Academic journal article Policy Review

Liberal Education, Then and Now

Academic journal article Policy Review

Liberal Education, Then and Now

Article excerpt

I. Our university

AN AUTO REPAIR shop in which mechanics and owners could not distinguish a wreck from a finely tuned car would soon go out of business. A hospital where doctors, nurses, and administrators were unable to recognize a healthy human being would present a grave menace to the public health. A ship whose captain and crew lacked navigation skills and were ignorant of their destination would spell doom for the cargo and passengers entrusted to their care.

Yet at universities and colleges throughout the land, parents and students pay large sums of money for--and federal and state governments contribute sizeable tax exemptions to support--liberal education, despite administrators and faculty lacking a coherent idea about what constitutes an educated human being. To be sure, American higher education, or rather a part of it, is today the envy of the world, producing and maintaining research scientists of the highest caliber. But liberal education is another matter. Indeed, many professors in the humanities and social sciences proudly promulgate in their scholarship and courses doctrines that mock the very idea of a standard or measure defining an educated person and so legitimate the compassless curriculum over which they preside. In these circumstances, why should we not conclude that universities are betraying their mission?

To be sure, universities and colleges put out plenty of glossy pamphlets containing high-minded statements touting the benefits of higher education. Aimed at prospective students, parents, and wealthy alumni, these publications celebrate a commitment to fostering diversity, developing an ethic of community service, and enhancing appreciation of cultures around the world. University publications also proclaim that graduates will have gained skills for success in an increasingly complex and globalized marketplace. Seldom, however, do institutions of higher education boast about how the curriculum cultivates the mind and refines judgment. This is not because universities are shy about the hard work they have put into curriculum design or because they have made a calculated decision to lure students and alumni dollars by focusing on the sexier side of the benefits conferred by higher education. It's because university curricula explicitly and effectively aimed at producing an educated person rarely exist. (1)

Universities do provide a sort of structure for undergraduate education. Indeed, it can take years for advisors to master the intricacies of general curriculum requirements on the one hand and specific criteria established by individual departments and proliferating special majors and concentrations on the other. The Byzantine welter of required courses, bypass options, and substitutions that students confront may seem like an arbitrary and ramshackle construction. In large measure it is. At the same time, our compassless curriculum gives expression to a dominant intellectual opinion. And it reflects the gulf between the requirements of liberal education and the express interests of parents, donors, professors, and students.

The dominant opinion proclaims that no shared set of ideas, no common body of knowledge, and no baseline set of values or virtues marking an educated human being exist. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of all American colleges adopt a general distribution requirement. (2) Usually this means that students must take a course or two of their choosing in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, with perhaps a dollop of fine arts thrown in for good measure. And all students must choose a major. Although departments of mathematics, engineering, and the natural sciences maintain a sense of sequence and rigor, students in the social sciences and humanities typically are required to take a smattering of courses in their major, which usually involves a choice of introductory classes and a potpourri of more specialized classes, topped off perhaps with a thesis on a topic of the student's choice. …

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