11 No. 2
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. ”
“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
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 were your overall impressions of the Gustafson Seminar?
Leslie Taylor: One of the big values of the seminar is, irrespective of the topic, the opportunity to get together once a month with faculty from a broad range of the university. The seminar meetings were characterized by spirited disagreement and real goodwill, in terms of trying to understand someone else’s point of view. There was skepticism, but there was no ill will. It was emblematic of what academic discourse can be. We disagree but we don’t get personal or nasty.
In terms of the topic, “The Future of Liberal Arts Education,” what struck us was that just after periods of war, when morals and mores had been shaken up, universities with the stature and reputation of Harvard re-examined their core curricula in the liberal arts. It happened right after World War I, when Harvard questioned how they should be educating young men who are going to be the movers and shakers of the world. It also happened after World War II and Vietnam, as well, and they are just now
finishing up another review, in the midst of the Iraq War. I don’t think it is just Harvard. Chicago and other places followed the
same general time frame in re-examining their curriculum.
In Emory College, we were already discussing changes to the general education requirements (GERs). That conversation wasn’t so much about the content of a liberal arts education as how you facilitate it. In the Gustafson Seminar, we were trying to ask what is a liberal arts education? There were a lot of divergent points of view about how much you should regulate it and how much you should just put out all of these great options and possibilities and let students choose and shape their own curricula. And it seems to me in the history of liberal arts education that the pendulum has swung between the highly organized and planned core curriculum and the wide-open range of choices. It was a fascinating conversation.
AE: What are your thoughts on the seminar’s “Vitalities of the Mind” matrix?
LT: I think right now the matrix incorporates many interesting ideas; I think it’s way too complicated. There were so many good intentions that it was hard to narrow anything down. When you start to consider what liberal arts education could be, you want to be in a sense corrective of what you see as currently wrong, hence the ideas of community and compassion. It went back to our wanting to inculcate some of these things that we view as good. The problem is that there are so many forces out there shaping who one turns out to be that you can’t rely on any one of them. I think it’s appropriate to question how you can include these values in a liberal arts education. I am less convinced that you can mandate them so that everyone has the same experience. There is a lot of serendipity and synchronicity in life.
Further, civility and contemplation and ethics and compassion and courage—all these things are great. But we need Apollo and Dionysus. I worry about devising a curriculum or set of standards that rule out risk, vision, dissent, and passion—a curriculum that is so mannered and orderly and compassionate and caring and collaborative that there’s no place for creative chaos.
I think the value of the document is in its beginning to re-examine what a liberal arts education is, what it does. It doesn’t definitively answer those questions, but I hope it will stimulate ongoing conversations with the faculty: what do we want our students to learn? How are we educating them and what are we educating them for? I think that’s the conversation we as a faculty haven’t had yet.
AE: What precipitated the GER revision in Emory College?
LT: Emory’s GERs were more complicated than any other college’s we looked at. There have been various reports over the past couple of years about how unsatisfied faculty and students have been with the general education requirements—that they were labyrinthine and took up too many course hours, that they hindered students and faculty and made advising difficult. They were not easy to navigate. So I think part of the decision was to make them more streamlined, open them up to more student choice. You still have to do two from column A and two from column B, etc., but the contents of the columns are exponentially bigger and the number of requirements across the columns is lower.