The Education of Fear

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I just finished reading Natalia Ginzburg’s book of essays, The Little Virtues. The title essay is her meditation on education and parenthood, both of which she believes are far too focused on instilling small virtues such as thrift, caution, prudence, tact and success. Better, she believes, to attend to the larger virtues of generosity (of finance and of spirit), curiosity, courage, frankness, and love of life.

The problem is that the little virtues, being little, can easily be made even smaller and thus taught and tested. We can easily tell when someone has “good manners,” by examining how they perform each of innumerable protocols of table service and social interaction. We can less easily tell when someone is compassionate, nor do we know exactly how to teach it.

And I think that higher education has almost fully made the transition from the large virtues to the small. We send kids to college so they won’t be unemployed. We tell them to major in things that are marketable, practical, in demand. We privilege the major over “gen ed” (such a waste of money, after all…), and spend freely chosen electives installing more armor on our already restrictive battle gear. The faculty at Pitt, for example, are up in arms about the possibility of more students having to take two semesters (six credits, five percent of their degree program) of a foreign language. “Adam Leibovich, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in an email to his faculty colleagues on the eve of a fully faculty vote on the proposal, ‘We need a large turnout of science faculty to have our voices heard so that resources are not taken away from us.’” Every scrap of curiosity and energy must be reserved for the major, the career prep. Possibilities for surprise, for sudden epiphany, are trimmed away.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay that got me fired. (To be more precise, I’d just given four months notice that I was leaving for Duke, but I gave this essay as an invited talk one weekday evening to a group of educators, and the next morning was told that I should leave after a couple more weeks instead.) It was about high school, and the ways in which the education of fear had taken hold so strongly, an education to avoid pain rather than strive for glory.

That was fifteen years back. Now I see the same thing take place in higher ed, which has allowed itself to be discussed as part of the “K-16 system,” a phrase that fills me with loathing. College is, at its best, not job training of any sort, nor preparation for graduate school. College is a time to be surrounded by brilliant, curious people who are not our parents; people who are curious about vast swaths of the world, and thus raise our eyes to new horizons. A time of large virtues, boldly defended.