leadimageVitalities of the Mind

People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education.

—Stephen Bowen, Dean of Oxford College, Kenan Professor of Biology

Vol. 11 No. 2
October/November 2008

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Vitalities of the Mind
The Gustafson Seminar on the future of Liberal Education

Educating the Vitalities of the Mind

2007-2008 Gustafson Seminar

Vitalities of the Mind Matrix

A Vitalities of the Mind Glossary

“People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education.”

Civility and contemplation and ethics and compassion and courage—all these things are great. But we need Apollo and Dionysus. ”

Website special:
“Bathing in Reeking Wounds: The Liberal Arts and War”
Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University

Comments on the Liberal Arts
Response to the Gustafson Faculty Seminar

Some Thoughts on Overcoming Paralysis
Education and curricula in the context of war

Can the Liberal Arts Reduce the Likelihood of War?
An important but limited resource


Academic Exchange: What drew you to the Gustafson Seminar?

Stephen Bowen: I was attracted to the seminar because it provided an opportunity to discuss liberal arts education, which I think is the component of the undergraduate educational experience most important for the future of American society. Liberal arts education is sometimes referred to as general education, but no one likes that term because it’s ambiguous. Liberal arts education has incredible potential, and in most institutions that potential is nowhere near to being realized.

AE: Why is that?

SB: A large segment of our society thinks that a liberal arts education is like finishing school—learning languages and literature—things that are largely erudite but not particularly useful. The reason that is fundamentally wrong is because the real focus of liberal arts education is development of skills in clear, effective, articulate communication; critical thinking; problem solving across a broad range of disciplines; and understanding the different perspectives of different academic disciplines and how each one has its own assumptions and techniques. People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education, because it offers ways to solve problems from a variety of perspectives and goes far beyond the resources of the single perspective of one discipline.

For example, the first half of my academic career was spent in a university of science and engineering. Some of the engineering faculty thought that people in other disciplines were well intended but took a wrong turn somewhere in their education. If you wanted to be a person whose education allowed you to do something, then you needed to be an engineer. But other engineering faculty appreciated that engineering was just one approach to problem solving, and as a single perspective it was subject to considerable limitation. A brilliant technical solution is of little help if the society for which it is designed rejects it.

AE: What is the role of education in reducing violence?

SB: The answer is not as clear-cut as we might like. One thing that motivates people to be violent is a sense of hopelessness. They feel trapped and violence is their only way to respond. People from backgrounds that don’t offer them encouragement or opportunities to get a significant education must feel totally lost, and that the only way to defend their personal interest is through force. Historically, power derived from physical strength and the threat of violence. It’s still true today to some limited extent, but not in most segments of American society. Wealth and influence with their links to education are primary sources of power. Education champions rationality, and I also think that there is general sense that violence is an irrational act. Individuals and societies that are well educated will look for an alternative to violence. But there are counter examples. People point to Nazi Germany as an example of a highly educated and literate society. Clearly, education alone is not sufficient to prevent violence.

AE: How do you balance the grand ideas of higher education with practical vocational demands?

SB: The way to do it is to create in students the habits of mind that motivate them to continue learning indefinitely. Their education should lead them to become people who read and think and get involved with others and continue their learning, so that they’re not limited by a narrowly defined or bordered education. If all they ever know is what they learned in college, then they’re stuck.
The capacity to be a self-motivated learner and to learn from a broad range of sources is the ultimate practical education. There was a time when people would say students need a good general education so that they will be effective in using the specialized knowledge that they get in their major. So general education supports the major, and the major supports the graduate’s role in society. But I think the tables are turned now. Instead of needing a general education so you can get a good job in your major, you now need a major to get an entry point into the work force, but it’s your general education that will make it possible for you to grow and evolve in that dynamic work world.

AE: Is Oxford considering revisiting its curriculum?

SB: It is. I believe that in the future it will be more focused. At present it looks like a plain vanilla, garden-variety college curriculum. In the past we thought we were limited in developing an innovative curriculum because we needed to parallel Emory College’s program. We’ve made lot of progress in becoming more intentional about our liberal arts-intensive emphasis, but that’s been principally through pedagogy. We want now to get our arms around curricular opportunities that will help us to become more liberal arts-intensive. It’s part of our project to become more distinctive, more intentional, and more focused in what we do.