Opinion: Daily Journal

A Defense of Liberal Learning

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Jane Shaw, executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Pondering what makes an educated citizen is as old as the ancient Greeks and as recent as the latest full meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

Responding to a request from BOG Chairman Jim Phillips, officials from three UNC campuses told the board how they updated their general education requirements. These are the courses that students take to develop the “whole person” (using the university’s terminology).

Don’t think that UNC campuses have a core or common curriculum to which all students are exposed, however. UNC-Chapel Hill students have 2,000 courses from which they can choose their “gen ed” classes. At N.C. State students can adopt “thematic tracks” such as environmentalism or follow one of six interdisciplinary programs to meet the requirements. Fayetteville State is more focused on specific outcomes — what should graduates “know and be able to do.”

These ways of developing the whole person might have merit, but they are a far cry from the tradition of liberal learning (an earlier term for “developing the whole person”) that underlay the creation of the University of North Carolina and many other American universities.

One scholar who regrets the loss of traditional learning is Hillsdale College historian Richard Gamble. He has just compiled a 658-page collection of readings about what students should learn to become more complete citizens. Called The Great Tradition, the book starts with Plato and ends with Eric Voegelin, a 20th century political philosopher.

Gamble was inspired to assemble this book by teaching students in Great Books classes at Palm Beach Atlantic College. He observed that modern education teaches young people that the past is merely a prelude to a “modern” or “progressive” future. Ancient and medieval writers are neglected or disparaged because they view the “whole person” as having a soul that needs nurturing. Belief in the soul and reliance on heroic models to guide education were weakened by the rationalistic Enlightenment and, more recently, discarded by the romantic self-actualization notions of progressive education.

What was lost amid this supposed progress was the idea that education should include the inculcation of virtue. Past thinkers engaged in lively conversations about how to teach virtue and ethics — and differed over how to teach them to unruly, passionate, and headstrong youth. Isocrates, an Athenian of the fourth century B.C., was dubious about the intellectual advances of his day, such as geometry and astronomy, but he said, “[A]t any rate it keeps the young out of many other things which are harmful.”

These days, educators do not allow the “wisdom of the past to sit in judgment on our own prejudices and activities,” Gamble says in The Great Tradition. Past writings are preserved only because they give “a prophetic glimpse of Bacon or Rousseau or Dewey.” (Today’s ethics classes in business schools represent a Johnny-come-lately effort to restore some of the education in virtue that was once pervasive.)

What is left, besides imparting a trendy set of beliefs without any firm grounding in the past, is vocational training. Today’s colleges are now job-oriented, with majors from interior design to golf course management.

Gamble opposes this overriding emphasis on the “usefulness” of education — a theme that permeates the deliberations of the education establishment, whether at a Board of Governors meeting or in the UNC Tomorrow Commission’s discussions of the future of the university. When asked about how to balance preparation for 21st century jobs with finding time for reading ancient works, Gamble says students will always learn their professions through on-the-job training.

The four years of college should be primarily about something grander, he said — not just how to work, but what kind of person to be. That is liberal learning, viewed through the wisdom of the ages.