On Reclaiming Liberal Education in the University

Peter W. Schramm

March 9, 1995

American institutions of higher education are held in high regard around the world. The world is impressed by the overall quality of them, the fine experts produced by them, its accessibility by over half of our high school graduates, and its more than adequate funding. Further, it is generally admitted that there is no other system of higher education that has afforded as much intellectual freedom to teachers and students. It is also generally admitted that in the more than 3,000 institutions of higher education (including both junior colleges and four year institutions) one finds a great variety of purposes and methods. What may be said by way of praise of American higher education in general, can with equal or even greater validity, be said about such institutions in the great state of Ohio.

Notwithstanding the general praise of our institutions of higher education, it is also generally admitted that there is plenty of room for criticism. I would like to present to you one such criticism, and limit myself briefly to what I believe is the major flaw in our institutions of higher education: they are no longer providing a sufficient grounding in what we have always called liberal education or the liberal arts.

From the beginning of America, the founders were interested in integrating both a technical and a liberal education. They saw both as essential equipments of free citizens. They were helping to prepare men for freedom and self-government, and they wanted self-reliant and independent men, who would know how to work hard and use their leisure well. They wanted citizens capable of thinking for themselves and managing their private and public affairs with good judgment. Such men would become citizens of this revolutionary political order founded upon the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Education was both good in itself and useful to individuals and the public realm. Jefferson’s conception of education, for example, was an intricate blending of scientific, civic, and liberal education most clearly revealed in his plan for the University of Virginia. His main intent was “to form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happi
ness are so much to depend.” Hence his emphasis on the study of “the principles and structure of government.” Students are also to know the “mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts, and administer to the health, the subsistence, and comforts of human life.” Also, the university is to “develop their reasoning faculties” and “enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.” All of this, according to Jefferson, in order “to form them to habits of reflection and correct actions, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”

That higher education today, in its emphasis on “salable skills” and the scientific expansion of the “frontiers of knowledge,” is doing well is beyond doubt. Do universities claim that such training and specialization is sufficient for a good education? Are they giving students an opportunity to have a liberal education?

The answer is an implicit “no” because all colleges and universities have what they call general education requirements (or core requirements) which all students, regardless of their majors and technical training, have to take. Although what used to be called core requirements are less demanding now than a generation or two ago, some watered down form of them still exist. These requirements tend to include a year of English, a semester of a course in natural science, one or two from the arts and humanities, social sciences, sometimes an elementary knowledge of a foreign language, and so on. Of course, it should be added that it is generally recognized that even these general education requirements are far from sufficient. For example, a study a few years ago noted that it is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree from 37% of the nation’s colleges and universities without taking any course in history, and it is possible to graduate from 45% of our colleges without taking
any course in American or English literature.

Still, unsubstantial and thin as these general education requirements are, these are the only things that students have in common who attend a particular institution, regardless of their specialized training. It is these requirements that allow colleges and universities to continue to claim that they are indeed offering the student a liberal education. Indeed, some universities and colleges identify themselves as liberal arts institutions even though they may have only the most tenuous connection with what is called a liberal education.

What is a liberal education?

“All of life is divided between work and leisure, and between war and peace, and of our activities some are necessary and useful and others are noble. The same preference must be exercised in these matters as in regard to the parts of the soul and their activities war must be for the sake of peace, work for the sake of leisure, and necessary and useful things for the sake of the noble things. The statesman must legislate with a view to all these things the parts of the soul and their activities, and particularly those that are better and are ends, and similarly with regard to the ways of life and choice of actions. For men must be capable of engaging in work and war, but still more capable of remaining at peace and at leisure. And they must be able to do necessary and useful things, but still more they must be able to do the noble things. Accordingly, it is with these aims in view that they should be educated when they are still children and at the later ages in life that
require education.” Aristotle, Politics, VII, l333a3l-b4.

“It is therefore not difficult to see that the young must be taught those useful arts that are indispensably necessary; but, those pursuits that are liberal having been distinguished from those that are illiberal, it is clear that they should not be taught all the useful arts, and that they must participate in such among them as will not make the participant a philistine.” Aristotle, Politics, VIII, l337b.

Liberal education has to with educating free men. The term liberal means, literally, “pertaining to freedom, or to the free” (liberi). Free children used to be called liberi; they are children who will become free adults. When we still use the term, as in liberating, we mean to free from the shackles of guardians or customs and prejudices. It is those human beings who are free, who are either not enslaved to other human beings, or to the simple necessities of life, that are in special need of a liberal education. It is these human beings who should have the most faith in the intellect to liberate them. Liberal education is the contemplation of those human and natural things that man is naturally in awe of; this contemplation or inquiry is aided, of course, by good books, including the “elementary books of public right” to whose authority Jefferson refers. It is these same human beings who think they can establish a just and free political or
der based on the laws of nature and nature’s God, and who are prepared to prove to all that good government can be based on deliberation and choice. And it is such men that rightly think that they can rise above the accidents of gender and race, of time and place, and think and act with the dignity becoming of free human beings. Liberal education teaches men what use or good freedom is. Our Republic, while attempting to secure our natural rights, does not attempt to provide us with happiness but to facilitate its pursuit. Liberal education facilitates this pursuit and may be said to be the necessary condition for it.

While at Princeton James Madison did not immerse himself in public policy and technical training but, following his teacher’s exhortation “Do not live useless and die contemptible,” he studied Hebrew, philosophy, history and theology. So, as one historian has said, “the arguments of the philosophers became for Madison the slogans of a fighting faith and a political career.” Abraham Lincoln did not have the advantage of a liberal education in a fine institutional setting, but he educated himself by, according to his biographer, “saturating his mind with Shakespeare and the Bible”. The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are not accidental compositions. Furthermore, while in Congress he mastered the propositions of Euclid. These not only proved a good in themselves, helping to hone his already fine mind, but they also became enormously useful to him in his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas. See how clearly he put the issue between them i
n a speech in Columbus, on September l6, l859: “If Judge Douglas will demonstrate somehow that this is popular sovereignty the right of one man to make a slave of another, without any right in that other, or anyone else, to object, demonstrate it as Euclid demonstrated propositions there is no objection.”

We are led, both as human beings, and as free men, to ask questions that are not simply instrumental to other questions, or as solutions to problems, but questions that seem to be ends in themselves; questions that speak directly to us as human beings and citizens. These questions, when properly posed in the very best books ever produced in the history of the human race, excite the student’s imagination and become part of the discipline and furniture of the mind. The study of these books, and the fundamental experiences they were meant to articulate, provide models of fine minds, noble action, wise precepts. Students get to know and live with the most extraordinary and unexampled people, grappling with the most wonderful human questions. Liberal education consists of education toward activities that are ends in themselves, activities that make life complete. It is an attempt to understand the ends, or the nature of things. This is done quite naturally for the questions are et
ernal and reflect on what is the best and most interesting about the human condition. Reflecting on questions such as, what is happiness? what is the good? what is noble? what is base? what is man? always enlighten the student’s own humanity and he is pointed higher, wanting to know the cause of things, the nature of the universe, of which he himself is a manifestation. He is thereby reminded of his freedom, of the potentiality of his human nature.

These questions have no easy answers, of course. And the precision with which we must approach them must be such as the nature of the questions admits. Knowing the human things is more difficult than knowing the motions of mere matter, because men are free, they are not determined. They are both able to observe and wonder at the universe as well as be participants in it. This is why there are so many good and diverse answers to the questions posed; and this variety is both helpful in our education and the best examples of human capacities. Great minds of the past who have been able to consider these questions well, are indispensable to these efforts. Fortunately they wrote books and are able to teach us the way of the questions and answers. And the heart of the liberal arts, of the good life for free men, lies in this.

It is not irrelevant here that the word school comes from the Greek word meaning leisure. It is only those who have the leisure that may have a schooling, and it is those who are liberally educated that know how to use their leisure well. Those young men and women who are supplied with the necessities of life, as indeed, the vast majority of American young people are, and living under a free political order in which they themselves make the laws under which they live, are the ones who should know how to use their leisure well. A philosopher once said that if you want to know the true essence and character of a man, find out what he does when he has the leisure to do whatever he wants to do.

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I will summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, VI, end.

The liberal arts, the arts that demand the cultivation of that specifically human thing that we call the human mind or reason, give men the opportunity in which the human mind may articulate its consciousness of the world. It is by this education and true learning that a young student is given the opportunity to fully participate in the exciting life of the mind of which civilization is a record. These are those years in which a student is exposed to the highest things, the peaks of human excellence and dignity. It is, when well done, a great adventure that the student will find truly exciting and something that will in the most profound way affect the rest of his life. It is in this process that his human potentialities are most clearly fulfilled.

Aristotle says that “All human beings hunger to know by their very nature.” (Metaphysics l) If this is true, then it can actually be argued that learning is done naturally for the love of knowing and understanding and not for its utility. Learning is an end, not a means to something else, and is therefore superior to technical training. This is why we still hold education in the highest regard, and we still think that a well educated man or woman is better than one who isn’t. He is better because he has actualized more of his potential as a human being than one who has had no education or is less well educated. And this is why we can reasonably assume that all students, if given the opportunity, will not only benefit from, but actually take great pleasure in being exposed to a liberal education.

There is no doubt that the crisis of liberal education today has to do with the simple fact that universities have a lot to say about what a well trained student is but very little about what a well educated student is or should be. The fact that there is something called general education (or core) requirements is actually left over from older days. It is done out of habit, a vague memory that once there was something that held higher education together, but the essence of it is no longer intelligible. It is something that is without much substance or meaning in a university that is otherwise balkanized and specialized. (This situation is even worse when “political correctness” comes to infect a university). A university may do a good job of training but it almost always gives only an imperfect opportunity for a student to be well educated or to get a liberal education. This is so because institutions of higher education are no longer able to agree on the meaning o
f liberal education. So they offer the student maximum freedom to choose between a variety of subjects and majors, the more the better. But they no longer are able to articulate a coherent whole, which would give meaning to these varied disciplines, meaning to what an educated human being should be. The student ends up getting virtually no institutional guidance about how he is supposed to participate in the liberal arts.

It is, in my opinion, relatively easy to devise a course of study for students where they would be immersed in the great human questions, where they would be given the opportunity to fall in love with some of the great minds who have reflected on the great questions. Further, students, when exposed to a liberal education, take to it like ducks to water. They find questions of truth and beauty exciting and fulfilling. Their minds are elevated and their hearts are moved beyond anything they have experienced. The difficulty comes when one tries to institute and institutionalize such programs at colleges today: the faculty will not allow it.

University faculty, as a rule, have a narrow and parochial view of things. They live in a feudal world in which each discipline or subject, no matter how narrowly defined, is a master of a small part of the university, and they will not allow anyone or anything to interfere with the way they are doing things. Besides, they make the argument that there is nothing that is more comprehensive than what they are involved in, there is nothing more fundamental that holds these various parts together. They are really claiming that there is not a university but a multiversity; there are many parts, but no whole. And by doing this they claim that there is no such thing as a liberal education, that there is no such thing as the liberal arts. There is no single vision in the university regarding what an educated human being is. There is just a set of competing visions between the different disciplines, each claiming that it is sufficient for the purpose of training and education.

There is no longer a recognized hierarchy. All subjects are equal. And when the question of liberal education is raised at a university which is a rare occurrence the faculty immediately shut off discussion because they claim that even the raising of the question is a threat to the peace of the institution. Since they do not know what a liberal education is, what an educated human being is, and because they do not know how to find out, there can be nothing but a war among the disciplines should the question be raised. This war takes place among any and all disciplines that are currently recognized as subjects or majors because if they are already in the university, this is already proof of their value. Each is equal to the other, and none will give ground. Their prime duty becomes self-preservation, and even an attempt at expansion of their domain, based on nothing but power (or the number of students they may be able to attract). And the students are given no guidance. At
its best the university becomes nothing but an intellectual cafeteria, the more kinds of dishes offered the better the university. Students are encouraged to enter if they are hungry, and to choose from the smorgasbord in front of them. But they are not given any guidance. Everything in front of them, they are told, has equal value and there is no way to tell whether one should take a course on Shakespeare or one on Intercultural Communication. Take your pick, they are told. The choices made by students are therefore not reasonable; there is nothing upon which to base their choices. Since most of the students don’t even know what sort of things they would like to study (except perhaps students who may be already interested in the natural sciences) they tend to make decisions on the basis of utility. They tend to lean toward those departments that somehow will seem to certify them for some professional activity or another, e.g., nursing, criminal justice, business, education.

Along the way they are told that they have to pick from some “general education” requirements. And this is supposed to give them a taste of the other disciplines and subjects; this is what replaces liberal education. And, it goes almost without saying, these introductory courses in sociology, history, etc., are very general as well as very boring. They almost never ask anything of the student. The student gets introduced to the particular subject through a general view of the discipline; an overview without any depth, without any significance. They are never asked to examine the intellectual presuppositions of the particular field; they never reflect on the original questions animating the subject (whether physics, mathematics, history, or philosophy, etc.). They are asked to read very little, to write very little, and to reflect hardly at all. The student, to no one’s surprise, does not become interested, he is bored. No great questions are discussed, no great i
ssues are raised, no great thinking takes place.

If they had been well educated in secondary schools then perhaps the problem I am describing would be less grim; but their pre-collegiate education has done virtually nothing to introduce them to the pleasures and rigors of learning. In fact, many are not well read, nor are they capable writers. When they come to college they sense that something important should be happening to them, that somehow they will be considering questions that they hadn’t considered before. But in fact what happens is nothing of the sort. They enter higher education, at the mercy of the latest dominant intellectual fad. This could be values clarification, multiculturalism, diversity training, intercultural communication, deconstructionism; one could go on and on. And in general they are asked less to think and understand than to be intense, to make passionate commitments to transform the world. The very first class that they are likely to take is something called Freshman Studies which is supposed
to make the transition between secondary school and college easier (as if there is that much difference!). They are told to keep diaries so they can track their feelings, to bond with fellow students (on the basis of what, one is tempted to ask?), to attend some campus events, to know where the library is, and, in general, are encouraged to feel good about themselves. They will be told to get along, to be sensitive, to join organizations that espouse things they believe in, or ones that give them a feeling of community. And then they are encouraged to study something that will prepare them to compete in the marketplace of the global village. And, oh yes, while they’re doing that they are asked to dabble in “group” distribution requirements, so they can have a taste of the many fields of specialization that exists. And some institutions even have something called Interdisciplinary Studies which also turns out to be a feeble attempt to substitute breadth for intellectual

No meaty questions are asked in higher education that is so specialized. What is justice? What is beauty? What is man? And addressing these timeless questions by having, as it were, conversations with the great minds who have most clearly and forcefully dealt with them, is the essence of liberal education. This ultimately satisfies the natural human longing to know about the nature of the universe and the nature of human beings. Taking the great minds seriously, meeting them in books across the centuries and across the oceans, also has the effect of moderating the ordinary passions and prejudices of the day. It allows students to distance themselves from the noise and babble around them. Taking the eternal questions seriously gives the student a perspective on what otherwise would seem to be impassioned and pressing problems of the day which, they are usually told, if not solved immediately will surely be the greatest misfortune for mankind. When education takes place stud
ents are able to step back from the actions and noise of the world and take a more detached and thoughtful view of it. They are on the way toward understanding. They are able to begin to see what is important, what is merely fleeting, and what is without value.

Is there any remedy to this situation? Can the liberal arts be grafted unto the modern university in some form? I fear the answer is no because the manner in which the modern university has evolved, with its schools of specialization and departmental structure, will not permit any revolutionary changes. The reason general education requirements are allowed to exist is because the interests of the departments allow it to be assembled out of the many parts of the university. And sometimes the departments will allow something like an honors program, which at its best looks like a liberal arts education, (at its worst it is a toy of a few playful faculty) to exist. The problem with this, of course, is that an honors program, by design, is meant for only the few “best” students. But are the rest of students such “on whose nature/Nurture can never stick”? If all students in higher education should be given the same opportunity then the only possible solution is
to, in effect, add another “department” (for lack of a better term) unto an already artificially separated division of knowledge of the current departments. This new program could be called, for example, the Liberal Arts Department. It would consist of a new set of faculty, sometimes pulled from other departments, sometimes hired anew for the purpose, who would be interested in the larger questions mentioned above. They would set up a year long program of reading some of the great books that address these questions (by, for example, Plato, Aristotle, Melville, Austen, Homer, Rousseau, Shakespeare, et al) and its concerns would be different than what the rest of the university offers. The purpose of this course of study would not be the dissemination of knowledge, or the so called discovery of new knowledge, but the raising of the original questions. Serious reading, clear thinking, and rigorous writing would be the norm. It would be best if such a program would be req
uired during the student’s first year. This would be a beginning to the true end or purpose of education: reasoning about the most fundamental human questions and experiences.

Students who are able to get a liberal education not only engage themselves with a pleasure and a good that will last their whole lives but they will also have a better appreciation of the mystery of human freedom, and what it may mean to be a citizen in a constitutional order dedicated to encouraging politics to reflect most essentially what is the best and most noble in human nature. It is also true that human beings who think clearly, read deeply, and write felicitously, will also make better use of their freedom. But if anything in the modern university leads to this today it is almost entirely the result of chance. Other than their inability to address this problem, the universities in Ohio and the country as a whole, deserve the praise they are getting. Compared to the rest of our educational system, our universities are in pretty good shape.

Suggested readings:

Lorraine Smith Pangle, “Liberal Education and Politics: Lessons from the American Founding,” Academic Questions, Winter l994-95, Vol. 8, No. l

William J. Bennett, To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, National Endowment for the Humanities, November l984

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Simon and Schuster, l987

Lorraine Smith Pangle & Thomas L. Pangle, The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders, University Press of Kansas, l993

Harry V. Jaffa, “The Conditions of Freedom,” in The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University Press, l975

Eva T.H. Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, The University of Chicago Press, l979

Jan H. Blits, “The Search for Ends: Liberal Education and the Modern University,” in The American University: Problems, Prospects and Trends, Prometheus Books, l985

Thomas G. West, “On Education,” (in three parts) Improving College and University Teaching, Winter l980, Spring l980, Summer l980