Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education / Education and Democracy: Re-Imagining Liberal Learning in America

Article excerpt

Cultivating Humanity:

A Classical Defense of

Reform in Liberal


Martha C. Nussbaum. Cambridge,

Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997,

328pp., $26.00

Education and Democracy:

Re-imagining Liberal

Learning in America

Edited by Robert Orrill. New York:

College Entrance Examination Board

1997, 351 pp., $22.95

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A LIBERAL arts education? It is only too easy to demonstrate that in practical terms its tangible value is usually small. And yet, despite its steep cost, most parents and most educators still believe that as many people as possible should have one. But what exactly is a liberal arts education, or what ought it to be? Perhaps the only point on which everyone would agree is that the liberal arts cannot be what they originally were, an education for free men (that is, for males who were not slaves or peasants, who could read, and who had the leisure time and the intelligence to appreciate what they were reading). Now education is available to virtually anyone who wants it, and the scope of the liberal arts curriculum has expanded almost exponentially. The problem is that some choices will always need to be made about what to emphasize or offer, because time and resources are necessarily limited. Decisions will need to be made about which aspects of education really matter, and what it is that we want all students to know by the time they walk across the stage to receive their increasingly costly diplomas.

In the unlikely event that someone were to ask me what I would recommend for our students, I would probably end up saying more or less what everyone else says: I'd like all my students to be able to read and to express themselves clearly in writing. I'd like them to know some of the basic facts and methodologies of science and social science, have some sense of history and techniques of inquiry and argument, and acquaintance with the larger world, through study of both foreign cultures and languages. I would want to be sure they knew that there were many injustices in our society and in the world that they should begin to try to remedy. And, yes, of course, they need to know how to use a computer for basic tasks like word processing.

Where I might disagree with some of my colleagues is about which of those desiderata should get highest priority, and how in practical terms they should be taught. If in my department we have difficulty agreeing on a particular textbook for teaching elementary language and are rarely, if ever, satisfied with the results, how will it be possible for us as a faculty to reach a consensus on how to teach our students to write well, be good citizens, be compassionate, and understand and appreciate different human experiences and ways of doing things? Are there not some experts who could answer these troubling and fundamental questions?

It would be reassuring if education professionals (or professional educators?) could be counted on to provide some practical answers. In that hope one might read the essays collected by Robert Orrill of the College Board in Education and Democracy: Reit Imagining Liberal Learning in America. Perhaps university administrators will find these essays helpful, but as a faculty member, I was disappointed. It is not that the contributors cannot express themselves clearly and forcefully, or that they hold opinions with which I am eager to disagree. On the contrary, these are writers who have thought long and hard about the issues that they discuss, and who have the kind of experience and breadth of vision that one would hope that educational leaders might have. They know and esteem John Dewey's work and are familiar with the history of pragmatism in this country. They clearly believe that what we are doing now will not really work in the twentyfirst century, and they are eager to explore educational strategies that have not yet been adopted at the premier colleges, such as collaborative learning and internships in the community. …