Forming the Minds That Will Make the Future [1]

Definitions: What are the liberal arts and sciences? Most people cannot answer that question. Indeed, when I asked fifteen Harvard freshmen to define "liberal arts," nearly all said the phrase meant "freedom to choose what to study." And when I countered with, "Well, you can have an open curriculum that is not liberal arts, and a fixed curriculum that is vintage liberal arts," they were taken aback.

While one can point to various definitions proposed over many hundreds of years, the phrases "liberal arts" or "liberal arts and sciences" are better conveyed by examples. A helpful example is actually provided by the e-conversation that took place following my posting on Edge in early March 2016. Scholars from a number of different institutions, disciplines, and points of view reacted to my essay and/or presented their own perspectives on the issues discussed therein. I did not agree with everything; but I appreciated the comments, because they were stated cogently and civilly and they stimulated some new lines of thinking. If our students could engage this kind of e-conversation (or even better, a live discussion), I would say that, wherever they went to school, they were displaying a liberal arts perspective. And when I listen to the 2016 presidential debates and read the attendant interviews, I lament the relative dearth of liberal arts listening, thinking, argument, perspective, and civility.

Here are my principal thoughts:

Going beyond our own experiences: Nearly all participants in Edge went to college and most had a liberal arts education—some at small liberal arts colleges, others at large public or private universities. And we all had definite reactions to those educational experiences. As an example: as a student and later a professor in Cambridge, I know Harvard College and Harvard University very well. It’s difficult for me to think about higher education apart from my own experiences—the positive as well as the problematic.

It’s not possible to discount those personal experiences and yet we should be careful not to universalize them. Institutions, student cohorts, eras differ, sometimes greatly; we need a pluralistic view of higher education, including education in the liberal arts and sciences. I deliberately use the phrase "arts and sciences" because nowadays the sciences are at least the equal of arts and humanities; and the particular sciences that are foregrounded (e.g. genetics) are quite different from those highlighted in earlier times (e.g. taxonomic biology).

On some issues raised by the commenters, data exist. For example, at least until recently, attendance at a small liberal arts college increased the likelihood of pursuing doctoral studies, in the sciences as well as in the humanities. Before one concludes that nowadays small colleges cannot prepare students for "big science," one should acknowledge that it’s typically possible for advanced undergraduates to take courses at nearby research universities.

But on other equally important issues, we lack data. For example, we know that those who have a liberal arts education at a selective institution do very well occupationally and financially. But we know much less about the kinds of lives they lead (in comparison to those who lack higher education or have a strictly professional education): how liberal arts graduates spend their time, how they raise their children, what kinds of citizens they are. Do they listen to NPR or watch Fox News or read Politco?  For that reason, a study by Linked-In, documenting which colleges have more graduates going into public service proved revealing . . . and somewhat embarrassing for those institutions with very low percentages.

Why our study? That dearth of information is the principal reason that my colleagues and I have embarked on an ambitious study of at least ten campuses nationwide—a study in which we interview in depth eight different constituencies on a whole gamut of topics, from curriculum and pedagogy, to opportunities and problems on campus, to issues of citizenship, ethics, and public service.

Members of our research team are eager to learn the results of broad surveys, and to review findings emanating from various collations of "big data"; but we feel strongly that the optimal understandings are likely to emerge if—complementing these quantitative sources—we can peer inside the heads of 2000 "players" whom we are in the process of interviewing and infer how they are thinking about these issues.

We expect to be surprised. For example, one might hypothesize that students from highly educated families who attend selective schools are more likely to take advantage of the many curricular choices available on their campuses. But we may in fact find that it is "first gen" students at less selective schools who are more likely to be open to a major transformation in how they think or what they think about. Or one might hypothesize that individuals in possession of "plenty of cultural capital" would be more likely to take advantage of the cultural institutions on or near campus; but perhaps these opportunities would be much more valued by those who have never been to Paris or Tuscany, the Metropolitan Opera or the Metropolitan Museum. Or one might hypothesize that seniors are more likely to think that the purpose of college is to get a job; but perhaps we’ll find that freshmen are more likely to think in terms of jobs—or that freshmen at certain schools or from certain demographics are more prone to be "hyper-vocational," while other age-mates valorize deep content knowledge, or diverse experiences, or having the chance to be independent. We just don’t know.

And what will we do with what we find? Of course, we will begin by analyzing our data carefully and describing them accurately. But the purpose of our study is not simply to report: it’s to highlight specimen programs that bring the different constituencies into better alignment with one another; and to offer recommendations about the optimal ways in which to preserve and strengthen a form of education which, we believe, has served society well—and whose dilution or disappearance would be catastrophic. And if you say, "I am eager for the results and the recommendations," I smile and respond "Not as eager as I am."

Other perspectives:  Responders raised a number of vexing issues:

1) Return on investment: Perhaps eighteen year olds would be better served if they were given the cost of a college education and allowed to invest it. Two problems: l) For every Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, there will be scores—and perhaps thousands—who are unable to use the money wisely; 2) Even those who manage to get a reasonable return on their cash gift will be deprived of the opportunity to cast their minds broadly at a time when their minds are exquisitely open and when they are not preoccupied with the concerns of creeping middle age: raising a family, dealing with ailing parents, keeping up on the payments.​

2) Cost of college: Without question, the costs of most institutions, even public ones, are accelerating at a rate that will make them beyond the reach of many if not most families. For that reason, we need not only find ways to cut costs (e.g. streamline administration, share faculty with nearby institutions, eliminate big time athletics, which lose money on all but a handful of campuses) but also to consider alternative models (e.g. a greater reliance on MOOCS; combining study with employment; or monitoring experiments like Minerva, where students receive an education in the liberal arts with scant campus life or personal interactions with professors).

Dating back to 1947 and the Truman Report on "Higher Education for American Democracy," policymakers have proposed that American higher education should be free. Despite current campaign rhetoric, I don’t think this is feasible. But it would certainly be possible to loan students money for tuition, with the proviso that if they do well financially, they will pay back a certain percentage of their income; alternatively, if they go into public service, their debt will be reduced or eliminated. I wish we were as imaginative about financing higher education as we are about creating and tolerating financial instruments, which almost no one completely understands.

Back to the liberal arts and sciences. Just as readers of Edge base our thoughts about higher education significantly on our own experiences, we also draw on our own more recent experiences as teachers—formal or informal—as scholars, and as human beings who continue to learn, engage, enjoy, and debate. There is no one best or one right way to engage in liberal arts learning: some benefit more from reading and writing, some from debating, some from lectures or Socratic seminars, some from travel and reflection, some from carrying out projects or tackling overwhelming challenges or creating works of art. Indeed, in my ideal school students would be exposed to several different pedagogical philosophies and practices. Not only would they benefit from this diversity, students would also have the chance to determine what works best for them and how they might optimally share with others what they’ve learned and what they can do.

Still central is the substance of the education. And here I resonate especially with those who want to engage the issues of what it means for something to be true (or false or indeterminate) and how we are best able to make a determination; whether beauty is a viable concept and, if so, how to think about it, when and where to experience it, and if possible, to add to the beauty of the world; and, most important, how we think about what is a good life, and how best to help ourselves and others to become good persons, good workers, and good citizens, and then to help to nurture these "goods" in succeeding generations.

While these questions cut across the disciplinary terrain, they are most properly thought of as philosophical questions, literally Socratic questions. Venturing out on an epistemological limb, I’ll posit that philosophy has been and should remain the central discipline of an education in the liberal arts and sciences.

By coincidence I had these thoughts on the same day that I read about the death of Hilary Putnam one of the major American philosophers of our time, and also read philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein’s Edge essay on "The Mattering Instinct." Very different individuals, very different approaches, but both helping us to think about the issues that "matter" most. One need not have a liberal arts education to engage such issues; and ultimately one should draw one’s own conclusions rather than simply parroting what others have maintained; but how much better it is to be able to build upon the wise minds that have gone before, to engage with the reflective minds of today, and to help form the minds of those who will make the future.