What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."
1. American higher education is mass education. And it is not clear that mass education can, or even should, be liberal education. American universities are vast machines devoted primarily to vocational training, professional preparation, middle-class socialization, and research. Liberal education is the main aim of some smaller colleges, but not of our universities. That is why, in those institutions, it is crucial to establish small programs, majors, or residential settings where liberal education can be cultivated for those who really want it. Reforms of curriculum requirements for all university students contribute little to this end since they must cope with students who have little inclination for a liberal education.
2. American higher education is civic education. While we Americans may disagree about the nature of our values, most of us see our schools as vehicles for inculcating them. No one in the culture wars thinks of himself as working for a foreign power. But the aim of any liberal education worthy of the name is to transport students out of the world they live in, making them less certain about what is valuable in life. It does not seek to overcome alienation, it tries to induce it. Genuine liberal education is, of necessity, an un-American activity.
Inducing alienation in American students is not easy, though. They are a self-satisfied bunch—optimistic, pious, indifferent, and egalitarian. They need to be shocked, and nothing is more shocking to them than the alternatives to what they know: tragedy, impiety, commitment, and hierarchy. World history and literature are full of examples, which is why the study of foreign languages and basic history must be the foundation of their education. Anything can be built on those stones.
Footnote: The study of things foreign cannot guarantee alienation. As anyone in a university knows, it is possible to teach foreign cultures from a flat, multicultural perspective that sees the whole world through democratic American eyes. And the study of certain things American, taught from the right perspective, can be deeply alienating, too. Cf., Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, the Civil War. Just steer clear of anything polluted by Emerson.
3. The best reason to rely on the "great books" in liberal education is that they are almost impervious to bad teaching. A great teacher can shake his or her students up with a mediocre book, but even a dull teacher will have trouble ruining Moby Dick. Most attacks and defenses of "great books" curricula miss the point. There is nothing sacred about these works; they do not teach moral uplift, good values, civic inclusion, toleration, or proper hygiene. They are open, radically so, to interpretation and questioning. Their effect depends less on teachers than on a chance spark falling from them onto a young mind ready for combustion. And that's a good thing.
4. Combustion usually takes place outside the classroom, in private study, which should be encouraged. A core program in the first two years is a necessity in this country, given the failure of our high schools to provide a foundation. But, after that, students need to be free to connect the themes of the great books to some deep question that is meaningful to them individually. A system of tutorials, culminating in some sort of exam on a few books and/or a senior thesis, seems best suited to this end. I am involved in one such program at the University of Chicago, and it has taught me that genuine liberal education is possible in America. For my students and, in teaching them, for me.
Mark Lilla is Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.