Will liberal education survive?
Budget slashing on both the federal and state levels has become the national obsession. Among the social structures certain to be affected by this retrenchment are the nation's colleges and universities. Consequently, the schools themselves will be forced, finally, to clarify their priorities; and therein lies a challenge to our whole society.
America's undergraduate institutions have been living for several generations now a precarious balancing act. They mostly emerged from the 19th century with curricula aimed at what was called a liberal education, but at the same time they emerged into a century in which pragmatic and career-oriented education, not liberal education, was the nation's real interest. The trappings of a liberal education have often remained in our colleges, but most of them have made it possible for the majority of their graduates to emerge untouched by the reality.
Now, with the excuses of financial retrenchment and the supposed "real needs" of the undergraduate constituency to fall back upon, many college administrators are very likely to do away with even the remaining vestiges of a liberal education within their schools. Before they do so, once more they ought to be made to take a hard look at the implications of such action.
The so-called liberal education was supposed to be, as its Latinized name implies, a freeing personal growth for a student. Its purpose was to free the individual from the shackles of a single point of view and a limited experience so that he or she might enter more fully into the multifacetedness of the real world and thus both judge and choose more wisely and ultimately live more fully and happily.
History, for example, could teach one to evaluate any world or personal experience with the perspective which alone would bring out the event's real meaning and implications. Philosophy could help the student discern within personal and social activities a whole range of implicit and explicit values. Languages and literature could give an individual access to human ideas and experiences which necessarily transcended his own limited framework of time and space.
Music and the visual arts could help to refine and expand the range of a person's mental-emotional sensitivity. Biology, chemistry, and physics could put the student in touch with the chains of physical causality surrounding him, from that of his own body to the ultimate reaches of the universe.
And from a plateau of the accumulated experiences and wisdom of mankind the liberally educated person was presumed to be an intellectually wide-ranging and perceptive individual, one who rose above the tyranny of prejudice and class myopia, who would be articulate and socially effective, and who would be a creative leader adaptable on principle to the circumstances and requirements of his day.
It was a noble aim, and sometimes it even worked. And when it did, this meant the release of a new leaven into society as a whole which, to some extent at least, would work to free that society from any limitations under which it struggled. One can, perhaps, thus understand why it was the School of Liberal Education of Tehran University which Ayatollah Khomeini closed permanently last year, though he had no quarrel with either the Schools of Medicine or Sciences!
Notice that this ideal of a liberal education emphasized what a person might be. It said that he or she might be free to make choices and decisions from a perspective and with a breadth which reflected the cumulative experience of mankind. It said that his mind and emotions would be free to explore, to search , to expand within, and thrill to, all the fulness of humanity's experience for a lifetime. It stressed the development of his or her full human potential.
It did not much talk about what he might do.m It presumed that if his mind had been thus freed from narrowing limitations and outworn methodologies, that if he had understood the mistakes of the past and was aware of the potential for the future, he would be in a position to adapt to most situations and thus dom many things.
Until about 50 years ago American society generally accepted that assumption. To bem such a person, no matter how imperfectly, meant one was better able to dom most things than were one's peers without such an education. Only Henry Adams claimed that his Harvard education had prepared him for nothing, though his life gave the lie to his complaint.
Today, however, American society does not ask the college graduate what he is; it asks only what he or she can do in terms of the marketplace. Consequently, college students generally are not asking schools to help free them for many possibilities in a multitude of future world scenarios; rather, they are demanding that schools prepare them for the limitations of this or that specific job in the immediate world scenario. Career education is in, and liberal education is out. Today's students are defining themselves not in terms of what they might be,m but merely in terms of what they might do.m They, and the greater society which they represent, fail to grasp that the very quality of what they do derives from the quality of what they are. They seem totally to discount the fact that mere preparation for today's job market might well lead them to tomorrow's unemployment line.
By and large, despite their ceremonial rhetoric to the contrary, most American colleges are capitulating to career education.The world economic crisis which has brought about this short-range mentality in society has likewise frightened the colleges. The costs of running colleges today are way up and the pool of college-age Americans is way down and federal and state educational funding is about to be cut.
During the 1970s more than 100 of the nation's independent and church-related schools which described their educational program as taht of a liberal education either merged or closed down altogether. Predictions for the 1980s are worse. American society will survive the economic crisis in one form or another, no matter how altered that form might be from what it has been in the recent past. Whether the liberal educational ideal and practice, which it has taken so many centuries to develop here, will also survive is not so certain.
That it should survive as at least part of our national educational enterprise, and on a significant scale, is essential if genuine human freedom, which transcends mere legal freedom and can alone make legal freedom worthwhile, is to remain an Americ an characteristic.