Emory Report

May 4, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 31

First Person:

The goal of liberal arts:
continual education for us all

When I did the field research for my master's degree in music education, I interviewed parents of fourth grade students in an effort to determine their personal philosophies of music education. During the course of the investigation, I learned that most of the men and women who participated in the study shared the idea that education in music was integral to the formation of a well-rounded person. For these individuals the concept of well-roundedness seemed to serve as a paradigm for the essential goal of all of education.

The goals of the liberal arts university include enabling students to attain knowledge in fields such as the fine arts, mathematics, the natural sciences, philosophy, languages, the social sciences and physical education-the core of the liberal education. If we may define the well-rounded person as one who has acquired knowledge through inquiry into each of these fields, then by what measure can we say that one's education is complete? When has the student fully undergone what John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated describes as "this process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture?" Can this "disciplining" be accomplished during the course of an undergraduate education?

Liberal arts universities establish undergraduate curricula and confer degrees upon those students who adhere to a particular course of study. These degrees signify that the graduates have performed satisfactorily during their inquiries into the core fields and also during their inquiries into chosen concentrations or majors. Such quests for knowledge are not exhaustive of any subject, nor are they intended to be. Therefore, what a graduate possesses may be seen as an initial layer of well-roundedness, which can serve as the breeding ground for further inquiry throughout his or her life.

Accepting Newman's definition of the liberal education as the means to well-roundedness, one notes that the training received by students is not a preparation for a specific job or vocation but for the nurturing of the intellect. This nurturing involves delving into different ways of thinking about the nature of our world and of our existence. For example, the way in which one derives the proof of Cramer's Rule in mathematics contrasts with the way in which one makes an aesthetic judgment about the Mask of King Tutankhamen, and the bases for religious faith are characterized by philosophical and theological constructs not wholly found in the bases for legal arguments against a corporate merger.

Does possessing the ability to form and present a coherent argument for one's position have value in the workplace? Yes! Among competing ideas, those backed by reliable evidence validly obtained and presented in a clear and cogent manner will usually survive. Does possessing this ability have value to our society? Certainly! How else can each of us fairly evaluate the information we receive as we prepare to do such things as vote on a referendum, make decisions regarding medical treatment or serve on a jury, if we do not command the knowledge we need to comprehend and interpret what is before us?

The task of nurturing the intellect must not cease upon the earning of a bachelor's degree. Accordingly, training the intellect "for its own highest culture" is a lifelong endeavor for every single person in the Emory community. All who work as faculty, staff, and administrators must avail themselves of opportunities to pursue additional education in the liberal arts. Further, favorable circumstances must be created to enable everyone to participate in a resurgence of intellectual achievement throughout this community. The design and development of courses whose topics generate widespread interdisciplinary participation is one such means to this end. Giving faculty fewer committee assignments so they have time to audit courses taught by their colleagues is another, as is releasing staff members and administrators to pursue liberal learning when chances for study are at their optimum.

The beneficiaries are not only those persons who continue in their quest for knowledge. The students, who are the reason for the existence of Emory, will undoubtedly be better served by people who openly express and vigorously act on a philosophy of ceaselessly disciplining the intellect "for its own sake." Those employed by a liberal arts institution should lead by example.

In conclusion, you cannot actually reach the goal of becoming fully well-rounded; but, you can continue to strive for it. The mere thought that there is much more worth knowing should motivate every one of us to continue the inquiry. Don't let your intellect be quiescent!

Step out of the laboratory, and learn a second language. Get up from your desk, and take a calculus course (You can do it!). Log off the computer, and investigate the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Put down the tools of your trade, and probe the history of the United States. Take off your stethoscope, and learn how to play a musical instrument.

Pursuing the goal of well-roundedness means a lifetime of inquiry. Actually, you can't get there from here, but the journey is worth all the effort you can muster!

Ralph Hickman is completing his work as interim coordinator of the Oxford Studies program.

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