Higher Learning, Higher Ground

Does the best case for liberal arts education come from laboratory research? Scott McLemee looks into a neuroscientist's new book.

January 22, 2014

After more than a year since reviewing Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was and Should Be (Princeton, 2012), I find one historical detail in the book especially intriguing. It concerns a once-standard feature of higher learning in the United States in the years before the Civil War, when colleges were usually run under the auspices of one religious institution or another. Then, the culmination of one’s undergraduate studies -- the “capstone,” as Delbanco calls it -- was a course on moral philosophy, taught by the school’s president, taken in the senior year.

It was a casualty of the upheaval in higher education that went with the rise of the research university, an institution with wholly secular grounding, based on conceptual blueprints imported from Germany. But the “moral philosophy” taught in the earlier colleges was not simply theological instruction carried on by another name. The intent was to bring together what the student had learned from the coursework of previous years in a way that instilled civic virtue and a feeling of public duty. Delbanco does not explain just how this synthesis was effected in the classroom. But it’s an indication of the task’s importance that no less a figure than the college’s highest official was in charge of performing it.

The authoritarian implications are not appealing. But the principle, that higher education brings with it higher responsibilities, certainly is. Delbanco suggests that the value of instruction in the liberal arts comes through instilling a comparable spirit of accountability -- by teaching students to recognize the breadth of possible perspectives on the world, and by developing the capacity for self-critically questioning their own assumptions and patterns of understanding.

Support for that vision now arrives from a surprising direction, in the pages of a new book from Oxford University Press called Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education by Robert J. Thompson Jr. The author is a professor of psychology and neurophysiology at Duke University, where he is also the former vice provost for undergraduate education.

The phrase “beyond reason and tolerance” makes for an unfortunate title (my immediate response: “First let’s get there”) while the trouble with the subtitle, apart from its sedative property, is how utterly it conceals anything distinctive about the author’s approach.

And the argument itself takes a while to get going. First we get some rather familiar reminders of the size and condition of contemporary institutions of higher education, as well as the enormous and growing cultural and economic importance of higher ed today. And, of course, the strains:

“When the investment in higher education is perceived as a benefit to the individual rather than to society, funding drops lower on the public’s priority list, which puts additional upward pressure on tuition as a source of funding…. [T]he decreasing half-life of knowledge means that people will need to be lifelong learners, and thus have access to higher education throughout their life course.… [A]dvances in the provision of and access to information are prompting the development of new structures for organizing and paying for education, new pedagogical approaches and ways of learning, and methods of fostering the capacities and motivation for lifelong learning.”

All true, but no surprise. Things become considerably more interesting when the author takes off his former-vice-provost hat and begins to write from his expertise in neuroscience. Drawing on recent studies of cognition, neurophysiology, and educational psychology – most of it published over the past dozen years – Thompson provides what we might call a brain’s-eye view of the rewards of studying the liberal arts, particularly in the late-adolescent/early adulthood period traditionally associated with the undergraduate years.

Presumably they also benefit the “lifelong learner” of whatever age, but, Thompson writes, “it has become increasingly clear that neurocognitive development continues through adolescence into this period of emerging adulthood as the brain goes through a remodeling process” that corresponds to “the development of cognitive skills involved in executive functions, social cognitions, and self-regulation.” Those three categories cover an enormous range of functions, including working memory, the capacity to understand and empathize with others, and the control and direction of one’s attention and emotional responses.

The various cognitive skills are performed in different parts of the brain, and they develop unevenly. (Many of us have the embarrassing memories to prove it.) But development goes beyond the acquisition and fine-tuning of specific capacities, since neural pathways connecting the diverse sectors can also take shape. 

Thompson sums it up with a mnemonic: “Neurons that fire together, wire together – that is, form synapses with each other – and experience strengthens those synaptic connections and the functions that they support.” Education is “a cyclical process of rewiring and retuning of neural networks,” through which the brain becomes able to perform and coordinate increasingly complex functions.

Recognizing the overall process does not translate into pedagogical formulae – not yet, anyway. But Thompson pulls together a wide range of research suggesting that the relationship between learning and brain development runs in both directions. In other words, the brain has enough plasticity to absorb and incorporate new skills, but at the same time, that plasticity can be strengthened or weakened by learned attitudes and expectations.

Someone who thinks of personality or aptitude as fixed will “tend to interpret failure and setbacks as indicative of inability … and respond by avoidance strategies,” while those “holding an incremental view tend to interpret failure as reflecting lack of effort or the need for improvement,” hence a spur to continued learning. Furthermore, holding the fixed view corresponds to tendencies both to “readily endorse and apply social stereotypes and resist stereotype-inconsistent information.”

It sounds like a surefire formula for cognitive stagnation and almost paralyzing obtuseness. But Thompson draws out the converse lesson: What we know about the cognitive and affective wiring of the brain shows that it is possible to develop more open, flexible attitudes towards new and unfamiliar forms of knowledge and experience. Doing so requires learning to evaluate sources of information, to follow a complex argument and assess its logic and evidence, to put oneself in the position of someone from a different historical period or social background, and so forth.

The process is not simple, nor is it necessarily painless. It requires abandoning the attitude of genial inertia for which “knowledge is equated with personal opinion and the commitment to tolerance is equated to nondiscrimination among competing claims.” (Socrates challenged such thinking in his day, and it did not end happily.)

But Thompson cites an array of work showing that the effort affects not just the intangible dimension of a student's character but how the grey matter functions -- how capable it is of empathy, respect for evidence, and acceptance of complexity and the unfamiliar.

Writing as a scientist, the author makes a strong case for what his colleagues in the liberal arts do when they teach. And the lesson, it seems, is different in terms but not intent from the one taught in the senior-year course on moral philosophy, in the colleges of yesteryear: that the point of expanding the mind is to make it larger than the self.


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