leadimageEducating the Vitalities of the Mind
The Gustafson Faculty Seminar on undergraduate education

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


The great literary theorist and culture critic George Steiner noted in In Bluebeard’s Castle that after the Holocaust we could no longer assume that education is humanizing. Gestapo commanders could execute innocents in the morning and go home in the evening to read poetry and listen to Haydn. Questioning the educator’s purpose and the need to develop tools to cultivate compassion and sympathy are just as pressing today in the light of hate crimes in our heartland or photos of Abu Ghraib from distant, unfamiliar shores.

We, the Gustafson Scholars, do not purport to have solutions to human conflict and aggression. We do think, however, that discussion about the nature of education and the objective of reducing violence and hate in the world is or should be a core component of our mission.

To help guide our thinking, the Gustafson Scholars have constructed a matrix of interactions based on what Hannah Arendt characterized as “the life of the mind.” In her seminal two-volume work titled The Life of the Mind, Arendt intended to devote three separate volumes to each of three dimensions of the life of the mind: thinking, feeling, and willing. Though some critics have suggested that Arendt intended to focus her last volume on aesthetics as one dimension of action and willing, we choose to keep the intent of volume three broad since these attributes “thinking, feeling, and willing” might effectively be considered the “head, heart, and hands” of every student.

In the field of liberal learning, according to a 2007 American Association of Colleges and Universities report on “College Learning for a New Global Century,” it is commonplace to evaluate courses and curricula by their contribution to the development of a student’s skills, knowledge, values, and habits. These two sets {thinking, feeling, willing} and {skills, knowledge, values, habits} form the dimensions for facilitating the life of the mind (see chart page 2). For each entry in the matrix we asked, “What are the skills/values/types of knowledge/habits of mind that are essential for developing effective thinking/feeling/willing?”

We also divided the “knowledge” category into two different questions. First, what kinds of knowledge are available to foster effective thinking/feeling/willing, and are there pedagogies that are especially effective in promoting such knowledge? Second, what kinds of knowledge emanate from particular aspects of the Life of the Mind? The first column of entries—under “thinking”—were easy to establish. Who can deny the efficacy of quantitative reasoning or logic for critical thinking or for establishing a habit of skepticism in evaluating evidence? But we struggled with the rest of our tripartite Life of the Mind. What skills or dispositions increase a student’s capacity for sympathy and action? Even identifying the appropriate words to map out these important dimensions of student/faculty development was daunting.

The attention to the individual Life of the Mind, however, left certain clearly important dimensions undeveloped even at the individual level—for example, the importance of friendship and collaboration. It became clear that the tripartite division was not sufficient. We are social beings, and there are communal and historical dimensions to be acknowledged. Our group chose to name these aspects “belonging” and “anchoring,” representing our bond to others through shared community and history.

Our entries in the matrix are tentative and not mutually exclusive. Some entries require explanations that are offered in the glossary provided on page 3. These entries are our attempt to broadly characterize our educational purpose. The challenge is to translate these categories of purpose into our curriculum. If we could effectively integrate these intentions into undergraduate culture, we might begin teaching for peace and providing avenues for the cultivation of greater self-realization in our students’ lives.

We have characterized liberal arts education in terms of the desired qualities of its graduates rather than the character of the curriculum. This is not a hedge. For even if the attributes and relationships cited in our matrix are accepted as virtues a liberal arts education ought to promote, there will remain a wide range of opinion about the importance of the curriculum—both in general and with regard to the particular courses and learning activities that it should comprise.

On the importance of the curriculum in general, two polar positions are widely discussed. On one end, there’s the “minimalist” position advanced
by Harvard President Emeritus Derek Bok: “the residue of knowledge and the habits of mind students take away from college are likely to be determined less by which courses they take than by how they are taught and how well they are taught” (Our Underachieving Colleges, Princeton 2006). At the other end of the continuum, there are programs like that of St. John’s College, which place maximum importance on the content and structure of the curriculum. Attempting to establish the—or even an ideal—curriculum notoriously leads to disagreement. And although the structure and content of the curriculum of courses matter, we side with Bok: the specific pedagogy and overall effectiveness of teaching have the more lasting impact on students.

We believe that emphasis on pedagogy, broadly conceived, can achieve most of the outcomes cited in our matrix and avoid undue reliance on courses and course content. Course content can be a powerful complement
to pedagogy, but putting primary emphasis on pedagogy allows
faculty considerable flexibility in the choice of content and minimizes scheduling conflicts that result when all students must have access to specific courses. Pedagogies that support outcomes in our matrix abound. Service learning and international travel can do much to enhance empathy (cum compassion) and prepare the foundation for the development of civic engagement. Problem-based (or case-based) learning can be structured to promote critical thinking, creativity, and collaborative learning (the latter promoting skills required in team work).

Developing programs with high academic standards that integrate writing, speaking (both in class dialogue and presentations), and critical thinking promote the capacities cited in the “thinking” section of our matrix. These, of course, are but a few examples of creative pedagogies that promote the development of the desired qualities of a liberally educated person. Other outcomes in our matrix can be actively addressed by extra-curricular means. Establishing a racially, culturally, and religiously diverse student body and promoting interaction through housing, common dining facilities, engagement in student government, and campus organizations promotes intercultural awareness and decreases the tendency to see such differences as embodiments of the “other.”

This is a brief summary, but perhaps it is sufficient to stimulate discussion and debate about the primacy of teaching practices, programs, and institutional structures in achieving the aims of liberal arts education.