The Educated Person: Toward a New Paradigm for Liberal Education

reviewed by Philip L. Smith - November 12, 2009

coverTitle: The Educated Person: Toward a New Paradigm for Liberal Education
Author(s): Daniel Mulcahy
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742561224, Pages: 256, Year: 2008
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Liberal Education has been traditionally associated with a certain kind of curriculum and a hoped-for educational outcome.  The curriculum is the classics, or some collection of books that smartly address the human condition.  The hoped-for educational outcome is a well-rounded person with a good mind, who can experience life as a human being on the highest possible plane.  The most common complaint about Liberal Education is that it is not sufficiently practical, that it puts too much emphasis on the inner lives of odd, often long dead, people, and features a highbrow culture that most students cannot nor need not understand.  Liberal Education has long been disparaged as the province of privilege, where one can afford to contemplate the beauty and mysteries of life because the business of life is provided for in other ways.

The challenge for Liberal Education has always been to find the proper mix between its humanizing purpose and the actual experience of those who are supposed to benefit from it.  Its failure in this regard has made it look silly.  It promotes a kind of abstract aesthetic that all too frequently has been associated with the musings of victims and the pious rants of tyrants, and not frequently enough with well-nurtured human beings and flourishing human communities.  If Liberal Education can ever deliver on its promise, now is the time.  The central question for philosophers of education is whether it can be conceptualized so that its outcome can be achieved without undermining the integrity of its purpose.  

This recent book by D.G. Mulcahy, The Educated Person: Toward a New Paradigm for Liberal Education, purports to do just that.  Whether or not it points towards a new “paradigm” depends on how the word is defined.  At a minimum it provides a compendium of recent attempts to refurbish Liberal Education in philosophical terms.  Most of what has always been important to this vision of education, e.g., good books, big ideas, and human predicaments, remains important.  What Mulcahy and his cast of characters add to the list is socialized experience.  ‘Socialized experience’ is defined by reference to the ideals of contemporary bourgeois liberal democracies.  It occurs when human beings co-operate with mutual respect and common purpose.  Along with more traditional arenas of liberal learning, like art and religion, Mulcahy identifies three important new sites where socialized experience can be effectively acquired and exemplified, (1) the work place, (2) recreation, and (3) “service learning,” i.e., settings where students mature and develop understanding by empathizing with, and caring for, others who need help providing for their basic human needs.  Each of these sites is celebrated for both its potential and actual impact on liberal learning.  They also show how Liberal Educations can have practical results, as well as utilize a practical approach to learning.

Mulcahy does not worry much about the details of educating students, except to say that it requires an “engaging pedagogy.”  He seems to believe that specific instructional choices should be determined by the situation, and as a function of the individuals involved.  No pedagogical algorithms for him.  He considers it sufficient to focus on elucidating the proper aims of education, identifying them as the goals of Liberal Education, and persuading the reader that they are achievable, even in today’s cultural climate.  On his view, a refurbished Liberal Education must begin with a healthy respect for the previous experience of each and every student, along with an awareness of the learner’s general level of development.  Mulcahy references John Dewey on this point, “no subject, in and of itself, or without regard to the stage of growth of the learner, is such that inherent educational value can be attributed to it” (p. 181). This refurbished vision is also expected to encourage more cooperative and bidirectional instruction, and to rely less on didactic injunctions.  To quote Mulcahy on this point, “The curriculum must be fashioned anew by every teacher in accordance with the requirements of the instructional moment, not merely because each student brings a unique experience to the teaching and learning encounter, but because each communication between the teacher and his or her students is unique” (p. 181). Achieving the goals of Liberal Education is, thus, more of an art than a science, not only for teachers, but for students, too.  

Can the lofty goals of Liberal Education be brought about in this manner, especially if the intent is to implement them on a wide scale?  It is hard to see how.  Perhaps, the question needs to be seen in a larger light.  Without a clear idea of what these goals involve it is virtually impossible to figure out how to achieve them.  The first task is to decide what it means to be an educated person.  Then the challenge of figuring out how to make it happen, while almost never easy, becomes a manageable chore.  The challenge is to intelligently utilize the resources at hand and to judge progress by standards that are gleaned from goals themselves, rather than the other way around.  

This vision of education is admittedly a little thin.  While there may be no preordained or universal curriculum of Liberal Education for schools and universities, Mulcahy believes there are “forms” of good education that give it substance, and that these forms are reflected in the idealized forms of modern life.  Good books dealing with the human condition may always be relevant.  But socialized activities are what drive student motivation and justify the various formulations of educational material.  They deepen a person’s understanding of experience and foster a continued interest in learning.  The result is a “many-sided” person who is (1) knowledgeable and thoughtful without being withdrawn, (2) caring and sensitive, (3) with a strong moral compass, (4) capable of purposeful action, (5) with a controlled zest for life in its rich variety, and (6) skilled in dealing with the demands of a life lived fully.

Is this a philosophy of education?  Does is it add up to a compelling vision of the educated person?  Despite suggestions to the contrary, it remains pretty clear that anyone who would try to institutionalize this vision would be taxed to the hilt trying to figure out exactly what to do, how to do it, and why.  Being told that the modern workplace, modern forms of recreation, and service learning offer valuable new sites for revitalizing Liberal Education and make it relevant to the conditions of modern democratic life is more inspirational than useful when it come to designing effective educational programs.  Yet, the vision of education that Mulcahy offers should not be sold short.  A strong presentation of educational ideals makes a vital contribution to the entire enterprise of education, not just to its philosophy.  It does more than remind us what these ideals are, or should be.  It motivates us to reflect upon and appreciate them, and to work for their realization.  It provides a guiding light that helps us focus our ingenuity, creativity, inventiveness, and artistry, whereas otherwise these potent human powers could easily go astray.  It increases the odds that what we design, build, and deliver in the name of education might actually have merit.  

Liberal Education has never been more maligned than it is today.  Mulcahy’s attempt to refurbish its image by gathering up the best thinking on the subject and putting it into a coherent picture is by itself an important contribution, even though his writing style is not particularly elegant.  Excessive references to authors and books that should have been left to footnotes are a major detraction from the flow of the narrative he struggles to present.  For this reason the book is unlikely to become a best seller.  But it may not matter.  It should still appeal to those who are ready to take the next step experimenting with and implementing programs in Liberal Education.  There may not be many of these people, but their influence could prove to be considerable.    

Even at that, what are the chances that this philosophy of education, this vision, would actually become fashionable, if it ran against the grain of the larger society?  Clever people might add detail to the revamped ideals of Liberal Education and it would still not pay off, unless it challenges the seductive appeal of popular culture and the latent promise of technical science to deliver power to anyone willing and able to pay for it.  A new paradigm for Liberal Education, no matter how impressive it may be on theoretical grounds, would be either rejected or co-opted by forces too strong to resist.  Those who believe that human beings can overcome any threat to their welfare, if education lives up to its best ideals, will remain optimistic.  Those who think that popular culture and the latent promise of technical science are the siren song of dark forces within us will be less optimistic, even if everyone were to see themselves as the beneficiaries of a democratically reconstructed Liberal Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 12, 2009 ID Number: 15830, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 11:17:05 AM

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