Levine calls for reinvention of liberal learning in ‘Powers of the Mind’By Julia Morse
In Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, published in the fall by the University of Chicago Press, Donald Levine proposes to re-ignite a lost dialogue within the world of higher education.
“This conversation must become vital again if we are to keep a sense of purpose alive in education,” said Levine (A.B.’50, A.M.’57, Ph.D.’57), the Peter B. Ritzma Professor in Sociology and former Dean of the College.
Believing that the enterprise of liberal education requires continual reinvention, Levine warns, “The pressures of commercialism and consumerism joined with incredible financial demands on universities have muted that conversation and hold the potential to silence it entirely.”
In launching that conversation, “Rule number-one is to figure out what you want to accomplish in any educational program, what you want the students to be able to do that they could not do before,” Levine said. “This means that it’s silly, I think, to talk about methods of teaching in the abstract. How you should teach depends on what your goals are.”
In a chapter entitled “New Ways of Framing Pedagogy,” Levine describes 20 different forms teaching and learning, depending on the goal of a particular educational experience.
To help revive conversations about liberal learning, Powers offers a repertoire of resources rather than a curriculum for all institutions and all students. Those resources include perspectives on liberal education in world history and six “modernity revolutions,” including specialization, individuation, integration, democratization, academic rationalization and personal discipline. He says that those processes influenced reforms of liberal learning in the 19th and early 20th centuries that can be suggestive for today’s efforts.
In Part II, “Enter Chicago,” Levine shifts from the voice of a sociologist to that of a critical alumnus as he analyzes the University’s efforts during the last century.
Chicago alumnus Lee Shulman (A.B.’59, A.M.’60, Ph.D.’63), president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, said that Powers offers “the best treatment of the Chicago liberal education tradition available.”
Chapter-three, “The Making of a Curricular Tradition,” analyzes key components of the Chicago curriculum, where they came from and how they evolved over decades. In Chapter-four, “Dewey and Hutchins at Chicago,” Levine challenges the long-held notion that two of the most significant figures in the University’s history, John Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins, were ardent enemies.
“When it came to their views and philosophies of education and the world, they were on the same page,” Levine said, documenting in Powers their agreement on many issues, including shared critiques of the American educational system and an initial opposition to United States entry into World War II on grounds of a perceived threat to American democracy.
“The ideas they shared generated a continuous tradition of academic reforms at the University of Chicago, an institution in which both had strong emotional investments,” Levine wrote.
Three succeeding chapters delved into figures central to the narrative of Powers, Richard McKeon, Joseph Schwab (Ph.B’30, S.M.’36, Ph.D.’38) and Robert Redfield (Ph.B.’30, JD’21, Ph.D.’28), educators whose thoughts grounded much of what remains of the philosophy and form of liberal education at Chicago today.
“These men were pivotal for Chicago’s College,” Levine said. “Not only did they contribute to the University’s history of thought about liberal education, as extraordinary teachers in their own right each also embodied original ideas about ways to teach and ways to learn.”
In spite of Levine’s enthusiasm for Chicago’s historic educators, he does not advocate a return to past programs, but instead draws on Chicago traditions to retrieve tools for thinking about the liberal arts of the future.
The chapter titled “New Goals for the Liberal Curriculum” outlines four alternative principles of liberal education: whether it should attend primarily to the character of the learner, to the world to be known, to a common heritage or to kinds of disciplines. Levine notes that Chicago experimented sequentially with all four principles—finally settling on the last.
Levine explores a paradigm of eight powers of the mind. Four of which he calls “powers of prehension,” including audiovisual powers, kinesthetic powers, understanding verbal texts, and understanding worlds. The remaining four are “powers of expression.” Those powers include forming a reflexive liberal self, inventing statements, problems and actions; integrating knowledge; and powers of communication.
He relates the two sets of powers—prehension and expression—through what he calls a “master metaphor of inhaling and exhaling.” This manifests a distinctive feature of the book, its emphasis on linking mind and body functions as two dimensions of one “bodymind” system.
Citing Schwab’s dictum that “the effect of a curriculum whose end was training of the intellect pure and simply would be a crippled intellect,” Levine suggests that the mind and body fuel one another during the learning process. In particular, Levine highlights bodymind learning when he focuses on “the virtually unrecognized but omnipresent” powers of hearing, seeing and bodily clairsentience.
In the concluding chapter, Levine discusses a sample of his own efforts over the years designed to “teach powers.” As one aspect of this teaching, Levine says that encouraging “authentic thinking” and “genuine conversation” among students is often one of his chief goals. He does this by encouraging conversation in productive ways and by lecturing only if he has something to contribute that has not yet been published.
“Why would I tell students something that they could capture and ingest on their own?” Levine said.
Levine said he is often asked what sparked his inspiration for the book. He began working on Powers two decades ago, following the 1987 release of the best-selling The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, written by Allan Bloom (Ph.B.’49, A.M.’53, Ph.D.’55).
“That is what first got me going,” Levine said. “I was cheered by Bloom’s concerns, but angered by his assessments and frustrated that because of his association with the University, his backward-looking account was widely accepted by the American public as a definition of the College. So, I decided to write a book that gave a more accurate and more probing account of the tradition of liberal education at Chicago.”
As it evolved, Powers became more than a topical response to Bloom’s book. During the many years Levine spent thinking about it, he discovered unexpected ideas and practices in the realm of liberal education, some of which became central to the book.
Levine plans to retire in March after 45 years as a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the College. During the 1980s, Levine also served as dean of the College and, earlier, as founding Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division.
Although he will retire, Levine said he has no intention of divorcing himself from the University.
“There’s no way it will be able to get rid of me,” he said. “And there’s no way I will be able to get rid of it.”
Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America can be purchased through the University Press at http://press.uchicago.edu.