The Betrayal of Intellect in Higher Education

Mohammed Rahman
Toronto, Ontario: Omniview, 1997
171pp., $17 Canadian pb

Heinz-Joachim Klatt
University of Western Ontario, King's College

Mohammed Rahman, Professor of Psychology, recently retired from the University of Prince Edward Island. The Betrayal of Intellect in Higher Education is his swan song. Publication of what he calls his "satanic prose" had indeed to wait until his retirement since "speaking the truth about academic pretensions is fraught with high risk and is incompatible with smooth career advancement" (xiii). His uncompromising support of liberal education makes his book worth reading. Whenever he criticises, pillories, or excoriates academic policies or practices, he never comes across as cranky or cantankerous, but is unfailingly rational, insightful, and courageous.

The book cover (better than the table of contents) identifies what Rahman calls the disturbing trends that erode the spirit of higher education:

Because Rahman is such a forceful and passionate advocate of liberal education, the reader receives a wealth of reflections on the desirability of such programs. The author identifies four prevalent definitions of liberal education before offering his own: Plato's "skills proper to free persons"; the medieval understanding of liberal education as comprising the verbal arts of the trivium and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium; liberal education narrowly identified with the humanities; and broadly defined as any program that is not specifically vocational.

Liberal education for Rahman precludes utilitarian programs as well as all forms of education that have a research-specialist orientation. What characterises liberal education more than anything else is its "generalist-humanist approach to knowledge, which is based on a historically grounded study of the great works and ideas in the humanities and sciences for the sole purpose of cultivating general intellectual ability" (2). "The chief value of higher education lies in our being able to find pleasure in exercising our minds on the goods of the mind, for the good of the mind" (3). This goal, he argues, is ill served by the majority of North American colleges and universities.

The author contends that: "most universities have become unfit places for higher education; most academic programs do more harm than good to the intellect; most universities care more for academic productivity and for the enhancement of bureaucracy than for the real educational needs of students; most academic degrees are little more than certificates of university attendance and course credits" (4).

After thoroughly indicting our contemporary universities, the author gives an interesting overview of the history of the university as an institution. Plato is rightly seen as the originator of the first liberal arts curriculum with philosophy as its centerpiece. The Greeks are seen as so indispensable that "Without a proper study of Greek thought, Socratic and pre-Socratic, education cannot claim to be 'higher' in any meaningful sense of the word" (14). The medieval university retained the liberal arts but added the professional disciplines of medicine, law, and theology. Higher education was still seen as sacred, rather than as simply useful.

What further distinguished the medieval university from its ancient predecessor was the granting of academic degrees that certified the discipline and the level of learning. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who later converted the university into a research institution, retained, however, the liberal arts as necessary for becoming an educated person. Learning for its own sake maintained its high prestige.

With the meteoric rise of the natural sciences in the 19th century came the fragmentation of the curriculum and the decline of liberal education. Even John Newman, who wanted to preserve the university as an institution solely concerned with teaching and education, i.e., with the "cultivation of intellect," could not successfully resist the all-powerful wave of specialization and demands for scientific research. Whereas Oxford and Cambridge preserved liberal education as a central focus, German universities became research institutions, and it was finally Göttingen-in-Baltimore, i.e., Johns Hopkins University, that became the prototype or paragon of the North American university. "With the introduction of the elective system to cater to the individual tastes and interests of students [in the 20th century], liberal education in America essentially went under receivership," and the smorgasbord became the apt metaphor for academic programs.

Rahman considers literacy to be the general aim of education, but what is meant by literacy? He makes four useful distinctions, with two forms of literacy to be acquired in the schools and two at the university. Basic literacy refers to the "general skills of reading, writing, and reckoning," and cultural literacy refers to the "broadly shared background knowledge about historical, national, social, political, literary, and scientific matters." Academic literacy is defined in terms of "knowledge, training, and research in specialized scholarly disciplines." Finally, intellectual literacy is understood as the result of a "general education based on comprehensive and contextualized knowledge, grounded in an appreciation of a variety of historically significant and universal ideas embodied in the great creative works of human intellect and imagination" (31-32). It is this kind of literacy that is rightly seen as the "primary and proper goal of higher education based on liberal studies" (32).

The author not only deplores confusion among the different kinds of literacy and general lack of them, but also bemoans the fact that the "cult of information has literally displaced the culture of intellect, ideas, and imagination" (32). He sees the information overload not only as a nuisance, but as a powerful threat to liberal education which should result in the "capacity to absorb information, evaluate knowledge claims, judge significance, imagine consequences, and comprehend meanings" (33). Rahman clearly treads here in the footsteps of John Saul, who considers specialized professors as Voltaire's Bastards.

Reading Rahman's paragraphs on the challenge of the information overload for liberal education, I am reminded of the recent debate between President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, on the one hand, and David Gelernter, on the other. Whereas Clinton and Gore argued that billions should be spent to allow every schoolchild access to the Internet and that the Internet "could make it possible for every child with access to a computer to stretch a hand across a keyboard to reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed," Gelernter called this idea "demented." "Most American children don't know what a symphony is. If we suddenly figured out how to teach each child one movement of one symphony, that would be a miracle," indeed! (Time 25 May 1998).

It is difficult to comprehend the argument that high school students who have never read (nor desire to read) a single novel, been in a single art museum, or listened to a single symphony, could improve their education by getting access to all novels, museums, and symphonies. I do not know of any educational issue in the high schools, nor of any in liberal arts programs of undergraduate schools, that could be resolved by access to the Internet. It is certainly not lack of availability of information that is the educational challenge, but lack of vision and educational cowardice, the failure to insist on learning what is unpalatable but necessary.

Rahman sharpens the notion of liberal education when he contrasts it with the notion of training. He reiterates our common understanding that liberal education aims at liberating us from the prejudices of our own time and culture. This goal is not attained simply by the acquisition of techniques, by obtaining a maximum of information, or by mastering the most up-to-date technological gadgetry. "Such education is best obtained from the critical examination and discussion of basic ideas and issues found in the great works of humanity--ancient and modern" (48-49). He sees greatest value in studying our intellectual heritage and in particular enjoins us to follow Goethe's admonition "above all [to] study the ancient Greeks, ever and always the Greeks" (14). Nothing of this, of course, could be said about training, whether it is vocational or professional. Mark Twain's bon mot that "the ancients stole all our ideas from us" (49), the quip that expressed his admiration for the "fact" that most Western philosophy has been a series of footnotes to Plato, of course, does not apply to training. To the contrary, training requires familiarization with and mastery of the latest research techniques, up-to-date information, possibly access to the Internet, and the granting of pertinent diplomas that give access to employment. If liberal education is the participation in the great conversation of all mankind, training is the acquisition of the skills of the last generation.

Rahman's defense of liberal education against politically correct and multiculturalist assaults is refreshing because it is forthright, insightful, and unapologetic. Nevertheless he is conciliatory. He starts by even making an unwarranted concession when he states that it cannot be denied that the "West does indeed have an over-representation of the ideas and works of white, male Europeans" (55). Whether this claim is justified or not depends upon the context and the standard to be applied. The term "over-representation" implies disproportion, bad judgment, and bias, something that requires correction. When in Kenya more voters are black than white and in Mexico more are Hispanic than Indian, nobody would argue that the respective "over-representation" reflects a bias and requires correction. Absolute numbers do not justify any such qualitative judgment. Other criteria are needed to draw such conclusions: educational goals, qualities, representativeness. Rahman, however, does have the courage to say that there is no "need, nor any point, in apologizing for the course that human history has taken down the ages" (55).

Moreover, Rahman, an East Indian, must have irritated his multicultural colleagues by baldly asserting that "despite the artistic treasures of the East, there are no artists in any age or culture who are comparable to such creative geniuses as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian...[and that] despite the musical richness of the East, there are no composers in human history who are even remotely comparable to Bach, Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven" (59). In short, he agrees with Saul Bellow's famously infamous remark that the Papuans have no Proust and the Zulus no Tolstoy. For multiculturalists, of course, every culture has its Proust and Tolstoy.

The "white patriarchal society" that is vilified relentlessly receives some incisive comments from this non-white author. The arguments are neither complex nor difficult to understand since the facts speak for themselves. Was it not the male, patriarchal society that did more than any other to liberate women? Were not the male philosophers of the Enlightenment, with all their limitations and foibles, at the forefront of feminism? Was it not the white, Western culture that developed interest in other cultures and that saw other cultures as enriching our own? Camille Paglia is quoted as saying, "The very language and logic modern woman uses to assail patriarchal culture were the invention of is patriarchal society that has freed me as a woman" (64).

Deconstructionism, "Enlightenment gone mad," is properly deconstructed. Rahman traces the "postmodern sophistry regarding the relativity of truth" back to the Sophists, but judges the ancient understanding that "man was the measure of all things" as an anodyne claim compared with the nihilistic postmodern assertion that "makes 'man' a deconstructor of all reason" (84). The author is not the first to point out that "deconstructionism is self-refuting when it is itself subjected to deconstruction. It may mean anything or nothing! Thus, deconstructionism itself turns out to be like a textual tale, told by a deconstructive idiot, full of sounds and signs signifying nothing" (85).

Despite the many thoughtful analyses of the contemporary academic scene and the convincing arguments in support of liberal education, the book has serious shortcomings which regrettably reduce its usefulness for an academic debate. With the exception of the four big chapters, subchapters do not have titles but merely numbers. Due to the excessive repetitiveness of the author, the lack of subtitles makes it difficult for the reader to see the distinctiveness of the chapters and the progression in the reasoning. The resulting uncertainty, however, is not enough to make the reader confused or lose interest.

More importantly, the author makes too many sweeping statements without giving convincing examples. When he states that "university education dehumanizes" the students and that they "do not know because the anti-intellectual administrators and academics between them are too busy bureaucratizing education" (94), even a senior professor who has seen it all would like to know what particular incidents the author has in mind. Moreover, the unconvinced reader will in no way be persuaded by such a general assertion. The same may be said about many other generalizations such as "passing petty policies that usually cannot even pass the basic test of reasonableness" or "academic bureaucracy is the primary source of politicization and polarization" (120). What are these petty policies? Are they appeals procedures, harassment policies, "equity" policies? When Rahman vehemently excoriates academic bureaucratization and fragmentation, what aspects of them would Rahman abolish? When he asserts that "much of what goes on in many academic establishments is not even at the intellectual level of programs on the Public Broadcasting Service" (80), again, where are the examples? What is it that "goes on" in what establishments? What are the alternatives? The book appears to be written more for confirming the consenter than for convincing the dissenter.

Finally, it is astonishing to see an author as insightful and independent of contemporary trends as Rahman apparently subscribe to aspects of political correctness. Or was he perhaps overruled by the editor? Feminist dogma insists that sexuality has no social importance and that gender, its social dimension, is all important (homosexuals interestingly insist on the opposite dogma). Feminists, therefore, talk about gender when "sex" would be appropriate. Rahman follows the fad when he, for example, states that the "curriculum [is] guided by resolutely non-rational forces demanding equal representation for accidentals like colour of skin, culture, and gender" (69). What he means is clearly "sex." However, our whole society appears to be confused on this issue. Another concession to linguistic correctness is his doctoring of citations as when, for example, he quotes Aldous Huxley as talking about "the proper study of [hu]mankind" (48). His book would have greater aesthetic appeal without such ill-considered and unprepossessing dérapages.

All in all, The Betrayal of Intellect in Higher Education is a well-written, timely apology for liberal education that deserves to be read by every academic who professes an interest in higher education.

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