“Clearly, we have left the young, as Arendt put it, ‘to their own devices.’ We may not have loved them enough to prepare them ‘for the task of renewing a common world.” In “Liberal Education and the Newcomer,” Maxine Greene offers the utopian image of a “common world” or “shared heritage” informing the youth of a definite past, allowing them to truly experience the present, and revealing to them the myriad possibilities for the future. For Greene, liberal education is that “common world.” But does such a thing exist in the globalized twenty-first century and, if so, would it naturally limit the “potential perspectives through which experience can be viewed” rather than expand them? This was the first question I posed to my discussion group and it established the tone as well as the general direction of our discussion. I chose this question as my opener for several reasons. Firstly, it is an open-ended, thought-provoking question which can reveal much about the person attempting to answer it. The question probes beyond political or theological ideology to get at something deeper. Secondly, throughout my reading of Greene’s article I found this question to be on my mind more than any other, almost as if Greene herself explicitly poses it within the text. Lastly, I felt this question might result in more questions than answers and provide fuel for furthering the discussion. I was not disappointed, as it more than exceeded my expectations.
As the conversation began, I was immediately struck by the varying interpretations of Greene’s “common world.” For me, the “common world” was an external cultural heritage, a shared history, theology, philosophy, art, etc., but many of the group members saw the “common world” as an internal one, existing within the confines of the classroom. For them, the “shared heritage” was a shared classroom heritage and, as a result, “potential perspectives” were as limitless as the classroom culture allowed. The group discussed ways to ensure a diversification of “potential perspectives” within the classroom. We all agreed that a critical step in that direction would be the elimination of a Eurocentric definition of liberal education. Throughout her piece, Greene mentions many prominent figures in Western movements and intellectual traditions including Michelangelo, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Vivaldi, Marx, etc. But what about the rest of the world and human experience? The group reached a consensus that a true definition of liberal education must include multiculturalism. If there is a “common world,” it must be a multicultural one. But where does one draw the line? How inclusive can one realistically be? These questions remained unanswered.
From the “common world,” we moved on to Greene’s charge of pandemic illiteracy among contemporary youth and her attack on technical/professional training programs. I posed the question, “has a desire for ‘prestige’ and ‘security’ pushed young people away from liberal learning towards the ‘pragmatism’ of technical/professional training?” A majority of group members agreed that liberal education has become devalued in our society, while those who seek success through the accumulation of material “wealth” increasingly turn to technical/professional education as a means to an end. A few members argued the merits of technical/professional training but did not deny the unfortunate decline of liberal arts education. I asked the group if, in order to reverse this trend, we must first address our “culture of consumption” and the economic/political forces driving it. This question was met with some suspicion by certain members of the group who may have read in it left-leaning overtones. Perhaps their suspicions were warranted and I was not careful enough in the framing of the question. How do we keep ourselves out of our questions?
I quickly moved to a discussion of Greene’s view of the individual youth and introduced the following quotation from the text, “The young, generally left to their own devices, appear bored, cynical, entangled (more often than not) in what Virginia Woolf described as ‘a kind of nondescript cotton wool.’” I asked the group if they believed, as Greene does, that the individual must establish a relationship to a larger whole in order to find purpose and meaning. They seemed to agree with Greene, arguing that socialization is essential to the development of the individual youth and an important function of education. Personally, I found Greene’s description of the limited capacity of the individual to make connections and discover meaning, without establishing a relationship to something larger, extremely pessimistic. I wanted the group to challenge Greene’s assertion but they felt it to be accurate. I was on my own on this one. My final question was, “does liberal education necessarily ‘humanize?’” I made no attempt to secure Greene’s definition of “humanize.” I wanted group members to come up with their own definitions and then attempt to answer the question. Again, I thought this question would reveal much about the person answering it. Unfortunately, the question was relatively unsuccessful as group members struggled to define “humanize” on their own terms. The question itself was never directly addressed.
Overall, I think the discussion was successful and extremely interesting. The group members seemed to respond well to most of the questions and remained engaged throughout. It was enlightening to hear their perspectives on the text and how drastically they differed from my own. I had not thought of a “common world” existing within the classroom and this is significant because such a world can be manipulated and expanded, it is not static like the monolithic cultural heritage I had envisioned. Looking back, there are some things I would probably do differently in future discussions. In the future, I would be less hesitant to interject and reorient the conversation if it is strays too far off topic. There were a few instances when I felt the group had wandered away from the text but, in the interests of free flow and stream of consciousness, I did not attempt to reel them back in. This was probably a mistake. Also, I would be more careful when framing my questions, making sure to keep my personal views out of them as much as possible and not trying to answer the question within the question. Finally, I would listen more carefully to the other members of the group, rather than trying to listen while conjuring the next question in my head. The foolish man talks; the wise man listens.