Books: Excerpts

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In 1985, one surprise best-selling book was crafted by the sociologist Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues from extensive interviews with fellow citizens on the forces that give meaning to their lives. The group of scholars have followed up their influential Habits of the Heart this year with a book that looks less at the personal codes and experiences than at the collective institutions that shape American life.

The Good Society, like their earlier work, finds much to lament in Americans' preoccupation with self-actualization and the individual, with their belief, as the authors write, that "we can live as we choose, using the big institutions--agencies of the state, the companies or organizations we work for, the schools we attend--for our own ends, without being influenced by them."

The following excerpt concludes a chapter on education:

The philosopher Albert Borgmann has said that "to educate is to enable and disable for life." However pluralistic its forms, education can never merely be for the sake of individual self-enhancement. It pulls us into the common world or it fails altogether. Creating a "life-enabling" education is a public task of great difficulty, but it is essential. Here [is a summary of] some of our suggestions as to needed changes:

(1) Education has become something of a panacea for all social problems in the 20th century. But instead of dumping our unsolved problems on our public schools or expecting our universities to come up with technical solutions to our difficulties, we should recover a more classical notion that it is the whole way of life that educates.

Our jobs, our consumer marketplaces, our laws and government agencies, our cities and neighborhoods, our homes and churches, all educate us and create the context in which our schools operate, supporting them or undermining them as the case may be. A genuine "education society" means something more than a society

with good schools. It means a society with a healthy sense of the common good, with social morale and public spirit, and with a vivid memory of its own cultural past.

Schools can contribute to that, but they cannot create it out of whole cloth and should not be expected to. Only a further democratic transformation of all our institutions will make possible a genuine "education society."

(2) Our entire educational system, in some ways like our economy and our government, has grown enormously in response to particular and often transient pressures, so that larger coherence has suffered. Many parochial schools, we are told, since they have a good sense of their mission and the support of their constituencies, produce not only skilled but responsible citizens. The sociologist James Coleman's work on schools shows that they can succeed only when, first, the school itself, its principal and teachers, has a solidary concept of its mission; second, strong families are behind the children; and third, effective communities help to organize the families in support of the schools.

The experience of the parochial schools [Mr. Coleman] studied cannot be easily generalized, and yet the principles seem clear, and we must invent ways to bring these same principles to bear on public education.

(3) Higher education has also expanded in ways that no individual can any longer understand. To overcome disciplinary specialization so many interdisciplinary programs, projects, and institutes have been produced that they only increase the level of incoherence. Adding new entities to deal with every new problem is not the answer.

We must give serious thought, particularly within the older established disciplines, to the meaning of the educational enterprise and its effect on students and faculty. In small institutions the community as a whole can sometimes do this. Large institutions often leave it to the initiative, and sometimes the entrepreneurship, of individuals, allowing enterprising students to discover teachers who can give them a sense of a quest for a larger vision, although some universities organize special seminar programs in an attempt to increase the coherence of the curriculum.

Almost all university faculty members are more oriented to their disciplines than to the educational purposes of their institutions, and it will take extraordinary leadership to get them to think about the educational implications of what they are doing. A greater awareness of large educational issues among the faculty of our prestigious institutions is probably a precondition for successful institutional innovation.

(4) We must recover an enlarged paradigm of knowledge, which recognizes the value of science but acknowledges that other ways of knowing have equal dignity. Practical reason, in its classical sense of moral reason, must regain its importance in our educational life. We must give more than a token bow to art and literature as mere vessels of expressive values, for they can often give us deep moral insight. Ethos is the very subject matter of the humanities and social sciences; ethics cannot possibly be merely one more specialty or a set of procedures that can simply be sprinkled on wherever needed.

We must critically recover the project of the classic American philosophers, following them in their willingness to see science as a social process that cannot be divorced from moral learning and imagination without the impoverishment of every field. The enormous pressure in the university to come up with something new, to revise the inherited view, makes it perilously easy to forget that, as Randolph Bourne put it, "the past is not yet over," and that the critical assimilation of it is a central task of education.

(5) The idea of education for citizenship in a complex world is not some quaint leftover from a 19th century curriculum. It is an essential task for a free society in the modern world. We must redefine our paradigm of knowledge to see why education for citizenship is not subsidiary to the dominant "cognitive complex" of higher education, and is not a decorative "general education" ideologically necessary but lacking cognitive validity. Indeed, cognitive competence is essential for effective citizenship, in close interaction with moral sensitivity and imaginative insight.

Perhaps specialization in (largely scientific) cognition, freed from older dogmatic and culturally parochial constraints, was an essential stage in the development of higher education; but now it is clearly time to reintegrate cognition with a more carefully human understanding.

Genuine education knows no boundaries. Once one seriously begins to consider America's economic and political situation, one is led to think about the larger context in which economics and politics have meaning at all. A concern for understanding our own society inevitably raises the question of where we are in relation to all other human cultures, past as well as present. Today, more than ever, we cannot think about the human species without thinking about the natural world that sustains it and whose viability we threaten. The more deeply we study, the closer we come to the fundamental questions of the meaning of life ....

From The Good Society, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven M. Tipton, published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. Copyright (C) 1991 by the authors. Reprinted by permission.

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Page 28

Published in Print: November 6, 1991, as Books: Excerpts
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