- Liberal Education and the Good Society
When I was asked to contribute to this symposium on "Liberal Education and the Good Society," my first inclination was to decline the invitation politely, invoking the all-purpose excuse of being "too busy." What could I, a harried professor of political philosophy at a small college in Maine, possibly say about a topic so large and well-trodden that hadn't been said already by heads better than my own? It was not that I didn't care deeply about liberal education — I do — or even that I didn't believe that such an education has something to contribute to "the good society" — again, though perhaps more qualifiedly, I do. It was that I was haunted — paralyzed — by the specter of such eloquent spokesmen on behalf of liberal education as Newman and Nietzsche, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott. Was there anything left to add?
Clearly, I overcame my scruples. I reasoned that, while I might not be able to offer an original theory or defense of liberal education, I could certainly provide a report from the trenches. Having taught at an elite liberal arts college for almost 15 years, I feel modestly qualified to comment on the condition of liberal education today, the challenges it faces and the impediments it must overcome. It will not come as a surprise that I consider these challenges to be great and the impediments many. Nevertheless, I hope to avoid in this essay the ranting of many conservative critics of contemporary higher education. My aim is to say something useful, not to fire potshots in a pointless culture war.
Let me begin by specifying what I consider to be the chief impediments to liberal education today. These impediments can be considered under two heads: the character of the students currently entering college; and the character of the curriculum currently offered by colleges.
With respect to the first, I hope I am not being unduly pessimistic by saying that the students currently entering college are less prepared to take advantage of — and therefore also more in need of — a liberal arts education than ever before. It would take a sociology more sophisticated than my own to unravel the complicated sources of this educational incapacity. Suffice it to say that television, video games, advertising, popular music, and the computer have all contributed to a mental disposition that is more responsive to what is immediate, sensory, easily accessible, pre-packaged, and emotionally crude than to what is reflective, linguistically complex, conceptually challenging, and emotionally refined. Given the culture in which most children grow up, it is not surprising that they cannot read, write, or speak very well when they enter college. And the computer, which now seamlessly blends entertainment and education, promotes the illusion — fatal to liberal education — that the world of knowledge consists exclusively of inert information devoid of personal interpretation or judgment.
Though the character of the current undergraduate presents considerable challenges to liberal education, these challenges are not insuperable. To meet them, however, a college curriculum must be carefully designed to supply the foundations of a liberal education that are sorely missing in current undergraduates. Unfortunately, most college curricula do not do this, consisting instead of narrowly focused courses that when put together form a patchwork of specialisms but no real whole. There are, of course, many reasons for the fragmentary and specialized character of the contemporary college curriculum — academic professionalization, multiculturalism, the fragmentation of knowledge itself — but however that may be, the end result of such a curriculum is that it leaves the intellectual habits of students largely unchanged and their intellects unformed. Students may learn a fair amount of interesting and even useful information, but they themselves remain fundamentally untransformed by what they learn.
The defect I am pointing to in current college curricula presupposes, of course, a certain understanding of what liberal education at its best ought to accomplish. I take this understanding largely from John Henry Newman, who in his great lectures on The Idea of a University never lost sight of the fact that the purpose of a liberal education is not simply to convey information to students but...