Liberal Education in Today’s University

In 1852, John Henry Newman gave a series of lectures that, for the first time, defined liberal education and codified the modern university. These lectures were later compiled into his classic, The Idea of a University. Newman says a liberal education forms a habit of mind that “lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom. . . . This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University.” (p. 76).

In a more recent book, Prescribing the Life of the Mind, Charles Anderson argues that the aims of a liberal education are to ensure the competence of citizens and the cultivation of practical reason. He defines practical reason as a habit of mind that explores the different ways humans have distinguished right from wrong, correct from incorrect, quality from mediocrity, and the beautiful from the ugly. This approach forms a class of citizens who can contribute practically and positively to the ongoing journey of discovering what it means to be a human being.

If a liberal education is at the core of a university education, then the question “what does it mean to be a human being?” is at the core of a liberal education. This raises a set of subsidiary questions that can integrate all of our disciplines and colleges into a coherent whole:

  1. Where did we come from? The student learns to think about this question in history, anthropology, and archeology.
  2. How do we behave in community, and how do cultures define right and wrong behavior? Again history and anthropology, but also sociology, political science, psychology, cultural geography, philosophy, and economics.
  3. How do we relate to the natural world around us? This is the purpose of the sciences, including physical and natural resource geography.
  4. How can we know something is true, probable, or false? These questions are the underlying themes of mathematics, logic, computer science, and parts of philosophy.
  5. How do we express ourselves clearly and beautifully? This is the role of literature, writing, music, art, dance, and theater; in short, the arts broadly understood.
  6. How do we make useful things and what constitutes good design? This is the role of engineering, architecture, and graphic arts; these disciplines are often forgotten by liberal education curricula.
  7. How can we cultivate not only the life of the mind, but the beauty and life of the body? This should be the purpose of sports and athletics as well as dance.

I think it might be useful to think about a liberal education as a framework that helps each student explore for himself or herself what it means to be a human being. The questions outlined above (or similar ones) should be posed to each student at the beginning of his or her freshman year. Perhaps the freshman university seminar course could be partly organized around them. The student should be encouraged to think of a university education as a hero’s journey to find the answers to these questions both within themselves and within the great achievements of human cultures everywhere. This is not to say that we should develop a list of courses under the headings of each of these questions. We can instead suggest groups of departments as being especially poised where each student can struggle with one or more of these questions and then let them take whatever courses they wish. The syllabus of each course should include an explanation of how it addresses one or more of these questions. Those questions and how the great masters of each discipline have grappled with them could form a narrative arc for the course. Then, through homework and projects, give the students the opportunity to grapple with posing and exploring these questions for themselves. With their advisor’s consultation, each student should be required to develop a plan of courses of their own choosing that helps them address each question. This way, every course contributes to the liberal education of the student and there is no need for a separate list of specific liberal education course that simply becomes a checklist to be satisfied for graduation.

This may sound radical, but that is exactly the point. Developing a liberal habit of mind is a radical act because it forces the students to ask themselves the question: what does it mean to be a human being? and then seek their own answers to it. Giving the students a little more freedom to develop their own curriculum will force them to grapple with these questions and, in the process, take ownership of their education.

For Further Reading

Anderson, C.W. 1993. Prescribing the Life of the Mind: The Aims of Liberal Education, the Competence of Citizens, and the Cultivation of Practical Reason. University of Wisconsin Press.

Newman, J.H. 1873. The Idea of a University. Reissued in 1982 by The University of Notre Dame Press.

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