“The thing not to be tolerated is bad thinking”: Van Doren on Liberal Education

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For my December blog in the series “Timeless Teaching Texts,” I have chosen Professor Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education.

Would you like a student to describe your classroom in the following way?

[Your name] would come into the room and, without any fuss, would start talking about whatever was to be talked about. Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had “educed” them from you by his question. His classes were literally “education”—they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas. . . . What he did have was the gift of communicating to them something of his own vital interest in things, something of his manner of approach: but the results were sometimes quite unexpected—and by that I mean good in a way that he had not anticipated, casting lights that he had not himself foreseen (139-40).

This excerpt is from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and the teacher he’s describing is Professor Mark Van Doren, who had, among his other famous students, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Van Doren was an English teacher at Columbia, and since his retirement some sixty years ago, students at Columbia have awarded the Van Doren Teaching Award to outstanding professors. Van Doren is legit by all accounts.

Several of his chapters address the general concerns you would come to guess to be part of a text on the liberal arts. Chapter 2 (“The Educated Person”) gives us the goal, Chapter 3 (“Education for All”) the idea, and Chapter 4 (“Liberal Education”) the means. Chapters 5 (“The Liberal Arts”) and 6 (“The Idea of a College”) provide the details on what a university could use as a starting point. But Chapter 1—“Nobody Thinks He is Educated”—effectively lures you, the reader, in with its empathetic tone. I’m one, for sure, who has always felt uneducated: I could have gotten a much better math education, and I would never send my kids to the type of middle and high school I attended. Classics, it turns out, was a portal for me to step into what I thought is the ideal education, an effort to supplant what childhood cheated me of. If you have ever felt as I and what Van Doren claims is common experience, I think you’ll enjoy this text.

What I found, however, to be the most challenging teaching idea occurs in a passage in Chapter 7 (“The Arts of Teaching and Being Taught”) where Van Doren is found riffing on John Locke:

All opinions are to be tolerated for what they are worth, but the person today who endeavors to compare opinions by applying a scale of worth is seldom tolerated. His scale may be wrong, but that is not why he is criticized. There is no common search for a right scale that would make such criticism possible. The open mind is one which has begun to think, but we act as if it were one which had stopped doing so because thought can be serious and dangerous, and because it is hard work. We do not doubt well. The good doubter doubts something; we dismiss everything. One sign of this is that we think it beneath our dignity to agree—the typical professor takes no position, either his own or any other’s. He calls this tolerance, and does not seem to mind that it is tolerance of bad thinking as well as good. The thing not to be tolerated is bad thinking. . . Cynicism paralyzes argument (177).

That last statement captures both the sin of current political rhetoric as well as the goal of liberal education stated negatively. We have one task as educators: show students how to test ideas. Everyone has a right to voice their opinion, but we have an obligation as educators to show students how to call “BS” when an opinion lacks evidence.

Re-reading this text without leaping to the current rhetorical crisis occurring in the United States was difficult. Had I any doubts about the relevance of the liberal arts for today, the most recent presidential election has removed what remained. Baseless claims have only one antidote—viz., critical thinking—and critical thinking has roots drinking deeply from the liberal arts tradition. Van Doren reminded me that we as educators have nothing to offer students if we cannot teach them how to find and evaluate facts. Our democracy depends on an educated citizenry.

Van Doren, M., 1959. Liberal education (No. 86). Boston: Beacon Press.

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