Thursday, September 13, 2007

The failure of colleges to understand the value of "liberal" education

Recently I wrote about Educations End by Tom Kronman. According to it's blurb this book explores the failure of colleges and universities to provide a well rounded education which would allow a student to explore the "meaning of life".

Today via instapundit I came a cross this piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Our Compassless Colleges

At universities and colleges throughout the land, undergraduates and their parents pay large sums of money for -- and federal and state governments contribute sizeable tax exemptions to support -- "liberal" education. This despite administrators and faculty lacking, or failing to honor, a coherent concept of what constitutes an educated human being.


Harvard's general education reform will allow students to graduate without ever having read the same book or studied the same material. Students may take away much of interest, but it is the little in common they learn that will be of lasting significance. For they will absorb the implicit teaching of the new college curriculum -- same as the old one -- that there is nothing in particular that an educated person need know.


The reason to worry is that university education can cause lasting harm. The mental habits that students form and the ideas they absorb in college consolidate the framework through which as adults they interpret experience, and judge matters to be true or false, fair or inequitable, honorable or dishonorable. A university that fails to teach students sound mental habits and to acquaint them with enduring ideas handicaps its graduates for public and private life.

Moreover, properly conceived, a liberal education provides invaluable benefits for students and the nation. For most students, it offers the last chance, perhaps until retirement, to read widely and deeply, to acquire knowledge of the opinions and events that formed them and the nation in which they live, and to study other peoples and cultures. A proper liberal education liberalizes in the old-fashioned and still most relevant sense: It forms individuals fit for freedom.

The nation benefits as well, because a liberal democracy presupposes an informed citizenry capable of distinguishing the public interest from private interest, evaluating consequences, and discerning the claims of justice and the opportunities for -- and limits to -- realizing it in politics. Indeed, a sprawling liberal democracy whose citizens practice different religions and no religion at all, in which individuals have family heritages that can be traced to every continent, and in which the nation's foreign affairs are increasingly bound up with local politics in countries around the world is particularly dependent on citizens acquiring a liberal education.

As I have written before as few as five (maybe ten) years ago I would have disagreed with Mr. Berkowitz. I hate general education or core curriculum classes but as I get older I realize both that they have value and that the reason I hated them is in most of the I felt a particular idea was being imposed on me and that I wasn't being allowed to develop my own opinion about things.

Now I am more inclined to agree with the ideas that a standard reference point is important for society to function and with the idea that in order for people to make informed decisions about public policy the need to be able to adequately evaluate that policy in the light of the principles that have brought America to this point in history.

I like Mr. Berkowitz's suggested core:

Greek and Roman History
European History
American History

European Literature
American Literature

American Government
Political Science


Comparative Religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam)
History, Literature, and Religion of a non-western culture

Demonstrate Foreign Language proficiency

If it was up to me I would also add a Math Requirement (which could be met by testing) of College Algebra and a course on minorities in America (the need for a standard reference point goes both ways).

As Berkowitz says:

Citizens today are called on to analyze a formidable array of hard questions concerning war and peace, liberty and security, markets and morals, marriage and family, science and technology, poverty and public responsibility, and much more. No citizen can be expected to master all the issues. But liberal democracies count on more than a small minority acquiring the ability to reason responsibly about the many sides of these many-sided questions. For this reason, we must teach our universities to appreciate the aims of a liberal education. And we must impress upon our universities their obligation to pursue them responsibly.

or more practically as Robert Heinlein says:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert Heinlein (as spoken by Lazarus Long in Time Enough For Love)

This curriculum doesn't meet all those requirements but it pushes towards them.

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