Liberal Education and Pedagogy’s Value in Challenging Times

April 1st, 2020

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lever Press author Jeff Frank reflects on the ability of liberal education to cultivate morale and argues that being a presence for students is more important now than ever.

“If the liberal education is not now the vehicle of morale, what is?” –John William Miller

The quotation above is from a series of notes John William Miller wrote on liberal education in 1943. These notes are at the center of my book Being a Presence for Students: Teaching as a Lived Defense of Liberal Education published by Lever Press, and Miller’s insight into the significance of morale takes on new significance for me as I think about the meaning of liberal education in our time.

Students across the country are angry about losing the school year they envisioned in the fall, scared for their futures, grieving for sick and dying loved ones, and beginning to lose hope. As I start each Zoom teaching session, my students don’t need to tell me that they are having trouble sleeping, or finding it challenging to focus, or that they are anxious about what the world will look like tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Their feelings are apparent, even though we are separated by a screen, and often hundreds of miles from each other.

Professors (those of us privileged enough to have jobs—at the moment—in a market that shows signs of contracting even more) find themselves forced to adapt courses, learning how to teach them remotely, all while also being called to offer reassurance—if not hope—to students who may need us now more than ever. Professors may feel unprepared for new demands the technology places on teaching, and absolutely at a loss when it comes to offering hope in this dark time.

It is inspiring to see faculty from across campuses sharing advice and guidance for the transition to online teaching, and I am sure I am not the only faculty member who is grateful for the support available from campus IT professionals in this unprecedented shift to distance learning. But when it comes to supporting faculty as they are called to offer hope, when they themselves may be close to despair, where might they turn?

As I turned to favorite episodes of On Being and re-read favorite poems from Staying Alive, I also drew on Miller and his thinking on morale.

For Miller—an exceptional teacher at Williams College—a main purpose of liberal education was to graduate students with morale. Drawing on the work of his doctoral adviser William Ernest Hocking, Miller drew a distinction between superficial morale and mature morale. Superficial morale is the naïve optimism that lies in order to inspire hope. For example, it is telling our students in the middle of this crisis that everything will be alright, and that life will return to normal in a few weeks. By contrast, mature morale is built on a clear-eyed vision of the world, and a recognition—to quote Robert Frost—that “the best way out is always through.” Instead of peddling false hope, we help a student develop the resilience to square up to a difficult situation and draw on—or cultivate—the resources necessary to get through.

How does a student learn morale? According to Miller a liberal education is one where we teach students what it means to balance criticism with commitment. At the end of a liberal education, a student should be practiced in the art of critical thinking, but their facility with criticism should not leave them bereft of values. Rather, honestly assessing something—be it a text, or an idea, a theory, or a person—can help us learn to love the object of our criticism in acknowledgement of—not running from—its limitations. Instead of being afraid to ask difficult questions—fearing that questioning will destroy the possibility of commitment and affection—a liberally educated person learns that they—and the objects of their questioning—are far more resilient than they could’ve ever imagined before undergoing the test of criticism.

“If the liberal education is not now the vehicle of morale, what is?” I find myself asking Miller’s question as a challenge and a point of hope and offer it here as one way through these unprecedented times.

Miller connects morale with the person of the teacher, suggesting that a professor can serve as lived defense of liberal education in the ways that they relate to their discipline and their students. Being a presence for students means living the balance of criticism and commitment. Not shying away from just how difficult these next weeks and months will be, but not giving up on the good work that can be accomplished in the present with our students.

I would much rather be with my students in our seminar room at St. Lawrence University, but I am learning how to be present to their pain, frustrations, and need for hope in new ways from a distance. For me, this means Zoom office hours, and Zoom teaching where ideas are passionately presented and then questioned in breakout rooms, so that we might come to learn the mature morale that Miller advocates. More, trying to live the challenge of making liberal education work online, while acknowledging the ways it is impossible to make liberal education work online, models the type of morale that refuses to let honest criticism destroy commitment.

Though this may not feel like much given the enormity of the challenges COVID-19 presents, it is important to remember that trying to maintain our presence for students is not nothing. Liberal education matters. It has the power to cultivate morale, and that is a gift that many of us need now more than ever. Miller’s thinking does not offer false hope; it is a reminder that our presence as educators remains a valuable source of light in these terribly challenging times.