The Value of Liberal Education

Between Julie’s post and this week’s challenge of composing the syllabus for the Introduction to Philosophy course I am teaching this fall, I am haunted by the question:

Is knowledge good in itself?

I have set myself up to be an educator, but many of the criticisms of public education we delivered in response to Julie’s post seem disturbingly relevant to most college education as well; do you agree?

And even if knowledge is good in itself, how far should knowledge for its own sake be the goal of a philosophy course required of every student at a given University? (That would be Notre Dame)

In your experience, do college students in general hunger to learn? if so, when and how? if not, how do we explain those few freaks who do crave knowledge?

I was an utterly freakish student in college. I was not very interested in grades, and I would skip class regularly if it was boring, but I was insatiably interested to know and understand physics, philosophy, languages, whatever and would rather do extra homework than do boring homework. Lo and behold, here I am doing a PhD in philosophy. Most students are not like me.

The more I’ve studied philosophy, though, the more intrigued I am with practical knowledge. The world is such a complex place, who needs abstractions? I TAed a philosophy of law course where we just read supreme court opinions on key cases (race, free speech, free exercise of religion) and talked about the logic of the adversarial system, and thought about how all this stuff works to preserve some level of order and trust in our society. No theoretical philosophy, and I didn’t miss it. I think about what it takes to run a corporation, to get all those people doing all the different things they need to do to deliver the goods, and the unmanageable amount of information that bears on doing it well (market, technology, economy, employee needs . . .). Fascinating. And if you want knowledge for its own sake, how can you beat botany, or ecology, or astrophysics?

You would think that kids who show up at an uppity school like Notre Dame would love to learn, if anyone does. But from what I hear, fully one third of undergraduates here major in business.

But Notre Dame requires every student to take two courses in philosophy. This has something to do with being Catholic, and some of the students are Catholic in a way that involves being interested in philosophy. But in my mind the relationship between philosophy and Catholicism does not always bring out the best of either party. Philosophical proofs for the existence of God, for example, I find inconclusive. And indeterminist notions of free will, which I think draw their origin and most of their longevity from the classical Christian need to make humans responsible for sin without making their creator responsible for it, I think are philosophically incoherent. And Platonic notions of knowledge, which have done an interesting dance with classical notions of God, I think are of little use outside of mathematics. I have had to think through all these questions myself, to stay sane. But on the inconclusive stuff, why bring it up with someone who isn’t already in the thick of the problem?

Plus my students have probably done nearly nothing practical their entire lives! Maybe they had to take out the trash or mow the lawn at home. Otherwise they were probably either in school, doing homework, or goofing off nearly every minute of their lives so far. Let’s get them out of school and let them do something practical.

My experiences so far leave me with the impression that most Notre Dame students, like most people, don’t mind learning a little bit, here and there, for the novelty, but 97 percent of the time they would rather just get what they want, whether it’s the grade, the job, the money, the girlfriend or boyfriend, and do what they want, whether it’s watching a movie, going to the bar, or playing golf. And what’s wrong with that, if they’re basically honest and considerate in the way they go about it? Am I just in a pessimistic mood?

What’s the use of a liberal education?

14 comments for “The Value of Liberal Education

  1. Davis Bell
    April 30, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    I won’t presume to answer the deeper questions you raised, but I will give my opinion on whether college students in general hunger to learn: No.

    There are exceptions, probably many of them. But they are just that: exceptions. In my opinion, the vast majority of those who go to college do so in order to gain access to the rewards that can’t be obtained any other way (wealth, employment, prestige, security, legimitacy, etc.), and not to learn for learning’s sake. That’s not a value statement; just a diagnostic.

  2. chris goble
    April 30, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    I don’t know if I can answer Ben’s question. I tend to get the same one from my High School students in regards to Math. I think education becomes useful if you are able to grasp a subject deeply and accurately enough to be able to apply it elsewhere. Up to that point, it will always be considered a waste of time. I think liberal education assumes that if you are given enough different subjects, one of them will be useful. Not necessarily in a day to day way, but perhaps in an influential manner.

    I don’t think specialized education makes things any more applicable. It does give one accuracy and depth, but the degree to which this may apply to external fields is anything but guaranteed. Personally, I appreciate the ability to apply novel ideas to new situations. Good grades are rarely achieved through originality. I think some subjects in university weed this type of student out more than others. I think life also tends to limit how far this type of individual can go.

  3. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    So, Chris, it sounds like you’re telling me the issue is just that really valuable learning doesn’t come easily, whatever the subject. I think you’re right. That is reassuring to hear. I resolve to be patient and watch for those little sparks! And to be patient with my students’ impatience.

    Those sparks are so great when they happen! Maybe it’s worth it to make twenty students take a class as part of their GE, if two of them find some part of the inquiry really satisfying. Especially if those two didn’t know they would find it satisfying.

    I spent over an hour today with two students, examining a two-page stretch of Alcibiades’ speech in Plato’s _Symposium_. I don’t think they had any idea how much was going on in that passage before we worked it over together, but when I asked them specific questions, they dug and found a lot of it. That’s probably the high point of my day anyway.

  4. April 30, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    I think you’re largely in a pessimistic mood, Ben. There are many, many students out there learning for learning’s sake, who genuinely are trying to stretch their minds.

    I’m not sure the same statement could be said of graduate students, who largely feel imprisoned by the confines of their fields. But in undergrad, the world is wide open and many are taking advantage of it. At least, that’s how it felt when I was an undergrad. My wife was much more practically-minded and graduated as soon as she could…

  5. Jennifer
    April 30, 2004 at 7:18 pm

    Despite my suspicion that you play devil’s advocate and don’t really question the value of a liberal education, I’ll play along. I apologize to everyone who is not Ben who would prefer a more general discussion because I’m going to talk about philosophy.

    I have taught required philosophy classes for the last 5 semesters(14 sections). And in answer to one of your questions, no, most college students are not there to learn. College is a means only. However, there is a percentage who truly enjoy philosophy and do all the work and actually have good comments. I’d put that number at 3 students out of 40. But, all of my teaching experience has been at public schools where the students are probably less serious than the ones at ND.

    What is the value of a liberal education? The value is real. It is the one thing that keeps me going when half the class starts yelling at me for giving them a quiz, or insulting me for whatever reason, when I can’t have a discussion because no one has read, and when I go home in tears because it’s so discouraging or they were so mean. The value is in the process of giving them the opportunity to think. Sometimes, my class will sit in stunned silence after I teach something. I’ll ask if they don’t understand and someone will say, “that’s deep.” In evaluation comments, students say that they learned to ask questions about things they always took for granted. I often hear students say they always thought philosophy was stupid, but after taking the class they now enjoy it or see that it’s important.

    Does it really matter if they remember the Cogito? Or Socrates’ defense in the Apology, or who the empiricists are and what Aquinas’ Five Ways are? No. It matters that they are given a chance to consider important things they never knew they could question. Even if you plant a tiny seed of skepticism that they carry away with them, your class has been valuable.
    You’ll also find that philosophers are stuck with the task of teaching argumentative writing since they don’t teach it in English classes. That’s obviously inherently valuable but it’s odious.

    I’m always surprised by student interest. It always exceeds my expectations. After class, usually a few students stay behind to ask more questions, which is beyond gratifying. I think you’ll find they are more interested than you expect too. Because philosophy may not be ‘practical’, but it deals with everything human, everything that everyone encounters in their daily lives. And if it weren’t for philosophy, there would be no biology nor physics, nor psychology, etc.

    The other value in a liberal education is to give the students exposure to the cannon of western thought. How can someone have a college degree and not know who Descartes and Plato are? Students have said they appreciate learning things they’ve heard of but were never taught (like, who Socrates is and what the “I think, therefore I am” phrase means.)

    FYI-I always poll the students on what they liked the best and it’s always the section on the existence of God. So even if the arguments are inconclusive, it generates the most interest from my students. Some who were previously undecided even make up their minds.

    FYI-2: Give up on the back row. You’ll never reach them, they sit there for a reason.

  6. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 8:52 pm

    Yes, Jennifer, this is what I need, a testimonial! Where do you teach? I think it will help when I’m teaching my own course; TAing is different.

    It also occurs to me that perhaps part of this is just a matter of maintaining some of the integrity of the university against the onslaught of the technological culture (instrumental mindset, consumer culture, whatever). The students have to leave this offering on the altar of idealism to buy their way into the advantages of a university credential, perhaps.

    Perhaps my question should be rephrased as, “What is the value of an opportunity for liberal education that most (how many is up for grabs still, of course) students may simply sit through and not actually take?” After all, not everyone who goes through the procedure of a liberal arts course comes away equally liberated.

    I believe a liberal education is valuable, but my frame of mind for how to approach these students, and how to select content, and, and . . . are definitely works in progress. I have found my own liberal education so liberating and expansive and empowering (I still think; we’ll see after another round on the job market!) that I haven’t questioned its value, but now perhaps I have to consolidate my conviction to persist despite the indifference of the 37, to set my sights on the hypothetical 3 who are to show themselves, some day, and singlemindedly prepare the context in which they can discover their passion for liberation. Quite possibly. I need to settle my mind on what counts as success, so I will not swerve in the face of what is merely to be expected along the way. In the face of what I have so far encountered. Of course there have been signs that some of it takes in some of them, and moments when the flame seems to have spread to most of the class, for half an hour at a time anyway : )

  7. Jennifer
    April 30, 2004 at 9:40 pm

    Currently I’m teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It’s part of the CUNY system. I’ve also taught at Georgia State, and subbed for someone at a community college in Atlanta.

    The 3 true believers do make it worthwhile. I’ve had two students transfer schools because they wanted to major in philosophy and John Jay doesn’t offer it. But you’ll reach more than just those three at some point in the semester, probably a good 30%. For the students who pay attention and read some, there is always one thing I think that will catch their attention. Something that they have been struggling with or that they find particularly relevant or interesting. It’s truly awesome when a student who has never participated comes up afterwards to ask me a deeper question about the lecture or reading. That’s what I think is so great about philosophy. No matter what else the person is studying, they can find something relevant in philosophy.

    What’s also amazing are the times when during a discussion a student will say, “Oh, now I get it!” And they get a big smile because they’ve conquered something difficult. (Here’s a tip, when that happens, ask the student to explain it to the rest of the class. Sometimes they can do a better job than we because they still speak natural language as opposed to philosospeak. This also helps cement the idea in their minds too.)

    This will be your first class?
    When you get to go back to general philosophy and out of your narrow specialization, you’ll remember how wonderful it is and why you fell in love with it in the first place. And if I can say that after some of the truly rotten students I’ve had, you’re experience will be that much better. And you are probably done with your coursework and not teaching 3 classes I suspect. You’ll love it.

  8. May 1, 2004 at 12:06 am

    Are you THAT Ben? From August when JY came up from ND for a Tigers game and you drove with him?

  9. May 1, 2004 at 10:19 pm

    Jennifer, I teach Philosophy 200 (used to be 105), argumentative writing, every fall semester and I enjoy doing so. What makes it odious for you?

  10. May 1, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    Okay, I feel way out of my league in some ways with all of you but I do feel the need to share something. I’m a 29 year old stay at home, homeschooling mom who is desperately seeking to build myself a liberal arts education. The only thing that kept popping out at me while I was reading all the interesting comments was this – a liberal arts education is a much different thing than a liberal arts degree.

    I am not attending college – I am studying the classics. Education for education sake is a myth – everything has a goal but it doesn’t mean that the goal is always a degree. My education is to help me more fully understand God and is for my sake, for my husbands sake, for the sake of my children and my community both now and in the eternities. Education is to make us more like our Father.

    Just some of my musings. Thanks for reading!

  11. Julie in Austin
    May 1, 2004 at 11:27 pm


    If you haven’t seen it yet, you seem like someone who might be interested in Susan Wise Bauer’s _The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had_.

  12. Ben Huff
    May 1, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    Notre Dame is a very residential campus (one of its finer qualities), and I was tickled today to see students in their pajamas with laptops and books and stacks of notes, alone or in groups, iPod buds in their ears, etc. at nearly every table in the student center eateries — think of walking into Burger King and seeing it full of that! This is the weekend before finals.

    I was sitting in the student center basement, comparing early portions of Hobbes _On the Citizen_ with _Leviathan_ for suitability for my intro. course, when I noticed a group of students behind me were discussing the _Apology_. Okay, they are all arts and letters majors, taking the A&L core course, so they aren’t directly representative of who will be in my course in the fall, but . . . they are sophomores at ND, as my students will be, and there were eight of them who sat there for two hours discussing the study questions for their final, looking back through notes and texts including e.g. _Bhagavad-Gita_ and the “Grand Inquisitor” section of _The Brothers Karamazov_. Part of the problem with being a teacher is that you have so little contact with each student, and you see them in class, when a lot of what they are doing is absorbing the material. The papers I’ve graded this semester were often really great, but even that is a limited window into the student’s mind. So here was another side — reviewing and reflecting *after* having chewed on the material all semester. Speaking freely, willing to let the holes in their understanding show, so their friends can help fill them in. Here the good stuff shows. They let me join them and mostly just listen. In casual clothes I don’t look much like a professor. If a few of my students are like them, and more are something like them, then I’m happy.

  13. Jennifer
    May 2, 2004 at 3:33 am

    Most of my students have extremely poor writing skills. Almost all of them come from urban public schools which have not prepared them for college and many are immigrants who struggle with syntax and grammar. I’d like to be able to teach them to express their thoughts clearly using strong arguements and avoiding fallacies and rhetoric. Instead, I have to teach them how to use a comma, what a thesis statement is and what it means to cite a reference and to paraphrase. I hate spending class time on something so boring and which I don’t feel prepared to teach. I also know that to really teach them to write I’d have to assign multiple papers and allow them to re-write them after they get my comments. Having 120 students and course-work of my own makes this impossible. I don’t even think the little I do helps because their papers are barely coherent. Do you have any suggestions?

  14. May 3, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    Though I’m sure that the average student in my class is better prepared than the average student in yours, I’m shocked every year by how UNprepared my incoming Honors students are. High GPAs and ACT scores don’t mean that they know much about writing. The best of them are usually good at being glib, which is, to be sure, a start, but many of them are still barely able to write a coherent 5-paragraph essay. Even worse, rarely can any of them read something and then give an accurate precis of what it said.

    Unfortunately, however, I don’t have any suggestions. The 120-student thing is, I think, the killer. I have no more than 20 students in a writing section and an assistant, which allows me to assign an essay a week without any difficulty.

Comments are closed.