[Paleopsych] CHE: Liberal Education on the Ropes

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Liberal Education on the Ropes


    Surely "liberal education" is the most used and abused phrase in the
    rhetoric of higher education. Just as surely it has no universal
    meaning. The Association of American Colleges and Universities
    recently launched a 10-year campaign to "champion the value of a
    liberal education" -- and to "spark public debate" about just what
    that is. But the concept may be more alive and well in four-year
    liberal-arts colleges than it is in our great research universities
    that are setting the agenda for higher education today. Those
    institutions are my concern: I fear that undergraduate education in
    the research university is becoming a project in ruins.

    Last year we heard of the renewal of interest in liberal education at
    those institutions when Harvard University announced that it was
    reforming its "core curriculum." The obvious question that wasn't
    asked in all the newsprint devoted to Harvard's statement is whether
    research universities can purport to offer undergraduates a liberal
    education. Furthermore, the questions that were asked indicate just
    how contested the meaning of liberal education is at research
    universities. Should the core curriculum offer common knowledge? Or a
    way of learning? Should it require set courses, or provide student
    choice? Focus on big questions, or on specialized exploration in a
    variety of disciplines?

    It seems that we have not traveled very far in defining a liberal
    education at research universities. Not in the last year. Not,
    perhaps, in the last 100 years.

    Reliable truisms are available. The association of colleges and
    universities currently defines liberal education as: "a philosophy of
    education that empowers individuals, liberates the mind from
    ignorance, and cultivates social responsibility. Characterized by
    challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of
    studying than specific content, liberal education can occur at all
    types of colleges and universities." While the association's new
    campaign seeks to unite that philosophy with what it calls "practical
    education," the elements of the definition that have been at the heart
    of the most important ambitions of liberal education for the last
    century are likely to remain -- empowering students, liberating their
    minds, preparing them for citizenship. In short, a process rather than
    a substantive orientation.

    Through most of the 20th century, liberal education was more or less
    exclusively identified with the four-year liberal-arts colleges and a
    handful of elite universities. Both the institutions and its advocates
    were avowed educational elitists. But times have changed -- hence the
    attempt of the association of colleges and universities to
    universalize liberal education across all types of institutions. But
    liberal education is being asked to carry more freight than it did a
    century ago, and it is not clear that it can succeed.

    As it has expanded throughout higher education, it has suffered
    inevitable losses and unresolved tensions. As it spread from what were
    once primarily church-related colleges, for example, it lost its focus
    on moral values. But even the surviving emphasis on an orientation
    that stresses general values has been an uncomfortable fit in the
    modern research university, which has increasingly stressed the
    production of scientific knowledge over the transmission of culture.

    Many of the attempts to package liberal education in the modern
    university have centered on "general education." The idea of general
    education derives from Matthew Arnold, and it was picked up and
    Americanized in the United States early in the 20th century. Although
    we seldom recognize the fact, there were actually three streams in
    American thinking at the time.

    The first stream is perhaps one of the oldest, but still continues. It
    has been the self-conscious rejection of specific courses in favor of
    a vague notion of enforced diversity of subject matter, to be provided
    by regular disciplinary departments. Here the pre-eminent example is,
    alas, my own university, Princeton. Under the leadership of James
    McCosh in the late 1880s, Princeton developed the "distribution"
    system that is still all we have to provide structured liberal
    education at Old Nassau.

    At Princeton it was not necessary to offer special courses or
    designate faculty members to provide the content of liberal education
    -- just to ensure that students did not concentrate too narrowly by
    requiring a variety of what McCosh called "obligatory and
    disciplinary" courses. With the exception of a sequence of humanities
    courses and a large program of freshman seminars, present-day
    Princeton still has neither nondepartmental general-education courses
    nor any structured mechanism for thinking about the broader contours
    of undergraduate liberal education. We review the program
    periodically, but we seem always to conclude that McCosh had it right.
    Well, perhaps.

    The most obvious and most highly publicized example of the next stream
    began at Columbia University as the United States was entering World
    War I. This was an attempt to ensure that undergraduates in an
    increasingly scientific university would be broadly educated across
    the fields of the liberal arts and to integrate their increasingly
    fragmented selection of courses into some coherent form. (Admittedly,
    it was also fueled by a felt need to promote Western civilization in
    the face of German barbarism.) Combining new synthetic courses outside
    the disciplinary-obsessed department structure with the inculcation of
    a notion of democratic citizenship, the curriculum was organized
    around surveys of "Contemporary Civilization." In essence, the
    Columbia sequence humanized the now-secular university curriculum by
    broadly historicizing it. As time passed, most other elite
    institutions did the same.

    In the 1930s Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler at the
    University of Chicago launched an important experiment in this
    approach. It was complex and somewhat inwardly self-contradictory, but
    the bottom line was an insistence on the centrality of the Greek
    classics and other Great Books to undergraduate education, later
    supplemented by the construction of a "core curriculum" to educate
    undergraduates across the liberal-arts subjects and to force them to
    think through and across traditional disciplinary approaches.

    In 1945 Harvard, under James Bryant Conant, issued General Education
    in a Free Society, commonly known as the Harvard Red Book. I still
    have my copy, for it was the basis of my undergraduate education at
    Harvard beginning in 1951, when as a freshman I took a "Natural
    Sciences" course in the general-education sequence taught by President
    Conant, a stunning chemistry professor named Leonard Nash, and an
    obscure assistant professor of physics named Thomas S. Kuhn. I never
    had a better undergraduate course. The political rationale for the Red
    Book was grander than Columbia's or Chicago's, but the basic
    principles of general education were not that different, based on
    sweepingly synthetic historical approaches to classically great ideas.
    The attempt to give all undergraduates at least a taste of different
    disciplines is now one of the unchallenged principles of general

    The third stream, which in some ways has had a more profound influence
    on our actual educational practices, was that championed by John Dewey
    and Arthur O. Lovejoy. This effort focused on cognitive development
    and individual student growth, and its key was the idea of reflective
    thinking as a goal of liberal education. That concept was
    institutionalized at Columbia under the leadership of Dewey and at the
    Johns Hopkins University under Lovejoy. This approach was entirely
    cognitive, lacking in specific education content. To this day it forms
    the basis of the stress on process at the heart of approaches to
    liberal education.

    To be sure, there have been many other approaches to liberal education
    over the years. Until recently, many liberal-arts colleges used both
    sophisticated distribution systems and a variety of innovative course
    designs. Many still continue to innovate. As Ernest L. Boyer
    forcefully noted in College: The Undergraduate Experience in America,
    first published in 1987, some such colleges have become university
    wannabes or citadels of preprofessional education. In any case, in
    most of the major four-year institutions that are educating a larger
    and larger proportion of undergraduates, the challenge has seemed to
    be modifying the historical principles of general education in order
    to bring them up to date.

    Harvard, as usual, got the most publicity, first for the creation of
    its "core curriculum" in the 1970s -- another attempt to problematize
    and repackage general-education courses in a manner consistent with
    the epistemology and intellectual progress of the era. This twist on
    general education dehistoricized it, organizing the curriculum around
    abstract concepts like "moral reasoning," "quantitative reasoning," or
    "social analysis."

    Last year Harvard seemed to concede the failure of that approach and
    has begun to consider what I would call "Core Two." According to the
    dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, William C. Kirby, reporting
    to the faculty, the aim is to empower students to "grasp the
    importance and relevance of fields to which they do not themselves owe
    personal allegiance and in which they have not developed special
    expertise" so that they may "understand, criticize, and improve our
    world constructively."

    Harvard is adding to its definition of general education a focus on
    international studies and one on scientific literacy. New "Harvard
    College Courses" are proposed to supply the new approaches, along with
    courses already in the curriculum. Freshman seminars are suggested and
    other small-group learning engagements for the final three years of
    college. A parallel aim of the new curriculum is to limit the
    student's concentration (Harvardese for "major"), by changing when
    undergraduates begin to major in a particular field from freshman year
    to the middle of the sophomore year (talk about epicycles!), and to
    limit the requirements for concentrators. The report also suggests
    that the university facilitate undergraduate research opportunities.
    Not one of those seems like either a new or very exciting idea.

    The Harvard document, when it is completed and put into effect, will
    predictably be the most discussed document on liberal education over
    the next few years. I have no doubt that it will, if put into practice
    in anything like a full-blooded fashion, significantly improve general
    education at Harvard. But it is a modest, reformist document.

    It defines liberal education in an altogether traditional manner, and
    each of its proposed reforms is mostly familiar. After all,
    internationalization has been on everyone's mind for some time, and
    there has not been a moment in the last century during which some
    group has not lamented that we are not doing a good job of conveying
    science to the nonscientist. Similarly, freshman seminars are hardly a
    new idea (I taught one the first year they were offered at Harvard, in
    1961), nor is the call for more small-group instruction or for more
    undergraduate research. Three years is arguably too long for an
    undergraduate to major in a discipline. Undergraduates already do
    research and take courses in professional schools (if, perhaps, that
    has just been harder at Harvard than at comparable institutions). For
    those of us at other institutions who are long-term observers of
    liberal education, there does not seem to be a lot to learn from

    My intention is not to attack any particular definition of liberal
    education. It is to suggest that we have not traveled far in our
    definitions over the past 100 years. Until we do, we can do little to
    fundamentally improve undergraduate education at research

    Moreover, whatever the definition, we all face a dilemma. As I've
    suggested for a number of years, the real problem is that both
    long-term changes to the social, political, and economic environment
    for higher education and the recent internal restructuring of the
    university make it difficult -- if not impossible -- to achieve a
    satisfactory liberal education for undergraduates. Even if Dean Kirby
    can persuade his university significantly to increase the number of
    faculty members to help teach general-education courses (and President
    John E. Sexton of New York University is making a similar proposal),
    what are the odds (a) that Harvard or NYU can afford it, and (b) that
    they can and will hire the sorts of faculty members competent (and
    inclined) to be superior undergraduate teachers? Does anyone believe
    that possible? I do not.

    The modern university has been in tension with the liberal-arts
    college it harbors within its bosom for years. We are at a point in
    the history of the research university at which, in all likelihood,
    curriculum reform can no longer plausibly produce what we are looking
    for, despite the best efforts of admirable administrators like Bill
    Kirby or John Sexton. That is why I fear that liberal education for
    undergraduates in the research university, despite the recent hoopla,
    is in ruins.

    There are two ways of thinking about why that is so. The first is the
    intellectual task of reconceptualizing what the content and curricular
    mechanisms should be at the beginning of the second century of modern
    liberal education. The second approach is to consider the structural
    changes in the modern research university that are relegating
    undergraduate education to the margins.

    I will not attempt more than to gesture at what seem to me the
    contours of the intellectual problem. The overriding difficulty is the
    vast expansion of the domains of knowledge from the late 19th century
    to the early 21st century. After all, the by-now-traditional academic
    disciplines only took shape from the 1880s to the 1920s. The social
    sciences, in particular, were very much the original product of that
    period, and one of the original objectives of general education was to
    locate the social sciences within the new sociology of knowledge
    (itself a creation of the first half of the 20th century).

    As undergraduates increasingly "majored" in a single discipline, the
    question was how they could relate what they were learning to the
    larger intellectual cosmology. That was what Columbia and other elite
    colleges were addressing. But the intellectual panorama was already
    changing rapidly. By the 1940s, when Harvard introduced its
    undergraduate curriculum, atomic physics was most obviously where the
    action was, but the revolution in cell biology was quietly beginning
    and, with it, the total transformation of the life sciences. New forms
    and combinations of knowledge were being institutionalized in the
    natural sciences along the model that had produced biochemistry in the
    1930s. What had begun as a private philanthropic initiative in the
    1920s and 1930s was suddenly overwhelmed by the entrance of the
    federal government following World War II, especially through the
    mechanisms of the National Science Foundation and the National
    Institutes of Health. There would soon be no such thing as the
    generally educated scientist, much less the generally scientifically
    literate undergraduate student. There was simply too much to know
    because of the range, depth, and quantity of new scientific
    scholarship, and of the increasing centrality of complex mathematics
    to scientific understanding.

    Change was afoot in the humanities and social sciences as well. Those
    were more complicated and subtle stories, but the larger outlines seem
    clear enough. The social sciences became more complex theoretically,
    more scientific in their methodology, and more wide-ranging in their
    ambitions. They became less focused on understanding the problems of
    building democracy in the United States (as they had begun to do in
    the 1920s and 1930s), and more interested in fostering both economic
    and political development abroad, especially in the "underdeveloped"
    areas of the world. As in every other disciplinary domain, the
    traditional social-science disciplines splintered, sprouted new lines,
    and recombined in novel ways.

    In the humanities, the focus moved from studies of Europe (especially
    classical Europe) and America to contemplation of the rest of the
    world. We discovered world literature, philosophy, history, and music.
    New subdisciplines developed (the history of everything in the social
    sciences and humanities, for instance), new languages were studied,
    new techniques were employed. And the relevance of the humanities to
    politics became a problem and an opportunity.

    For undergraduate education, the center simply could not hold. There
    were many attempts to identify an essential core of knowledge, and
    many new attempts will undoubtedly be made. I think them unlikely to
    succeed given the breadth and complexity of the intellectual content
    students now confront.

    Nor do we seem to have the educational leaders capable of defining new
    content. Let me say that I do not think the blame should fall on
    university presidents and deans. It should be assigned to research
    faculties for whom thoughtful consideration of undergraduate education
    is simply not on the agenda. They are dominated by scholars committed
    to disciplinary approaches, who would mostly prefer to teach graduate
    students and, increasingly, postgrads. The professional schools at
    least claim to prefer to admit generally educated students, but what
    about graduate departments? Can we simply presume that the products of
    American secondary education are already liberally educated? To ask
    the question is to answer it.

    And that brings me to my second concern: the extent to which
    structural changes in the university, especially the research
    university, tend to marginalize undergraduate education generally and,
    more important, make it difficult to theorize and put into effect
    anything like liberal education. Some of those factors also affect
    colleges and general universities, but the problem is worst in the
    research universities. Quite apart from the intellectual
    transformation I have just described, the most important thing that
    has changed for higher education is the entirety of the social and
    political environment in which it is situated.

    The most significant shift is from elite to democratic higher
    education, which began in the 1930s and took off after World War II,
    heralded by the GI Bill. Since then the numbers of undergraduate
    students in four-year institutions have expanded exponentially, and
    student bodies have come to resemble the diversity of the general
    population of the country. Of course, pluralism requires something
    less morally prescriptive, less tailored, more diverse, and more
    practical than the elite higher education of the early-20th century.
    Notions of democratic higher education originated a century ago, but
    they took on new urgency and complexity after World War II. That is
    why Harvard went to such lengths to explore the democratic character
    of general education in its postwar Red Book.

    None of us wants to go back to traditional educational elitism. I
    assume that the "best" institutions these days aspire to meritocratic
    elitism, leavened by diversity programs aimed at casting a broad net,
    and compensating for past deficiencies where necessary. However, in
    all but the most selective institutions, students have a broad range
    of motivations for "going to college," and many (if not most of them)
    cannot choose freely to construct their educations. They are older,
    part time, and financially hard pressed. That does not mean that they
    are narrowly preprofessional or unreceptive to the need for a liberal
    education, but that they are obviously very different sorts of
    candidates for general education than students of my own or earlier

    Over time the social and political pressures that shaped the modern
    research university have shaped the way that undergraduate education
    is conceptualized. It is at least arguable that the early research
    universities genuinely thought of themselves as collegiate
    institutions -- by which I mean a university surrounding an
    undergraduate college. That notion is still embodied in institutions
    such as Harvard and Yale University, where the phrase "the college"
    has some meaning. The term "Harvard graduate" (or "Yale graduate")
    still means someone who has completed the undergraduate program. But
    the fuller notion that the liberal arts are the core of the university
    has eroded badlymainly, I think, in response to the university's
    attempt to satisfy concrete and immediate pragmatic social demands.

    My contention is that we have gone so far down this road in the major
    universities that we have reversed our priorities and now give
    precedence to research and graduate and professional training -- in
    the kind of faculty members we recruit, in the incentives (light or
    nil teaching loads) we offer them, and even in the teaching we value
    (graduate over undergraduate students). Our research faculty members
    have little interest in joining efforts to build core or
    general-education programs, much less in teaching in them. Moreover,
    can we be confident that those prized faculty recruits are
    sufficiently liberally educated to participate in general education?
    The same is true of our fractionalizing of universities into research
    centers. Those increasingly become pawns in the faculty recruiting
    game -- we will finance a research center for you, help you recruit
    postdocs and graduate students to do the research -- with little room
    or thought to undergraduate education.

    Another problem, though one hard to document and discuss, is the
    difficulty of financing the humanities and soft social sciences, the
    fields in which so many undergraduates find their most important
    liberal-education experiences. We all know that faculty members in
    those fields teach more, get paid less, and have fewer resources for
    research than their colleagues in the natural sciences and hard social
    sciences. They have less leverage in the institution to get what they
    want, from secretarial services and office space to computers. They
    are also, on balance, the faculty members most likely to be concerned
    with undergraduate education, but they are in a weak position to
    influence decisions within their universities.

    Perhaps most important, those who administer our research universities
    are less and less likely to be well-known teachers, especially
    collegiate teachers. Presidents have less and less time to worry about
    education problems, and even provosts and deans of faculty are
    incredibly hard pressed to keep the lights on and the laboratories
    functioning. They themselves seldom teach. Such administrators are
    often forced to prize efficiency in undergraduate education -- the
    more bodies in a classroom the better, and cheaper. It may well be
    that in most American universities the economic realities are such
    that the administrators have few alternatives.

    I think I would know what to do about the plight of liberal education
    in the modern research university if I were offered the magic wand. We
    all have lovely theories. But none of us, and no university president,
    has such power. That makes it all the more important that we be
    conscious of the nature of the task at hand. I asked my friend Charles
    S. Maier, a professor of history at Harvard who has been working on
    its curricular review, about the university's recent proposal. "I do
    think it's a step in the right direction to bury the Core, which
    essentially said students should understand how scholars do
    scholarship. The Gen Ed that you and I took was a far more humanist
    enterprise. But by the early 1970s, faculties no longer had confidence
    in Values and thus turned toward Expertise," he told me. "At least we
    now have a sense that Values -- aesthetic, civic, moral -- are
    important again, even if we don't have confidence we know which values
    are important."

    I believe he's right. Lest we continue to be mired in incremental
    reforms, we need to be clearer about the larger function of general
    education. If we believe that values do have a role in education, then
    the challenge may be to rehistoricize and rehumanize the underclass
    curriculum. That does not mean going back to Contemporary Civilization
    courses or the Red Book. It does mean rethinking the content of
    knowledge appropriate for our contemporary society, and summoning the
    intellectual courage to embolden students to make qualitative
    judgments about the materials they are required to engage with in
    their underclass years.

    Of course, that will not be possible unless we are safely beyond the
    conflicts of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. That seems to me
    problematic at the current moment in American history, but perhaps I
    am too pessimistic.

    Even if we are able to open a new discussion about reforming the
    curriculum, however, we will still fail unless we take seriously the
    structural constraints on higher education today. At best we have been
    taking those constraints for granted; at worst, enthusiastically
    embracing them.

    The changing structure of the university is the place we may need to
    start the discussion. A great deal is at stake for undergraduate
    education, and for the country. If we believe, as so many of the
    founders of liberal education did, that the vitality of American
    democracy depends upon the kind of liberal education undergraduates
    receive, we need to put the reimagination of liberal education near
    the top of our agenda for education in our research universities.

    Stanley N. Katz is director of Princeton University's Center for Arts
    and Cultural Policy Studies and president emeritus of the American
    Council of Learned Societies.

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