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A Place of Learning

Michael Oakeshott begins this chapter by establishing the fact that what makes us human is our ability to arrive at and express an understanding of what it means to be human. According to Oakeshott, to reach this understanding we must have learned it, and thus, we can’t separate being human from learning. He goes on to describe human life as an “adventure” with no preordained course or end. Human beings self-consciously engage in the world; we come to terms with the occurrences we encounter in terms of what they mean to us, and we respond in terms of how we understand them. All the meanings we give things have to be learned, thus everything we do, think or say is learned.
In section two Oakeshott differentiates the learning associated with the exploitation of the earth (which we do in order to fulfill our wants) from the process of coming to self-understanding. While the tasks associated with exploitation certainly require a variety of things that need to be learned (skills, practices, and the ability to participate in relationships), Oakeshott believes that humans see themselves as much more than “exploiters of the resources of the earth” and have relied on a deeper self-understanding in order to sustain themselves. According to Oakeshott, schools and universities have been the places for people to embark upon this adventure of self-understanding
Oakeshott begins section three by reiterating that what we are concerned with are “adventures in human self-understanding” (p. 15). For Oakeshott, self-understanding cannot be separated from participation in culture. He then goes on to describe his understanding of culture. In short, he sees culture as a conversational encounter that has taken place through the ages. Learning is more than gaining information; rather, it is understood as the process of gaining an ability to recognize invitations to participate in particular adventures in self-understanding.
In section four Oakeshott grounds his understanding of education within the context of classical Greek and Latin cultures and states that learning removes us from the “here and now”. Oakeshott laments a variety of ways in which this type of classical education has been compromised -- by attempts to become ‘relevant”, by dealing with contemporary topics, by being understood as a vehicle towards socialization. He criticizes “general” education as an attempt to teach people to think (something he believes can’t be taught), or by trying to expose people to too broad an understanding of culture – leading only to superficial encounters. He briefly touches upon humanities, math, social sciences, and natural sciences as components of the current framework of education, .He criticizes natural sciences for the belief that the information gathered must be useful and for the claim that the natural sciences represent their own culture or that they are capable of providing the “truth” about the world. Social sciences are problematic because they stem from the belief that we are defined by our relationships. Rather than understand humans within the context of an overarching “society” which serves to determine our conduct, Oakeshott views us all an individuals who choose to participate in relationships.
In section five Oakeshott describes learning as learning to understand a variety of languages. Building upon this image, he describes culture as a variety of “distinct languages of understanding” (p. 29). He describes the different components of a culture as different voices, all with different perspectives on the world. Learning, then, is the art of hearing, identifying, and appreciating these different voices.
Oakeshott concludes the chapter by mourning the loss of an appreciation for learning (and for places of liberal learning). He describes a quieter, less distracting time when experiences meant more and served to expand the imagination. Learning was work, but it was valuable work and was understood as such. He contrasts this with the view of a modern world that is a composed of “ a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities” (p 33). Liberal learning is threatened by a variety of forces, including the contemporary reluctance to be secluded from the here and now, the idea that one can become human without learning to do so, and the idea that we can be given doctrines or formulas rather than participate in a conversation. He reminds of us of the importance of remembering that we are all “inhabitants of a place of liberal learning” (p. 34).

Key Passages

“What distinguishes a human being, indeed what constitutes a human being, is not merely his having to think, but his thoughts, his beliefs, doubts, understandings, his awareness of his own ignorance, his wants, preferences, choices, sentiments, emotions, purposes and his expression of them in utterances or actions which have meanings; and the necessary condition of all or any of this is that he must have learned it. The price of the intelligent activity which constitutes being human is learning” (p. 5).

“The learning we are concerned with is a self-conscious engagement. It is not an induced reaction to a fortuitous environmental pressure but a self-imposed task inspired by the intimations of what there is to learn (that is, by awareness of our own ignorance) and by a wish to understand. Human learning is a reflective engagement in which what is learned is not merely a detached fragment of information but is understood or misunderstood and is expressed in words which have meanings. It has nothing to do with organic survival and much of it has little to do even with that selective “getting on in the world” which is the human counterpart of organic homeostasis; it is concerned with perceptions, ideas, beliefs, emotions, sensibilities, recognitions, discriminations, theorems and with all that goes to constitute a human condition” (p. 7-8).

“The distinctive feature of such a special place of learning is, first, that those who occupy it are recognized and recognize themselves preeminently as learners, although they may be much else besides. Secondly, in it learning is a declared engagement to learn something in particular. Those who occupy it are not merely “growing up,” and they are not there merely to “improve their minds” or to “learn to think”…what is learned…is to be recognized as a specified task to be undertaken and pursued with attention, patience and determination, the learner being aware of what he is doing. And thirdly, learning here is not a limited undertaking in which what is learned is learned merely up to the point where it can be put to some extrinsic use; learning itself is the engagement and it has its own standards of achievement and excellence. Consequently, what is special about such a place or circumstance is its seclusion, its detachment from what Hegel called the hic et nunc, the here and now, of current living” (p. 11).

"This then, is what we are concerned with: adventures in human self-understanding. Not the bare protestation that a human being is a self-concious, reflective intelligence and that he does not live by bread alone; but the actual inquiries, utterances and actions in which human beings have expressed their understanding of the human condition. This is the stuff of what has come to be called a "liberal" education- "liberal" because it is liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants". ( p. 15)
“Human self-understanding is, then, inseparable from learning to participate in what is called a ‘culture.’ It is useful to have a word which stands for the whole of what an associated set of human being shave created for themselves beyond the evanescent satisfaction of their wants, but we must not be misled by it. A culture is not a doctrine or a set of consistent teachings or conclusions about a human life…a culture… is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter…A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of lighthearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. (p. 16-17).

“…[Culture] reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect. Learning here is not merely acquiring information (that produces only what Nietzsche called a ‘culture philistine’), nor is it merely ‘improving one’s mind’; it is learning to recognize some specific invitations to encounter particular adventures in human self-understanding” (p. 17).

“But the real assault upon liberal learning comes from another direction; not in the risky undertaking to equip learners for some, often prematurely chosen, profession, but in the belief that “relevance”: demands that every learner should be recognized as nothing but a role-performer in a so-called social system and the consequent surrender of learning (which is the concern of individual persons) to “socialization’” (p. 20).

“What I am suggesting, then, is that from the standpoint of liberal learning, a culture is not a miscellany of beliefs, perceptions, ideas, sentiments and engagements, but may be recognized as a variety of distinct languages of understanding, and its inducements are invitations to become acquainted with these languages, to learn to discriminate between them, and to recognize them not merely as diverse modes of understanding the world but as the most substantial expressions we have of human self-understanding” (p. 29).

" Perhaps we may think of these components of a culture as voices, each the expression of a distinct and conditional understanding of the world and a distinct idiom of human self-understanding, and of the culture itself as these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation- an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a vatiety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their differnt modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine." (p. 30)

“[Liberal education] is a somewhat unexpected invitation to disentangle oneself from the here and now of current happenings and engagements, to detach oneself from the urgencies of the local and the contemporary, to explore and enjoy a release form having to consider things in terms of their contingent features, beliefs in terms of their applications to contingent situations and persons in terms of their contingent usefulness; an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood” (p. 31).

“In all this, school was important; but it was a place of its own. I often recollect that memorable sentence from the autobiography of Sir Ernest Barker: ‘Outside the cottage, I had nothing but my school; but having my school I had everything.’ There, in school, the narrow boundaries of the local and the contemporary were swept aside to reveal, not what might be going on in the next town or village in Parliament or in the United Nations, but a world of things and persons and happenings, of languages and beliefs, of utterances and sights and sounds past all imagination and to which even the dullest could not be wholly indifferent” (p. 32).

" We must remember who we are: inhabitants of a place of liberal learning". (p. 34)

Key Terminology:
A free man: a man is emancipated through education
Culture: "... continuity of feelings perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related..."
Liberal learning: "...learning to respond to the invitations of the great intellectual adventures in which human beings have come to display their various understandings of the world and of themselves."
General education: without concern for the specifics, vague and lacking in direction
Adventures in Self Understanding
Learning: For Oakeshott, learning is the differentiating characteristic of humans.

Discussion Guiding Questions:

Oakeshott claims that "[Man] cannot plead that his thoughts are caused by his inherited genetic character because thoughts have reasons and not causes" (4). How might Oakeshott respond to the staunch determinist who insists that our behavior, mindset, indeed thoughts are determined--caused by our genetics, passions, or unconsciousness?

According to page six, is Oakeshott an existentialist?

According to the middle of page 8, would Oakeshott consider eating mushrooms, video games, watching a movie, or surfing a massive wave a learning experience?

In the middle of page eleven, Oakeshott makes a strong claim that schooling is a way to escape the immediate environment, the here and now. Do you think it is possible for students to become overly concerned with abstract knowledge, to become a foreigner in the community with which they live, alien to their immediate environment and it's needs?

Is there no such thing as social learning or a collective understanding?

Have your educational experiences helped answer your questions of existence?

Would Oakeshott be a proponent of vocational schools?

Does it seem strange that, according to Oakeshott, we cannot, or ought not, connect with and understand ourselves in a social environment, yet we ought to immerse ourselves into a historical conversation?

On page twenty we are warned that if education continues to support role-performing in a uniform manner towards socialization, that man may become abolished. Do you think this is true?

Does page 33 describe your life and your childhood?