Third Way in Liberal Education

Moving past debates over which works belong in the canon, colleges are finding ways to help students experience the overarching narratives of civilization, writes Dan Edelstein.

March 30, 2010

At a recent gathering of junior faculty, convened by the Teagle Foundation to discuss the future of liberal education, a remarkable fact appeared so clearly that it went unremarked. Discussions about the value and purpose of higher education had lost the acrimonious and partisan tone that defined the culture wars of the '80s and '90s. To be sure, those present (myself included) were no doubt fairly homogeneous in our political and academic backgrounds. And we were a self-selecting group, as all had expressed interest in the value of liberal education, even if we did not agree on (or even know for sure) what exactly it was. It was nonetheless an encouraging sign – no doubt prepared by such reasoned criticisms of the academy by the likes of Derek Bok – that liberal education no longer appeared as a minefield of partisanship, but rather as the site of constructive and rational debate.

One reason, I suspect, for this development may be that some of the institutions most committed to liberal education have transformed the way in which it is taught. At Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford, for instance, freshmen are still required to take a version of a "core curriculum." But unlike Columbia’s venerable core, these newer versions all allow students to make their own choices from a selection of classes. At Chicago, students compose a three-course meal from offerings in the humanities, civilization studies, and the arts. Stanford’s “Introduction to the Humanities” (IHUM) program presents students with a slightly leaner diet: they choose from a collection of starters chosen to “demonstrate the [...] productive intellectual tensions generated by different approaches,” before tucking into a two-quarter entrée that “promote[s] depth of study in a single department or discipline.” Finally, Harvard just introduced last fall a "Program in General Education" that is more buffet style: students select courses from eight different groups, roughly half of which satisfy humanities requirements.

While in no way revolutionary, these curricular developments, I argue here, may justly be regarded as harbingers of a third way in liberal education. This new way bypasses the old battleground of the culture wars — the canon — by recognizing the privileged place that certain works and events occupy in past and present societies, without dictating which of these must absolutely pass before every student’s eyes. As opposed to the more common "general education requirements," moreover, the courses in this model also provide students with an intellectual meta-narrative, that is, a synoptic perspective linking different periods, cultures, and even (ideally) disciplines. Finally, this model can offer scholars, administrators and policy makers a new language with which to define the goals and ideals of liberal education, and to help define criteria for their evaluation.

The language currently employed to discuss liberal education has itself proven remarkably apt for avoiding partisan flare-ups. Who can object to a pedagogical program designed to improve thinking, moral reasoning, and civic awareness? Glaringly absent from such skills-oriented definitions is, of course, curricular content. While this strategy of omission has conciliatory advantages, it also carries risks: Discussions about liberal education can end up sounding terribly formalist, as though students were destined to perform ghostly mental operations in a vacuum (“practice citizenship!”). The very idea of liberal education can suffer from such excessive formalism, since, emptied of content, it risks becoming little more than a talking point or sales pitch.

This approach also ignores a penetrating criticism, made with particular (if somewhat hysterical) emphasis by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. In the absence of any overarching curricular structure, students can easily end up losing themselves in a labyrinth of unrelated courses. These courses may individually belong to disciplines traditionally associated with liberal education, and may each, in their own way, contribute to the development of important and worthy skills. But they may also leave puzzled students wondering how, say, their knowledge of Russian history relates to their classes on French literature. Of course, there are not always clear bridges between disparate subjects. And finding your way from one point to another can itself be an intrinsic part of education. At the same time, teaching students how to integrate knowledge from different fields is a valuable skill, one which we would be rather perverse to withhold from them, particularly when it is requested.

Beneath the geographical metaphors proliferating in the above paragraph lurks, of course, the familiar fault line of curricular content. But this is precisely where the reforms of core curriculum courses at the universities listed above can provide a less contentious framework for discussion. Indeed, the dominant feature of these courses is that they combine requirement and choice; students are obliged to choose from a selection of courses. This means that a) there is a degree of personal tailoring: for instance, hardcore “techies” at Stanford can take a course on the history of science and technology; and b) the emphasis is shifted from a debate over which exact texts every student should read – inevitably a source of heated disagreement – to a debate over which different sets of texts (or historical events, or works of art, etc.) form a coherent and meaningful syllabus.

The advantages of this system are numerous, but I would like to emphasize two ways in which it offers a valuable framework for liberal education. First, in addition to the benefits gained from studying individual texts or topics, these courses provide students with an overarching narrative. It is not necessarily a teleological or master-narrative, nor need it even be a story of progress with a happy end. But it is a narrative that allows students to perceive how events or ideas transform over a considerable stretch of time and space. The IHUM course that my department offers, for example, takes the students from the Mesopotamia of Gilgamesh to the Caribbean of Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove. Our syllabus is primarily literary, but the lectures draw heavily on each text’s historical, religious, cultural, and philosophical context. In this way, such narratives also illustrate how frontiers between humanistic disciplines are not closed borders, but can be freely crossed.

Ironically, the narratives transmitted in these classes are ultimately destined to fade away, or at least be significantly transformed, over the course of a student’s education and life. Their purpose is primarily structural: to borrow a hallowed metaphor, they allow students to attach the ideas they will later acquire onto different, yet connected branches of a single tree of learning. But this metaphor is somewhat misleading, since narratives are far less wooden frames. Subsequent coursework will complicate or contradict episodes of the story students began with; and at the end of their college education, they will ideally have written their own narrative with the knowledge they have gained. But even if the initial story they were told disappears in the process, it will have served its purpose, and taught the students a valuable lesson along the way – namely, that to be persuasive citizens and scholars, we need to know how to tell a compelling narrative. The ability to piece disparate facts and ideas into a coherent whole is a critical part of liberal education. We are always putting Humpty Dumpty together again.

Second, an important criterion for composing the syllabus of these courses is that their contents be sufficiently authoritative. Here we brush up again against the touchy subject of the canon, which cannot be completely avoided, even if the model under discussion does not advocate including specific books at all costs. But the inclusion of “authoritative” works or events – and I choose this word deliberately – does strike me as a necessary part of liberal education. This is not because some works contain The Truth and others only pale reflections of it. This argument of Bloom’s, and of his predecessor at the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, is more likely to puzzle than to offend today (how do you teach Homer as "the truth"?). But as John Guillory pointed out in Cultural Capital, certain texts simply have (or had) greater authority in our societies: not to engage with at least some of them leaves students at a social disadvantage.

I would also argue that understanding these authoritative texts is key for achieving what Montaigne identified as the ultimate goal of education – the ability to challenge existing authorities, an ability we would today call critical thinking. If students are to challenge authorities, they must begin by knowing who those authorities are and what they argued. Only in this fashion can the students acquire both a better understanding of how and why our societies came to be the way they are, and the ability to counter authoritative accounts in a knowledgeable and evidence-based manner.

It is to be hoped that liberal education will always remain a fertile topic of discussion, and the model that the universities discussed here have adopted – with a number of differences, to be sure, which I did not address – is certainly not the only solution. Indeed, I hope that other colleges will experiment with different models, so that our collection of experience continues to grow. But the promise of the current model is that it does offer a way past the opposing camps of the canon wars, and in this regard, may come to be regarded as a third way in liberal education.


Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.


Back to Top