Committed Relativism and Liberal Education: A Reply to Michael Weinman

When I read Michael Weinman’s piece, “Butler’s ‘ethic of vulnerability’ and redefining ‘liberal’ in the ‘liberal arts,’” I had two basic responses. They pulled me in somewhat different directions and, I admit, away from Butler herself. I offer them below seriatim and then try to link them up to connect with Michael’s provocative essay.

My first response was to reflect yet again on a text that has shaped my career, William G. Perry’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years.  I have no memory of when or where I first encountered Perry’s work – but I know it has been thought provoking for me since I began teaching and continues to be influential in both my personal and my professional life. And, this is the case despite my awareness that such schema as Perry outlines are fraught with error both because of the flawed nature of samples used to create them and because the underlying notion of developmental stages itself is deeply problematic. Yes, I know not all college students are male Harvard undergraduates, and thank goodness for that. And, yes, I know that from Piaget to today, if not long before, developmental schemes have confused is with ought, and have been problematic for an array of other reasons.

Yet.  Yet.

Perry’s notions – of moving across nine stages from a kind of authoritarian dualist thinking through relativism to commitment seem, to me, relevant to much of what I experienced as teacher (and indeed as administrator and as citizen).  Moving from the position that the teacher (or professor or government) knows what is right and wrong to relativism and then on to commitment seems to me linked to liberal education insofar as we think about it as both intellectual and character development. The goal (implied or descriptive) for Perry, I have come to call over the years, committed relativism. (I have no idea if he used the term, as I have not read Perry himself in years, but I do know that it is out there across the web accessible by the mere flick of a keyboard.)  Whether we think of the scheme as developmental and thus sequential or a set of ideal types characterizing those around us, committed relativism is a notion I find attractive – and which I have been known to describe as holding one’s views tightly enough to have a commitment and loosely enough to both hear and take seriously those with whom one disagrees.  In the end, one must be open to change while pursuing one’s commitments, in my view.

My second response to Michael’s essay was to return to a book I read some time ago, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine, by Henry Giroux (a leading thinker in, among other things, the critical education movement). In the book, Giroux raises a range of matters regarding neo-liberalism, raising such questions as who gets to define the future role of historical memory (and forgetting) in the maintenance of social order and the dilution of democracy, the role of student loan debt and of private philanthropy in US (and global) higher education, etcetera. On my first reading, I was driven to ask myself whether a college president could be anything other than a voice of neo-liberalism. (See the resultant essay here) I wanted to answer with a resounding yes, of course, but struggled – and struggle – with the matter still as I think perhaps we all do who share Michael’s ‘ethic of vulnerability’ within the academy whether faculty, students, staff, administrators (or, perhaps even, philanthropists).

What, then, if these two thoughts are connected?

I think they may be in what Giroux calls “educated hope.” Educated hope puts moral considerations back in; resists what Giroux calls a “new authoritarianism” through pedagogy. Here are some of Giroux’s words:

The new authoritarianism dominating American society, which attempts to make critical thinking irrelevant and reduce hope to a paralyzing cynicism, must be challenged by a politics and pedagogy that have the capability not only to ‘influence those in power’ but also to ‘mobilize those who don’t have power.’ (p. 85)

Critique and hope together allow us to move beyond analysis paralysis – and also to engage with the world around us in transformative ways. Hope, he argues, is educational – not a fantasy idealism, but a real, critical world and word changer.

So: is liberal education capable of or an instance of educated hope? Can it be? Can the kind of education that Shimer, for example, provides, which is read by some as a “great books” education and thus conservative in deeply political and personal ways, be anything other than neo-liberal today? I believe so – the students at Shimer persuade me that it can be and is for its fostering of engagement with text, with others in the classroom and beyond, and in its willingness to question everything.

And yes, this is my educated hope for Shimer and for liberal education, rooted in a criticism of the ways we have been commodified, we must meet our budgets, we are empowered and disempowered as institutions and individuals by government and economics.

Susan Henking

Previous post

Marcel Mariën

Next post

Global Sweatshops, Solidarity and the Bangladesh Breakthrough