, school today probably does other things aside from the ideal leisure=learning that are worth maintaining.

The trick, I think, is in our own lives in education, and perhaps our childrens’, to not lose sight of the original ideal of how learning takes place; to carve out time for leisure, and to avoid the trap of leisure guilt. It is to know what learning means to us, and find time for that at all costs, regardless of the time we spend in the school=busyness world.

Swimming Upstream at College

“It is particularly painful when those colleges at the top of the usual lists, the ones with the most resources and (as they like to claim) the most talent, fail to confront their obligations—when, as the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, puts it, they “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

— Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

The gap between the ideal of a liberal arts education and its reality seems ever-growing. It isn’t that one cannot pursue an ideal kind of liberal education at a liberal arts college—the kind that focusses on self-examination, reading the great books to give meaning to experience. One can pursue that education. But what Delbanco so aptly puts is that when students arrive on campus, there is no mention of that larger vision of liberal education, no reminders that that is what we are here for.

And so education begins to merge with the language used daily, the subtle pressures from university offices and graduate employers. It is not overt, and it isn’t sinister. It is simply that in the busyness and pressures of everyday life at college, thought about the purpose of it all becomes a luxury one cannot afford. That is the great irony of a college education today.

To pursue liberal education as one thought about it before starting college, then, is not just to choose one path of two when they diverge… Instead, it is to swim upstream, against the current. It requires twice the strength over a sustained period of time, and it’s often all too easy to say simply, let’s go with the flow.

Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom

Formal education has always seemed a paradox for me. On the one hand I am passionate about learning and passionate about what schools and universities can do for individuals and societies. This perhaps stems from my having attended over ten different educational institutions in six different countries. But on the other hand, my own experience in formal schooling, most especially my high school years, was an exemplary case of education getting in the way of someone’s learning. At times this has led to some hard-to-reconcile positions, like when, as an International Baccalaureate scholar at my high school, I complained in an interview to a local newspaper about not learning enough in school.

But the paradox makes sense, I think, when one separates what education is at its core from its present manifestation. One could love architecture but nevertheless live in a less-than-stellar house; one could be an artist yet hang prints on their walls. So long as there is an attempt to improve what one believes in, I don’t see the paradox as being real; the frustrations, the desire to fix and improve, merely emphasise the depth of one’s passion.

At some point during my second to last year in high school I discovered the term “flipped classroom”. The idea was to return education to its roots in learning: have students consume information at home through books and online videos, and then in class turn that information into knowledge through questioning and discussing with the teacher. As each day I went to school and sat through hours of teachers merely repeating back the reading I’d done at home (not all of them, to be sure, but certainly the majority), the idea seemed to recapture the belief in what education was meant to be about.

It was very exciting, then, to attend a talk last night by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard, the man who is generally recognised to have come up with the flipped classroom model (or what he calls peer instruction). Eric spoke at Yale-NUS of his “confessions of a converted lecturer”, how he realised as a teacher that he was wasting his own and his students’ time by merely repeating what books already said, focussing on transfer of information rather than the understanding of knowledge. The audience was actually made up of Yale-NUS professors, rather than students, which made for a different perspective than the one I’ve so far been used to thinking from.

Through examples, data, and an interactive session, Eric had seemingly all the professors convinced of the flipped classroom model. This was true at least for those whose subjects require transfer of information at some point; there is a great difference between philosophy, which I think focusses on knowledge from the start, and the sciences, which begin with information and must move to knowledge.

But to my surprise, by the end of the talk I wasn’t convinced. I had gone into the lecture already convinced of the flipped classroom model, merely wanting to hear the idea from its inventor’s mouth; I left with serious doubts, at least about the extent to which it is being taken. And what struck me was how the one class I’ve taken that was the most faithful reproduction of a flipped classroom model was the one class I and my peers came to despise most. Eric’s talk inadvertently ended up explaining why.

Eric’s goal with the flipped classroom is to have every student prepared for every class. To achieve this, he encouraged teachers to focus on ensuring that everyone has the information needed before the start of class. His new company produces an online reading tool that has students annotate their readings and ask questions of each other on a web platform. Through an algorithm, the software analyses the highlights and comments and determines how “thoughtful” students were, then assigning a grade. The advantage of this is that teachers then know exactly what students understand, what they don’t, and what questions they have. Teachers can also test students’ dedication to their readings through short quizzes at the start of class. All of these annotations, questions and quizzes will contribute to a student’s grade.

What I hated most about that class (well, really two classes, each which focussed on slightly different aspects) that most faithfully lived up to the flipped classroom model was that everything I read was done with a grade hanging over my head. The passages I chose to highlight and question on the course website would be graded! If something struck me as interesting, I first had to think about whether I should highlight it or not; what if it wasn’t a “good” annotation? The annotations were, after all, public for my classmates and professor to see. I found an interesting passage, highlighted it, and also wanted to write a comment to myself on something to remember. But what would my professor think of that? Would my comment be good enough to receive an “A” grade? All the while I had to focus on memorising the information on every page, since the first ten minutes of every class would be a test on my recall and ability to apply what I had read.

The extent to which Professor Mazur has taken the flipped classroom model has essentially commodified learning entirely.

Students are now incentivised to learn, to turn information into knowledge, it is true. And data shows that this works! Students will remember information better, and in class they will come to grasp its implications more clearly. But what data can never show is how that knowledge comes to affect students’ lives. And as a student in an entirely flipped classroom, I came to see how nothing done for class was done for an intrinsic reason. A flipped classroom requires extrinsic motivators, and though these work in improving both recall and understanding, they necessarily work against the last step of education—how knowledge affects life. Reading, annotations and comments in the margin are done for classes’ sake, and what the flipped classroom forgets is that the classroom is only the starting point of education. It is what happens when a student leaves a classroom with knowledge that determines the success of education. It seemed as though Professor Mazur and his model of a flipped classroom has thought so much about the classroom that he has seemingly forgotten that the classroom is merely instrumental, not in itself the end of education.

Imagine a philosophy class practising the flipped classroom. The contradiction would become absurd. Philosophy, which takes knowledge as useful for its own sake, which hopes to ask and instruct how we should live, would then be reduced for students merely to “intelligent” and “thoughtful” annotations, and pop quizzes at the start of class. The point of a philosophy class is for students to discover for themselves how to live; to have tools with which to think about material, but ultimately leaving the application of that material up to students. It can only have intrinsic motivators, where a flipped classroom can only have the extrinsic.

So we’re back to a kind of paradox like the one I began with. I haven’t given up on the flipped classroom, but I am now far more aware of its limits and its dangers. The task is to find or encourage intrinsic motivators (if that is not too great a contradiction), so that the flipped classroom can remain merely an educational tool. The danger with any great educational innovation is that it forgets education is really only what happens afterwards.

Eric Mazur flipped classroom Yale-NUS

Note: Emphasis was added to make clear that two different classes I’ve taken tried to replicate the flipped classroom model, and each focussed on slightly different aspects of it.