Tamar Szabó Gendler is Yale’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard University (1996). In 2010, she was appointed Chair of the Yale philosophy department, becoming the first woman chair in the department’s two-century history. In 2013, she was appointed Deputy Provost for Humanities and Initiatives, a position she held until she assumed her current role in 2014.
Dean Gendler’s academic research brings together the techniques of traditional Anglo-American philosophy with empirical work from psychology and other social sciences; her interests include the relation between imagination and belief, the contrast between rational and non-rational persuasion, and the role of habits in shaping behavior and judgment. She joined Areni Global to discuss the role of education, and how it can be defined and transmitted.
You are the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at Yale University. What does a Dean do?
My main responsibilities are in three categories. They’re budgetary, they’re intellectual, and they’re interpersonal. What I oversee is the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes the divisions of humanities, social science, biological science, and physical science. So basically everything from art history to physics sits under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—all of our undergraduates.
It doesn’t include the areas in which we offer professional training: the medical school, the law school, the business school. The university’s budget is what allows us to engage in all of our activities.
The second thing that I do is I oversee all of the hiring and tenure and promotion of faculty within our division. So we have about 1,000 faculty. In any given year, about 50 are leaving and we’re hiring about 50. I work with a group of deans and chairs to select the individuals who will come.
And then the third thing I do is what you would do in any large organization, which is I keep toboggans on track. My aim is to make as much of that informal as possible so that we don’t have conflicts rise to the level where I need to do formal disciplinary adjudications. So that’s what I do.
What is education and how can that be defined? And also because we are an international organization, does the interpretation or the articulation of this concept depends on where we are?
Terrific questions. As your listeners may know, the term ‘educate’ comes from the Latin root of ‘educare’, to lead out. And I like to think of education as involving two pieces: a theoretical piece and a practical piece. The theoretical goal of education is to create, in an individual, understanding, discernment and appreciation. It’s essential for literature, it’s essential for any kind of practical skill. That’s part one, the theoretical understanding. The second thing that education allows us to do is to imagine, to plan and to act. Once we understand the fundamental structure of something, we recognize what’s necessary about it and what’s contingent about it.
We can start imagining changes. And that can be anything from how do you fit a pipe into a pipe holder, to how do you engage in a project of desalination, to how do you create a sense of harmony in a society fractured by a set of ideological disputes? You need to be able to imagine on the basis of your understanding, you need to be able to plan on the basis of your discernment, and your ability to tell things apart. And you need to be able to act on that plan.
That’s a culturally universal characterisation of what education involves. And that’s going to apply to a group of individuals whose society is structured around agriculture and a group of individuals whose society is structured around tech. In both cases, they need to understand, discern, and appreciate, and in both cases they need to imagine, plan and act.
And I like to think of education as involving two pieces: a theoretical piece and a practical piece. The theoretical goal of education is to create, in an individual, understanding, discernment and appreciation. It’s essential for literature, it’s essential for any kind of practical skill. That’s part one, the theoretical understanding. The second thing that education allows us to do is to imagine, to plan and to act.Tamar Gendler
The needs are the same, but surely the way we discern and appreciate, or even understand, will change from a society to another.
That’s absolutely right. There are certain things that are universal to human experience. It is universal to human experience that we are governed by certain facts about the physical world. Everybody is made up of carbon-based molecules. Everybody is affected in the same way by the laws of physics and chemistry and biology. But in addition, there are a huge number of social facts. And what I would say is it’s not that the process of education differs across social domains, but the object of study differs across social domains. What it is that you to set out to understand is going to look very different if you’re trying to figure out how to be an effective member of a community that survives by fishing. And if you’re trying to be an effective member of a community that survives through high-speed trade.
There are assumptions underlying what’s the most culturally appropriate mechanism for cultivating a skill. So you might think every culture wants to cultivate in its children a capacity for rhythmic action in alliance with others. France teaches that through a culture of ballet. North Korea teaches that through a different culture of synchronized activity. Every society wants to make sure that children have both a concrete and an abstract understanding of mathematics; that they understand that two apples plus two apples is going to give you enough apples for four people at a table. But there are massive disagreements, some of them due to cultural differences. Different societies have different assumptions of the ways in which people who occupy different gender roles will relate to particular modalities of language.
But what I would say the disagreements are not about what it is to educate. They are about what it is that you are seeking to teach people. Do you separate by age or skill level? Those are two different ways that you might try. And then there are genuine disagreements about which form of teaching will be most effective. Think about Olympic training and the different ways in which during the Cold War, the East trained its athletes in contrast to the ways that the West trained its athletes. Education was the same thing, but a difference in the process about what would best lead to expertise.
Going back to that question of curriculum, how does one choose what is worthy of teaching, of being taught?
There always two things that you’re balancing, one of which is the provision of specific content that is sufficiently well learned to allow somebody to deeply recognize how complex the world is and can be. Say you’re majoring in chemistry, you need to understand the following things: organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, theoretical, experimental modelling, et cetera. It’s bigger than physics and smaller than biology. You need to know how to do randomised control trials and you also need to know how to do theoretical modelling and game theory. And we say, here are the tools of an area. So that’s the first thing.
The second part is the recognition that some things that seemed necessary are contingent and some things that seemed contingent are necessary. So here’s an example. There’s a huge debate about sex and gender right now. And the question is, which facts about the way in which gender is structured are actually fixed by the world and which aspects are up to us? And it may be surprising to discover both directions.
The way you deal with an ever-changing world is that you do two things in education: You give a specific set of skills, and that could be how to be an electrician, that could be how to be a hairdresser, that could be how to do nails. And in addition, you offer a generalization of that. Notice that when you’re putting lacquer on a nail, it’s with the goal of making it shiny. Are there other things you could use besides lacquer to make it shiny?
And so you learn the skills of how to paint fingernails, and you also realize that you can say to somebody, “Oh, are you trying to look original? Why don’t we paint two of your nails to have a distinctive leaf pattern that will help you feel distinctive?” And then you might discover a better way of reaching that same goal.
[In wine] we lack talent in [two sectors]. People to work in the vineyard, but also people to work in hospitality.
And hospitality is such an interesting case because, at least in America and Europe, a lot of what’s going on is a reconceptualisation of hierarchical interaction. The topic of the last decades has been how do we give dignity to those who are insubordinate positions? But then the question of how that plays out in highly traditional hierarchical structures becomes really, really important.
And in societies that don’t want to be a subordinate anymore. And the difference between how to be a subordinate and to be at the service of someone, and how to express individuality when in the service situation, those are really key. But also how to find a purpose in this.
Faith traditions which ask you to be humble as a way of being maximally dignified are a really interesting framework for thinking about what does service and hospitality look like?
This is also very cultural and some of the most fascinating conversation we have at the moment are with somms that come from Europe and notably Switzerland, the US and Asia. And the notion of how they understand their work is totally different. The US, as you might guess, has a totally different perspective on being at the service of the people because the cultural context of that is very different as well.
Earlier you mentioned the topic of sex and gender and gender identity. And it seems that in this conversation, but in so many others, we are in a polarized world. When it comes to education and being an educator, do we have to pick a side? I’m wondering what’s our responsibility there in terms of informing versus shaping?
I think the first goal is to dig down to common ground and then try to understand whether the differences are difference in belief about facts or belief about values. The common ground between the views then becomes apparent, and then we have some really substantive, genuine disagreements.
I want to talk about the “who” as well. To some extent, fine wine is part of the elite, and there’s the question of access because of the price and the rarity of the product. So the big question for us is: to what extent can education be available to all?
I think you want to think about how people choose to spend their lives and what they spend their time doing in it. And you want to give them the tools to be maximally capable of understanding and discerning and appreciating in the domain where they find themselves. So we have students for whom the world of mathematics is just extraordinarily enticing and they want to spend their entire life absorbed in mathematics. In some sense that’s elitist. Our other students are spending their time absorbed in the study of literature or in the study of the desalination of water. So one thing that determines and causes things to be a lead are a variation in individual interests.
I think you want to think about how people choose to spend their lives and what they spend their time doing in it. And you want to give them the tools to be maximally capable of understanding and discerning and appreciating in the domain where they find themselves.Tamar Gendler
I guess it’s also to some extent financial access.
In addition, there is a gap given that we live for the most part in a capitalist system, [where] money is the determinant. And in parts of the world that are not capitalists, they are hierarchical in different ways. If you’re a subsistence farmer, much less of your time can be devoted to your intellectual passion than if you are a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. And so the question is what aspects of what you’re doing when you are teaching are generalizable and what are specific? So the ability to appreciate taste, to appreciate flavour, is a general skill.
Every human being is in a position, as they drink their tea in the morning, to appreciate the touch of the tannin on their tongue, the way in which the warmth is filling them, the way in which the moisture is revitalizing them. So I think the general skills that the elite training in wine cultivates are skills that apply.
I often say I oversee the Metropolitan Museum of Ideas. That’s my job. My job is to make sure that there’s somebody who still knows Akkadian. My job is to make sure that we have people who can still read mediaeval manuscripts that are falling apart. In one sense, what an outrageous waste of human effort to spend it developing this kind of expertise, right? We are just hiring a numismatist, a scholar of ancient coins. On the other hand, how wonderful that we have in the world individuals who are capable of appreciating this depth of beauty. And I think that’s the deep tension always. On the one hand, how neglectful, how horrible that you’re using this area to cultivate this wine that only 400 people will have the expertise to appreciate. On the other hand, how beautiful that 400 people have reached a point where they can create and appreciate something so beautiful.
On the one hand, how neglectful, how horrible that you’re using this area to cultivate this wine that only 400 people will have the expertise to appreciate. On the other hand, how beautiful that 400 people have reached a point where they can create and appreciate something so beautiful.Tamar Gendler
When I mentioned elite, I was also mentioning that when you look at the top schools in almost every country that I’m familiar with, it seems they might be creating more inequalities that creating equality.
It is undeniable in some sense. It’s unsurprising. What you do between the ages of zero and 18 is partly going to determine how adept you will be at being receptive to what higher education teaches. So how in an unjust society does an organisation that has a particular mission carry out its activities? Think about the East Germans and the Olympics. They used to go around the country and try to identify early talent in Olympics, in chess, in all of these areas, mathematical skill and in a way that was both beautiful and horrible. Remove these talented children from their families and make the focus on excellence what they spent time on.
I would say it is a tragic fact of humanity that excellence is both the most magnificent and most horrible thing that we strive for. Excellence isn’t possible without an excessive influx of resources. Excellence is the highest and most beautiful form of human self-expression. It is also inevitably the result of injustice. It’s inevitably the result of an unequal distribution of resources.
I would say it is a tragic fact of humanity that excellence is both the most magnificent and most horrible thing that we strive for. Excellence isn’t possible without an excessive influx of resources. Excellence is the highest and most beautiful form of human self-expression. It is also inevitably the result of injustice. It’s inevitably the result of an unequal distribution of resources.Tamar Gendler
I came across a quote in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman, which is: “Big breakthroughs happens when what is certainly possible meets what is desperately necessary”. And so in terms of education, I wanted to ask you: what is desperately necessary, what is suddenly possible and what’s the next breakthrough for education?
I would say what is necessary and possible at that intersection is the capacity to combine what we know from empirical, physical, biological science and what we know about human nature from social science and humanities. I would say the global crises that we face right now — the environmental crisis, the sort of crisis we faced around health with Covid — are both examples of cases where there were knowledge bases in two domains that weren’t brought together in ways that allowed us to solve them effectively. So there are technical solutions to climate questions, but there are also a whole set of social facts that nobody likes to feel left behind and nobody likes to feel discarded, and nobody likes to feel as if that which they devoted their lives to is suddenly disparaged. And the social thoughts and the technological thoughts aren’t being brought together in ways that allow us to be effective and respectful.
When we say, “Coal is dirty”, somebody who’s spent their life working with coal hears, “I am dirty”. And that’s not the message that should be conveyed. I often think it’s amazing to me that the right ended up being anti-vax in the US and the left ended up being pro-vax. I can completely imagine an inverse thing about vegetarianism, which in America is a left-wing movement, but in Hungary it’s a right wing “back to the land” way.
What I would say education needs to be focused on is connecting what we know from social science and humanities with what we know from physical and biological and engineering sciences.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. To enjoy the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
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