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John B. Bennett's Understanding of Liberal Learning in His Work

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In the essay “Liberal Learning as Conversation” John B. Bennett makes the case that conversation is the best metaphor for Liberal Learning, and that such a conversation ought to be open to all, and universal to humanity. However, to continue his own metaphor, actual conversations are highly exclusive. One cannot invite everyone into a conversation and expect them to have the context, and so the function of education is to give people that context. But whom do we educate on what? In real world conversations, we select who we are willing to help join the discussion by familiarity, interest, and ability to keep up. In real world conversations, there are few subjects at a time and small audiences. No conversation is Global, nor does it try to include as many as possible, because including everyone would involve a great deal of confusion and wasted effort, only to amount to the rambling of mob mentality. While liberal arts is indeed conversation, an all inclusive approach to this conversation is destructive because people are deeply unequal in their ability and willingness to look into a subject with an honest and thoughtful approach, and because inclusivity can damage identity.

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The first major problem with high inclusivity is its wastefulness, due to unequal abilities and willingness of different people. First, difference of ability. People do not possess the same level of ability at everything, and society generally accepts that. There are, as the saying goes “Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers,” as well as there are those cut out and not cut out for a deep education. We accept that the first three are not for everyone, we should also accept that the last is not. The Second Component is inequality of willingness. we live in a society with short term values. Ecocide, consumerism, etc. That hurts us obviously. To address and alleviate this issue, we can try to get everyone to change their minds and think critically for the long term, or you can empower those that already do. So, the expression goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Why force all the horses to drink when you can just ride the one that’s already drinking? We like to believe that we should have all the resources to educate everyone to their fullest potential, but potential is limitless. Education, therefore, needs to be rationed. If modern society can get past the pretense of rationing equally, then it will achieve a greater efficiency of education, which ultimately results in better social decisions

In addition to the inefficiency of treating individuals as equal, over openness can pose a problem at the cultural level which seems paradoxical at first sight: A Multicultural conversation leads to cross-cultural sameness. When we think of multiculturalism, we associate it with diversity, because individuals readily have access to the fruits of diverse cultures. However, the other result is that a culture itself has less influence on the shaping of individuals, because the experience everywhere becomes more the same. Differences in culture historically result from periods of synthesis followed by periods of isolation. A constant and global synthesis in the here and now seems creative, but ultimately draws cultures together, which again sounds like a good thing, but the first step of creativity is divergent thinking. Bennett talks about openness to the other. but openness actually can destroy the other, when it leads to a consensus. He claims: “Conversation also requires the other -- indeed, a multitude of important others. Conversation is not a soliloquy,(Bennett)” but conversation is also not a free for all.

Like multiculturalism, consensus has a positive connotation, but is not always good. If a consensus is wrong, or more likely wrong in certain situations. In the event a conversation reach such a consensus and a situation arises where that consensus does not apply, those parties involved lose everything. But if we, so to speak “put our eggs in more than one basket” and leave our answers diverse via a certain healthy degree of isolation, then only some people will be wrong. Depending on the question we seek to answer, the fate of the entire human race could rest on a diversity of answers.

There will be those who say that specialization is for insects as it leaves us unable to break out of the niches we have dug ourselves into, but I will say that only happens if you take specialization to far. A lack of generalization creates extremity and unbalance, conversely a lack of specialization is a lack of identity. A kind of meta-balance is the goal, where generalization so that you are not crippled by changes in circumstances, but also specialization enough that an entity has identity and the potential for purpose. This is present at all levels of life. Take for instance a city, where all cities need many of the same infrastructure and economic institutions to survive: roads, power lines, plumbing, shipping, food, etc. Yet cities also exist because they are specialized in particular industries, as well as aspects of cultures. Be it high tech Tokyo or Detroit motor city they are known for being specialized, yet still have balanced this with all the functions necessary for the survival of the city. This applies to individuals a well as cultures, with a good rule of thumb being to make sure one is not crippled by one's weaknesses, and then improve improve strengths, rather than attempting to be equally good at everything.

The other major criticism is that an exclusive approach to learning is undemocratic. The answer to this criticism is to embrace it. Exclusive learning is not democratic because democracy is unrealistic. The rule that some people are better than others in certain skills is generally accepted in society, until bizarre exceptions of the skills required to lead well: long term, decision making with far reaching consequences. We know that some people are big picture oriented and others are detail oriented. Big picture decisions therefore, are better off in the hands of those with the skill to handle them.

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