Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Darwinian Liberal Education

We should all know what's wrong with higher education today. Teaching and research have become so specialized, fragmented, and incoherent that we cannot see that unity of knowledge necessary for sustaining general or liberal education. To renew the tradition of the liberal arts, we need a new unifying framework of thought. As far as I can tell, there is today only one plausible source for such a common ground of knowledge, and that is Darwinian evolutionary biology.

I began to move towards this conclusion as an undergraduate student at the University of Dallas in the late 1960s. My youthful excitement about philosophy was stirred by Aristotle's declaration that all human beings by nature desire to understand, a desire tht leads natural philosophers to search for the ultimate causes or reasons for all things. Fascinated by Aristotle's comprehensive investigation of nature and human nature, I noticed that much of his writing was in biology, and that even his moral and political works assumed a biological understanding of human nature. So I wondered whether Aristotle's biological naturalism could be compatible somehow with modern Darwinian biology, and whether this might support a general study of human life within the natural causal order of the whole.

The aim of liberal education is to use all the intellectual disciplines to probe how the complex interaction of natural human propensities, cultural traditions, and individual choices shapes the course of human experience within the natural world. Darwinian theory provides a general conceptual framework for such liberal learning grounded in the scientific study of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and cognitive judgement.

This Darwinian view of liberal education has guided my teaching. At Northern Illinois University, I helped to organize "Politics and the Life Sciences" as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in the Department of Political Science. Some of the courses in the program are cross-listed as biology courses. So my undergraduate courses typically enroll a large number of students majoring in biology along with others majoring in the social sciences and humanities. My graduate students apply Darwinian reasoning to issues in political philosophy and other areas of political science. All the students see how liberal learning at its best brings together ideas and methods from all the intellectual disciplines to illuminate the deepest questions of human life and its position in the universe.

At the core of my thinking is the idea of human nature. In today's academic world, it is common for postmodernist relativists to assert tht liberal education cannot be directed to the study of human nature, because the idea of human nature is an arbitrary social construction. But I believe that there really is a universal human nature that is constituted by at least twenty natural desires that manifest themselves throughout history in every human society, because these desires belong to the evolved nature of the human species.

These natural desires direct human behavior into regular patterns. Men and women will marry and form families. Mothers will care for their children. Young males will compete for mates and status. Societies will organize themselves as male dominance hierarchies. Competing societies will go to war. And human beings will use language and other symbols to try to figure out what it all means.

A broader model of this kind of Darwinian liberal education is David Sloan Wilson's Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS) at Binghamton University. The website for the program can be found here. This is an integrated curriculum with a required introductory course "Evolution for Everyone" and a list of courses across the university from which students must earn a minimum number of credits. Wilson teaches "Evolution for Everyone" as the course in which all students are introduced to the central concepts of evolutionary theory as well as some illustrative application of those concepts to various fields of study. He emphasizes the application of evolutionary ideas to human nature.

Over 50 faculty members representing 15 departments are involved in the program. As a result, both faculty and students from across the university in many different departments are brought together with Darwinian reasoning as their common language to talk about questions of human nature and the natural world.

I hope to help organize a similar program at NIU. In the fall of 2007, I will be team-teaching a course on evolution with a philosopher and a biologist. We then will try to build an evolutionary studies program around this course.

Through such a Darwinian liberal education, we might renew the quest that began with Aristotle to satisfy our natural desire to understand the causes or reasons of all things.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Larry, you may be interested in a book scheduled for release 8/31. It's called "Man, by Nature: The Hidden Programming Controlling Human Behavior," and is based on recent neuroscientific research on the brain. It contends that Man is programmed to be a tribal territorial animal with the unique feature of treating beliefs as if they were territory to be blindly and ferociously defended. ... Now wouldn't that would explain a lot!