Laurence Roth, associate professor of English and Jewish Studies, was selected from a national pool of applicants to attend the highly selective seminar “Twenty-first Century Liberal Education” held at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., this summer. Roth recounts the spirited debate that emerged about the role of liberal arts education in today’s society.
“Liberal arts is not content but method.” Around the seminar table at Transylvania University, heads nodded in agreement with our moderator’s assertion. It was one of the few times all the participants found themselves on the same side, and the bright and spacious seminar room suddenly felt lopsided. As I looked around the table, I was reminded that agreement doesn’t come easily to academics, but when it does it’s a signal that the discussion has either reached a dead end or become so incendiary everyone must retreat to common ground in order to continue. My impression was that we were stuck in a corner.
For the previous two days, all of us attending Twenty-first Century Liberal Education: A Contested Concept—professors of philosophy, sociology, English, biology, political theory, psychology, theatre and history—had reflected on the current crisis in liberal arts education. As journalist and professor Todd Gitlin puts it, the core of the problem is that “while the liberal arts seek to cultivate knowledge, reason, aptitude and taste for what endures, we live in a society devoted to relentless cultural change.” Given the array of educational alternatives now available to undergraduates, how can liberal arts colleges like Susquehanna compete in today’s high-speed, market-driven, information-saturated and celebrity-obsessed society?
To find answers we reviewed the history of liberal arts education and liberal arts colleges, and then traced in the United States the rise of two antagonistic traditions: the classical tradition of Robert Maynard Hutchins and the progressive tradition of John Dewey. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, argued that a liberal arts education ought to remain true to its origins in Greek learning and to the enlargement of that knowledge within the great books of Western civilization. These “draw out the elements of our common human nature, because they connect man with man, because they connect us with the best that man has thought, because they are basic to any further study and to any understanding of the world.” Hutchins had no interest in education as “character building” and no faith in the usefulness for undergraduates of courses in the applied sciences. The general public in Chicago probably best remembers him as the man who disbanded the University of Chicago football program.
Dewey, an educator, political activist and professor of philosophy at Columbia University from 1905 to 1939, believed that a liberal arts education was that which helped students succeed in our modern industrial and commercial world. What ought to be taught to undergraduates was the useful knowledge or skills they needed to navigate contemporary society and to make the most of their inherent individual and political freedoms. “The problem of securing to the liberal arts college its due function in democratic society,” he wrote, “is that of seeing to it that the technical subjects which are now socially necessary acquire a humane direction.” Liberal arts education is both a practical and liberating experience; it’s preparation for a lifetime of problem solving.
My colleagues around the seminar table quickly staked out their allegiances, even while granting that certain aspects of one or the other tradition was worthy of inclusion in their conception of the liberal arts college. The arguments were fairly predictable, with the philosophers insisting on the continuing value of so-called “useless knowledge,” the sociologists and historians insisting on the connection of education to social and historical forces, and the scientists gently trying to prod all of us into more practical discussions about pedagogy and grading. As a professor of English, I found myself distressed that we weren’t giving the imagination its proper due—and that the distinguished speaker at the plenary lecture had the nerve to claim that creative writing has no place in a liberal arts curriculum.