Liberal education is becoming rare in America. At the time of the founding it was de rigeur for anyone who aspired to public life. In 1900, it remained the norm in America’s colleges. And as the “core curricula” of colleges and universities in 1950 attest, it remained the central, defining feature of undergraduate education as late as the mid-twentieth century. Today it is uncommon.The symposiasts thoughtfully address a variety of questions, starting with the central ones - what is liberal education and why does it matter if it is threatened? In his introductory remarks, Timothy Burns nicely sketches some of the main questions considered more fully in the papers:
Liberal education is becoming rare in America. At the time of the founding it was de rigeur for anyone who aspired to public life. In 1900, it remained the norm in America’s colleges. And as the “core curricula” of colleges and universities in 1950 attest, it remained the central, defining feature of undergraduate education as late as the mid-twentieth century. Today it is uncommon. The vast majority of students graduating from state universities and colleges follow curricula that prepare them, or so they hope, for lucrative jobs. As for private universities and liberal arts colleges, with a few noteworthy exceptions, only administrators charged with raising funds still claim that there is or should be a coherent and common liberal education of their students. Their watchword is “diversity,” and their courses are more and more specialized in areas of peculiar interest to their faculty.
More importantly, courses outside of mathematics and the natural sciences tend to be taught in the service of a specific political agenda rather than of the freedom of the mind that openness to truth can alone provide. Most faculty and administrators have learned to smile at the notion of truth, even as they adhere fiercely to political opinions that they manifestly consider to be true and wish to impart to their students. In the service of political agendas, too, are indoctrination activities, usually under the division of “student affairs,” that have become common on college campuses and whose administrative costs have caused the price of attending college to soar. Finally, arriving at the truth—or even mastering one’s native language or a foreign language—is not an easy matter; it demands among other things habits of attention, concentration, and reflection that need to be fostered in students, in part through the fair and accurate grading of their work. But faculty’s inflation of student grades has made the acquisition of a degree and even of Latin honors much less difficult than it was a short time ago, removing the stigma that at- tended poor performance by removing the measure of poor performance.
The contributors to this symposium write in awareness that the causes of liberal education’s expulsion from its home in American colleges and universities are deep and that a full explanation of those causes would be long. But they recognize that one major cause is the loss of understanding of what a liberal education is and must be, and that any hope for the revival of liberal education rests on a persuasive or convincing articulation of what it is and of why it is so desirable to human life. They are successful teachers, and know that the desire for liberating truth has by no means been expunged from the souls of today’s students. Finally, they write in awareness of the need to address and somehow resolve the question of the relation between liberal education and civic and/or moral education. If liberal education is to remain free of politicization, by the left or the right, can one of its ends be a civic or ethical education? Can it and should it try to build upon and broaden the civic education that should take place at home and in primary and secondary schools, or should it treat civic education as an altogether distinct activity? How are the needs of our political regime, whose pillars are freedom and equality, be served by liberal education while that education at the same time fosters a liberation from the here and now, a critical distance from the principles of the political order into which we happen to have been born? Can or should liberal education foster a deepening of moral, civic, ethical, or religious virtue, and if so, how? Has biblical revelation changed what ought to be the end of liberal education from what it was understood to be in pre-biblical times and places? While the contributors have various answers to these questions, all address them in thoughtful and thought-provoking arguments, from which both friends of liberal education and those who are curious about this kind of education are likely to benefit.