Teaching What the Liberal Arts Means
By Forrest Nabors, May 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Perhaps like other junior faculty on this blog, I believe I am beginning to understand the general characteristics peculiar to this generation of undergraduate students.  One rather shocking characteristic, which is not their fault, is that they don’t really understand the purpose of the education they are in my classroom to receive, and for which they have committed an enormous investment.  So, to set the proper tone for a new term, I have discovered the usefulness of beginning most of my courses with an opening lecture and discussion on the liberal arts.  I have done this so many times now, that their answers to my questions have become predictable, which has helped me refine my lines of questioning and lecturing. 

Often I begin by asking them why they chose to take liberal arts courses like mine.  Or sometimes I begin by flatly asking them, Why are you here? – and then I wait, to let the question’s ambiguity disturb them.  When discussion gets going, usually, none of them can give an intellectually defensible explanation for the purpose of the liberal arts.  Invariably, at least one of them confidently emphasizes some form of the word ‘diversity’ in his or her answer, beyond which, no further explanation is deemed necessary.  We might view this answer with sympathy, since colleges and universities bombard students with the message that ‘diversity’ in the abstract is an unquestioned good end in itself.  Naturally, students have trouble reasoning beyond diversity to identify what further good end diversity serves.  I try to guide our discussion to an answer that helps them understand what the ultimate aim of my course is, what I expect of them, and what the priceless benefit of this kind of education is.

Why then is it good for students to take a smattering of French, sociology, math and so on?  I remind my students that this kind of education was once reserved for the ruling classes in Europe.  Queen Elizabeth I was a fairly accomplished classicist.  So I challenge them to tell me what the relation is between an education in subjects like this and ruling.  Pressing the point, I have asked them, for example, what advantage Queen Elizabeth’s mastery of ancient Greek gave to her nation in fighting the sea battle against the Spanish Armada.  Should she have studied naval science instead?

Students can understand the value of skills transferable to ‘the race of life’ beyond formal studies, and can be easily lured into justifying education on these grounds.  When they take this bait, I try to show them that if the point of education is to help students acquire white collar workforce-ready skills, they ought not to take liberal arts subjects, and might even be advised to commence working while attending night school.  It’s far cheaper and takes less time away from gaining career experience and upwardly advancing.  In fact, one does not need a liberal arts education to become fantastically successful at making money.  Drawing from my life in business, I sometimes try to sketch a practical career plan for them on the spot.  If this is possible, why incur the expense in time and money to gain a liberal arts education?  What is stopping you?  And I really am serious.  Why waste time with a fuddy-duddy teacher like me who reveres the boring books you must read in my course, when you could already be making your way up the economic ladder?

My lesson teaches them that liberal arts education is not an intellectual smorgasbord for the sake of the smorgasbord, diversity for the sake of diversity.  Omnivorous knowledge-feeding is indeed pleasant, and the highest pleasure according to Socrates and his friends in the Republic.  But it is not for pleasure’s sake that the United States attempted to diffuse and ought to diffuse liberal education among the people.  I explain that liberal arts education is endued with a political purpose – to boost students’ capacity for making good use of their liberty, in their dual roles as free individuals and as co-sovereign, co-ruling citizens. 

In a monarchy, the people are subjects, not co-rulers.  The goal of popular education in that kind of political regime is obedience, which is easy to teach and learn (sometimes I refer to Machiavelli's recitation of Borgia's ill-use of Remirro de Orco - an efficient method of teaching and learning obedience indeed).  But in a republic, wherein all are co-sovereign and free, each needs to learn how to rule himself and to participate in ruling over their political society.  

I tell my students, the purpose of some kinds of education is to impart skills in certain activities.  The purpose of liberal arts education is to change you, to expand your soul.  Skills are external things that are added to your person; a liberal arts education changes your person.

A republic needs liberal arts education because it needs citizens who can independently form intelligent, high-minded judgments.  They must cultivate their minds, exercise their reason, and learn to trust in the operations of their reason with confidence.  Like a monarch, they collectively preside over the court of highest appeal.  Beyond themselves, there is no higher authority, and so they must strive to think and act like a sovereign authority.  An American college instructor serves the function that the royal tutor served in the monarchies of the old world. 

I often tell my students that the reason I amplify and criticize both sides of debates we examine, and do my best to conceal my partisan views, is to force them to exercise and improve their powers of judgment.  That result is more important to me than that they parrot my opinions on contemporary political matters.  Many issues hotly debated today will pass away tomorrow, and new, unforeseen political questions will inevitably arise.  My goal is to assist their intellectual growth so that they reason like good rulers.  We college instructors best serve the republic, I believe, if this end prominently guides our conduct.  Then, when our former students later face new questions in their personal lives or in the life of the nation, they will be better prepared to distinguish the just from the unjust, the noble from the base, make better choices and live better lives.  Then they will not only enjoy their liberty but will also prove that they and their country eminently deserve it.

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Lee Trepanier on May 28, 2011 at 6:23 am

A great post on the purpose of liberal education, especially how you frame the question to the students in terms of co-rulers in a democracy. Although all disciplines can accomplish this, there may be some more suited to this task of liberal education than others. In your experience, which disciplines seem most suitable to helping students become co-rulers?

Forrest Nabors on May 31, 2011 at 10:30 am

Lee, Thank you for your comments. My short answer is that political science, properly understood, is the only discipline aiming at the elevation of young citizens' ruling ability, but that political science depends upon other disciplines. Following Aristotle, I would say that political science is the superintending discipline that makes use of instruction offered by other disciplines. The other disciplines contribute to the expansion of the soul; political science depends and draws upon all of them, just as ruling depends and draws upon all knowledge. Political science studies the question of just rule. The other disciplines inform that study. To the extent that other disciplines do engage that question in sustained study, they are veering away from their disciplinary boundaries and crossing into political science. In some cases, that tendency may be welcome, depending on the teacher and the readings. See you in Princeton! --Forrest

Frank Mobler on May 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Let me offer a small corrective, from a somewhat older and perhaps wizened colleague. You say "I believe I am beginning to understand the general characteristics peculiar to this generation of undergraduate students." But then you go on to describe a characteristic that is not at all peculiar to this generation: they do not understand the purpose of their education.

With due respect, you may be falling victim to a form of selection bias. So see, when you were an undergraduate, chances are you were a pretty serious student (the sort who might wind up with a PhD). The students you would have been closest to, and will remember as being "typical", were almost surely not typical at all. So your memory of students back in your day is not likely to be representative of students back in your day. Believe me, the temptation to take your own colleague experience as representative gets worse with age.

It seems to be a sensible conservative will do his best not give too much credence to personal biases (even if honestly gained). This goes for a sort of 'temporalism' just as much as 'racism', etc.

Lee Trepanier on Jun 2, 2011 at 3:29 am

I agree that professors tend to have selective memory when they remember their own undergraduate experience. However, I do think today's students are different in two fundamental ways that interfere with the consideration of the purpose of higher education: 1) the use of technology which leads to a psychology of instant gratification and 2) social and civic engagement, especially internships. The actual reading, writing, and studying for courses almost seem secondary to these other activities. Of course there always have been students who placed social activities ahead of academics, but at least they gave lip-service to the importance of academics or recognized that academics was the reason why they were at the university. By contrast, today's students (even those most academically-minded) tend to see academics as secondary to other pursuits.

Forrest Nabors on Jun 2, 2011 at 10:38 am

With respect, Prof. Mobler, I do not see offered evidence in support of your claim that I am guilty of selection bias. All one needs to do to test my claim is to read about education in America across the generations. For example, education reformers Calvin Stowe, Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, etc. say a great deal about what education meant to them. Their common understanding of its goal (in a republic) is consistent with the founders' understanding of its goal. I have read my grandmother's textbooks from the NYC public school system in the early 1900s, and her educational material evince the same goal. This is what I also maintain is the proper goal. Granted this sort of evidence is not a pure test of what students in prior generations thought about their own education, but with such educators and materials, students were probably better taught at all levels what education in a republic should be. Contemporary students' lack of appreciation for this goal corresponds with its cause: contemporary educators and institutions and materials do not seem to evince that goal I speak of, but rather exudes very different objectives, diversity for the sake of diversity, etc. The evidence for that is all around us, I believe. Perhaps we disagree on that point of evidence, as well.

about the author

Forrest Nabors
Forrest Nabors

Forrest Nabors will join the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage in August, 2011 as Assistant Professor, specializing in American Politics.  He has taught American Politics and Political Theory at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University.  He expects to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in the Spring, 2011.  He earned a Master's Degree in Political Science at the University of Oregon, and earned his Bachelor's degree at Claremont McKenna College and the University of Chicago.  Between his undergraduate and graduate studies, Professor Nabors worked as an executive in high technology business in Portland, Oregon.  He has lived for short periods in Guatemala, South Africa and New Zealand, and grew up in Fair Haven, New Jersey.