Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America


It is one thing to lament the financial pressures put on universities, quite another to face up to the poverty of resources for thinking about what universities should do when they purport to offer a liberal education. In Powers of the Mind, former University of Chicago dean Donald N. Levine enriches those resources by proposing fresh ways to think about liberal learning with ideas more suited to our times.

He does so by defining basic values of modernity and then considering curricular principles pertinent to them. The principles he favors are powers of the mind- disciplines understood as fields of study defined not by subject matter but by their embodiment of distinct intellectual capacities. To illustrate, Levine draws on his own lifetime of teaching and educational leadership, while providing a marvelous summary of exemplary educational thinkers at the University of Chicago who continue to inspire. Out of this vital tradition, Powers of the Mind constructs a paradigm for liberal arts today, inclusive of all perspectives and applicable to all settings in the modern world.


Whatever else happened that year, 1987 witnessed a strange turn in the reading habits of the American public. For forty-five weeks, a tortuous sermon about higher education stood on the New York Times list of bestselling hardcover nonfiction, selling more than one million copies. Written by University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom and packaged with a foreword by Saul Bellow, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students delivered a full-bodied attack against the deterioration of university curricula. Bloom called the mid-1960s, when this decline accelerated, a time of “unmitigated disaster…. The old core curriculum—according to which every student in the college had to take a smattering of courses in the major divisions of knowledge—was abandoned.”

Responses to this publication startled me. Shaped, like Bloom, by the common core of the “Hutchins College” of the University of Chicago, I yearned to restore the values that it had embodied. As dean of the university's undergraduate college—called simply “the College”—in the 1980s, I searched widely to find hints of interest in the liberal arts curriculum. This surprise best seller suggested that the public was hungering for universities to reaffirm a clarified educational mission. It seemed to signify a certain resonance with Bloom's point that the crisis of liberal education in our time reflected not so much the incoherence among principles of understanding the world as our incapacity even to discuss this incoherence.

Nevertheless, in certain respects both the book itself and the public's response distressed me. Although I sympathized with Bloom's critique of universities for changing requirements in accord with political demands . . .

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