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Liberal Arts Education

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In the nineteenth century, British author and theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman defined  liberal education in a series of lectures which he later published under the title The Idea of a University.  In this work, he made the case that the knowledge acquired through the study of liberal arts is valuable in itself.  By “valuable in itself” he meant that education need not have an “instrumental” value; that is, it need not be designed to enable the student to perform any particular task or to help the graduate earn money in a particular profession.   Rather liberal arts education was meant to develop the mind and character of the student.  He said that in this way knowledge could be its own end.

At the time he was writing, anybody who thought about education assumed that only certain people were intellectually suited to get a university education.   It was also assumed that university graduates would be the  intellectual leaders of society.  In England, that meant that––as a rule—class and social position determined which citizens would be able to get a university degree.  But intelligence, made apparent in early schooling, enabled other boys to attend a university. 


To a large extent higher education in the United States until mid-twentieth century resembled that in England.  It was generally assumed that a college education was not for everybody.  And who attended a college or university in the United States was determined largely by social and  economic standing.  But the intellectually gifted often found a way to get a university education.


The liberal arts curriculum was considered an integral part of a college education at the time. Before the 1960’s, virtually all American college students took a set of courses known as liberal arts during their freshman and sophomore years.  These courses drawn from the arts and sciences were meant to acquaint students with a wide range of subjects: science, mathematics, literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and physical development.  Only during the junior and senior years did students concentrate in a major––a subject that prepared them to enter a profession.  

The thinking behind this curriculum was that anyone claiming to have a college degree ought to be conversant in more issues than just those associated with a single profession.  College graduates were expected to become the intellectual leaders of society, and their education was meant to be more than just preparation for a specific career.  In those days, a liberal arts degree was often, in itself, enough to get a person into a career.  It was not unusual at that time to find a person who majored in history or literature or philosophy in an executive position in a corporation. 

In the United States in the 1960’s two factors undermined college liberal arts and the belief in knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  First, the Sputnik scare caused heavy funding for college education, and, second, political activism increased on college campuses.  The first greatly increased the number of students on campuses, and the second tended to erode control of the curriculum by faculty.

Just the increased number of students assured that more of them would object to the wide variety of subjects required by the liberal arts curriculum.  Many of the students were out of sympathy with certain goals of liberal arts—for example, the study and appreciation of Western Civilization.   Others were minimally qualified to take rigorous academic courses.  These students demanded “more relevant” courses—- that is, subjects that made graduates more narrowly employable or subjects that were more easily seen to impact on the here and now. 

At the same time, political activism interfered with the discipline needed to pursue serious study. It also tended to put a political spin on subjects being taught.  College administrators were caught up in the frenzy of the moment too.  They were interested in soothing the unhappiness of students and avoiding disruptions like sit-ins at the administration building.  They began to insist that the faculty revise the curriculum accordingly.  

In more recent years, under the pressure of specialization, administrators at colleges have become business people, not educators.  Whereas college presidents used to be educators themselves— people who were promoted up from the teaching faculty—nowadays they more likely hold degrees in college administration and to have never taught academic courses.  They commonly believe that colleges are businesses and that students should be treated like customers, bearing in mind that the “customer is always right.”   That is why grade inflation is a common problem even in prestigious  colleges and universities in the country where most students get As and Bs for average work.  


The results are evident.  It is not just that politicians educated in recent times are mendacious and licentious.  People have been that way down through history.   It’s that they have no shame and are unrepentant when they are caught lying or being lascivious.  And voters have come to expect and thus to accept that kind of behavior in national leaders.    Often corporate executives are so obsessed with “the bottom line” that they ignore moral and ethical issues when conducting business.


The study of literature, history, and philosophy raises enduring questions of morality and ethics.  It calls on students to think critically about the normative questions in philosophy, “What is the good life?” and “How should people treat each other?”  The trend away from liberal arts in education has been unfortunate for the nation because every citizen in a democracy should be prepared to think beyond the present moment and beyond purely personal interests.  Perhaps it is too much to expect that every citizen have a college degree and be liberally educated in the way that Newman describes.  But civics and issues of morality and ethics should be a part of education from the lowest grades.


Written by polemicscat

July 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

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