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!