Training the Mind

“A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching.”
~ A. Bartlett Giamatti 
I am a BIG believer in Liberal Arts education.   I majored in English at Georgetown University, and rather obviously I did not choose that major with the thought of future employment in mind!  Later I was a Graduate Assistant at what was then the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Tennessee, and I grew very frustrated by kids who just wanted to know how to graduate as fast as possible with their only goal a job waiting at the end, kids who just couldn’t get the point of having to take English or Philosophy classes because that wouldn’t help them make money.  Me, I’ve always thought of KNOWLEDGE as the pot of gold at the end of that college rainbow.
Leslie's Graduation
And in my opinion, a good college or university shouldn’t just offer a smorgasbord of classes for kids to dive into without direction.  Perhaps they will gorge themselves on their favorites, while ignoring delicacies that they might fall in love with if they had to taste them.  No, a good school will guide its students and help form their minds.
So I was astonished and disappointed to discover that this very important role of a good school has been abandoned by some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in this country.  Although student guides at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton gave lip service to the ideal of breadth as well of depth in education, they also said things like: “We don’t want anyone having to take classes they don’t want to,” “We don’t have a lot of core requirements like other schools,” “You might not be taking any of the same classes as the other freshmen.”
What these schools espouse is the concept of core AREAS, and I won’t go into the details of each curriculum except to say they are similar at the Big Three.  Every student has to take one course from each of the areas.  Given the only four courses per semester a Harvard student takes, that means the average student spends a year on these courses.  The areas are so broad that at Princeton, for example, a Pottery course comes from the same area as a Literature course, so that you might graduate from what is supposed to be one of the best schools in the country without ever taking a college-level English class.
Many of the offerings the kids mentioned sounded fascinating as electives, but inappropriate as core courses:  Medieval Navigation as a science course, for example.  (I believe that was at Harvard).  My son thinks it’s great to be able to take whatever you want, and I’m sure most eighteen-year-olds feel the same.  After twelve years of being told exactly what classes to take and when, such freedom is intoxicating.
But most freshmen in college don’t have a clue about what classes they should take.  How could they?  How many of them have ever taken a class in Philosophy or Theology?  How would they know whether they would enjoy these classes?  How many of them equate boring experiences in a class in high school with the same subject in college which may be very different?  A good college should be making sure that its students are exposed to all these subjects so that they can make an educated decision about what they pursue on an upperclass level.  A good college should be trying to turn out well-rounded kids who DO take some of the same classes as their peers, both for collegiality and in the interest of turning out adults who share a common foundation of knowledge.
I am happy to report that Jesuit institutions apparently still value the concept of a core curriculum.  Although Georgetown’s curriculum has loosened up a bit since I attended there, apparently in the interests of multi-culturalism, students there will still find themselves taking core classes for two full years, and many of them are specific classes that everyone will take.  English, Philosophy, Theology, History, Science, Math, Languages, and Social Sciences are all covered.  Additionally, Georgetown still has what we called the Sophomore Rule, stating that you cannot take two classes in the same discipline in the same semester until your junior year, a clever way of preventing people from trying to get a jump start on a major at the expense of exploration.
I had two friends in college who switched from Foreign Service to English majors because of their experience in their required English courses.  After my required Theology courses, I chose to minor in Theology.   Because I took the Liberal Arts Seminar my freshman year I got out of a lot of the required classes (although not the subjects) and as much as I enjoyed the Seminar I have always been a little regretful that I did not share the experiences of the majority of my classmates and that I did not get the same basic grounding that they did.
“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
~Albert Einstein (a Princeton Professor, by the way, 1921, on Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education is useless; quoted in Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, p. 185.)
What do you think?  Am I over-reacting?  Did any of you end up liking a subject you never would have explored if you hadn’t had to?  Talk to me in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Training the Mind

  1. Bob

    I do agree with you, Leslie, though I would stress that one needn’t choose between a liberal arts education and a practical skill. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive. I believe it’s vital for college students to be well-versed in western culture (Oh, my! Did I just speak heresy?) But, I don’t see any sense in paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education that will make little to no contribution to one’s economic well-being. I spent thousands of dollars myself for a double major B. A. in History and in Philosophy, and then a Master of Arts in Teaching. While I believe the B. A. degrees helped make me a well-rounded individual who knows how to think and put two thoughts together in a complete sentance (and, hence, made me more employable), the only significant income I’ve earned has been from my nursing diploma, for which I paid absolutely nothing (scholarship and loan pay-back agreement with LeBonheur Children’s Hospital). Nothing says well-rounded like having a skill for which people are willing to pay you. After all, there’s no reason one can’t hum madrigals and recite Chaucer while working at the lathe.
    It used to be that the first two years of a college or university education were the intellectual equivalent of courtship. Students were required to try a variety of subjects to get a sense of the subject to which one might be interested in investing his or her life, much like dating a variety of people gave one a sense of the type of person to which one might be interested in committing his or her life. In recent decades, marriage, like most other areas of life, became more about what the other could do for me. It makes sense, then, that students be allowed to take whatever subjects they want, since “my life is all about me,” and college or university is all about what college and university can do for me. Sigh!

    1. I don’t think you and I disagree at all. I certainly find you more enjoyable to converse with than I would if all you could talk about was medicine. 😉 It’s a shame that more so many college has to cost thousands of dollars, and perhaps the fact that a combination of financial aid and scholarships are available to my kids (as was the case for John and me) colors my views on this topic. Still, there is no reason that one cannot be grounded in the liberal arts for the first two years while specializing with a view towards career aspirations thereafter. This “courtship” period might result in better decision-making BEFORE the fact and fewer job changes down the road.

  2. Margaret

    I would venture to guess that the majority of liberal arts majors/literary geniuses make great barflies or coffee shop scholars–great at pontificating, not so good at the practical application of life. I’m mostly not kidding. Willie Morris was supposedly this profound author who had a teaching position at Ole Miss back in the ’80s. He spent most of his time drinking at a local bar and holding court. William Faulkner was another one–he was supposedly one of the most brilliant authors who ever lived and is revered as a literary god in many circles. He drank his way through life and wrote weird things on the walls of his house. You can see some of his “brilliance” if you take a tour of his house. Personally, I think about 95 percent of the kids graduating from high school need to consider finding the skills they need to put food on the table, raise a family if they’re called to do so, and read up on the headier stuff in their free time.

    1. Well, you know, I didn’t say you cannot acquire any practical skills in college. I stand by the importance of a liberal foundation to one’s education in the first two years of college. Specialize in the second two years. Once most of us have families to raise and feed, there IS no free time for that headier stuff. Kids need to learn HOW to think before they can even decide how they want to spend the rest of their lives.

  3. Clisby

    I guess I don’t really understand checking out Harvard, Princeton, etc. if all you want is a liberal arts education. Why not send them somewhere in Tennessee? I mean, if they can get a free ride to an Ivy League school – sure, go for it – but I hope they (or you) wouldn’t be willing to go one penny in debt for it.

    1. I know this is a five-year-old comment but I didn’t mean to ignore you, Clisby! Teddy did indeed get an almost free ride to Notre Dame. One of the things he liked about it is that they meet full financial need without any student loans, so he has graduated debt free. That’s not to say at all that I wouldn’t go into debt to pay for a good school, even after all the headache my own student loans have cost me. But I’m happy that wasn’t required in this case.
      And I definitely should follow this piece up with something on the cost of college, because I do know that most people have to be thinking about that when making choices even though we have been lucky enough for that not to be an issue. Community college is free in Tennessee, which is new since I wrote this and a great blessing for anyone who wants to get a head start on a debt-free four year degree!

  4. L

    I mostly agree with you (although I wouldn’t have when I was 18). The problem with required classes is that you get students who simply don’t want to be there, no matter how engaging the material and the professor may be. I’m a graduate student at a large state university and I see how that plays out with the undergrads here (through TAing), who have far more course requirements than I did at the small liberal arts school I attended. Because large number of students don’t want to be there, unlike at the college I attended, you can’t count on students having done the reading or on active participation in discussion. Maybe it would be different at a more competitive school? It seems though, as you say, that the majority of the most competitive schools no longer have specific requirements, they just have what my undergraduate institution called “distribution requirements.” I chose to take literature classes. But I learned more in those literature classes because I was surrounded by other students who also wanted to be there and were committed to doing their best. I wonder if students learn as much in required courses where many of their peers are uninterested and disengaged?
    I agree with you completely on the importance of liberal arts education. A liberal arts education teaches you how to learn (on your own) and how to think. Once you have that, you can learn any skill. The skills the economy values change, but the value of knowing how to learn and think never diminishes.

    1. I think you might be partly right about the whole “students who don’t want to be there” thing–but I do believe kids in more competitive schools are more likely to make the best of it and try to get something out of required courses. And of course a required course at a superior institution, taught by a full professor, may be a very different thing in itself from a T.A. led course at a state university. For one thing, a professor with a real passion for his subject can engage students in something they never would have thought to find interesting–at least, that has been my experience. The only required courses I hated in college were my two science courses–but one was taught by a professor who could not teach, and the other was a blow-off course for non-science majors that was not designed to do anything but quickly and easily get you through the science requirement.
      At 18, I doubt I fully appreciated the value of required classes, but I know I appreciated having some guidelines. I wouldn’t have had any idea at that point of how to design a meaningful courseload for myself. I would have thought the best thing to do would have been to take nothing but literature courses, and that would have been a mistake.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  5. Hi, I’m a first-time reader and this post caught my eye, since I’m an ardent supporter of the liberal arts. I’m a graduate student studying English and working as a TA, and I actually just spent the summer working on a project that attempts to address precisely this problem. It’s a college ratings guide published by an organization called ACTA (www.goacta.org), and it rates schools based on the strength of their core curricula. You can access the ratings here: http://www.whatwilltheylearn.com
    I also can’t resist putting in a plug for my alma mater. The University of Dallas (www.udallas.edu) has one of the strongest core curricula in the country (one of only three schools that require all seven of ACTA’s core areas, plus many additional courses in areas such as philosophy, theology, and fine arts). Perhaps your son might look into UD?

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting, Serena. I will definitely check out ACTA–it’s so nice to hear that others share my concerns! And I will mention the University of Dallas to Teddy. My sister actually lives in Dallas. She will be interested to hear this too.

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