Emory Report

August 23, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 1

Students discover for themselves how colleges evolved

Imagine being in a world where getting an education meant mastering only a specific professional or technical skill. Picture a society whose citizens have not studied history, culture or the arts. In 20th century America, these are issues of real consideration--there is no longer a consensus among academics or the general public regarding the value and aim of a liberal arts education.

Amy Enright, a graduate student in history, is interested in the historical precedents that have led to present-day debates about the meaning of the liberal arts and the relationship between education and society.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., Enright's fascination with foreign culture, history and education developed early, during her family's three-year stay in Hong Kong, where her father was employed with a British architectural firm. She received her undergraduate degree from Tufts University, majoring in both history and religion, and in 1997 completed a master's degree at Emory in early modern European history. She plans to finish her dissertation, "The Promise of the Humanities: Education and Social Identity in Early Modern Champagne," next year and topursue a career in the professoriate.

Last spring she taught an undergraduate seminar titled "The Social History of the College: The Liberal Arts and Society, 1400 to Present," in which 11 Emory students met weekly to discuss readings on higher education as it developed in Europe 600 years ago and to shape comparisons with their own experiences--discovering how the form and function of the liberal arts have changed.

Enright's class learned how the educational revolution in the humanities shaped the late 14th century, when municipal leaders in northern Italian city-states employed education as a means to legitimize their political dominance. Many of them followed the intellectual lead of Petrarch, a French-Italian lawyer and member of the intellectual elite. That meant turning to the language, literature and history of the ancient Romans as an ideal model for their own culture, law and politics.

"Early modern Italians adopted a new curriculum (the humanities) for their sons, to better prepare them for public leadership," Enright said. "In their opinion the theological education offered at the medieval universities was outdated and inefficient."

Enright directed her students to re-create both a humanities and scholastic classroom. First they staged a learning environment as it might have existed in 13th century Bologna and enjoyed the privileges offered by life in the university's "corporation," whose students had the power to hire and fire their professors, in some cases.

The Emory students tried to recapture the sense of separation from society that came to characterize the scholastic tradition. Defined by a dress code of black robes and a specialized language consisting of legal, medical or theological terms, a scholastic career served to isolate its pupils from their immediate families and communities. Trained for ecclesiastical positions--work as priests, monks or canon lawyers--these 13th century students would find themselves far away from home.

Enright's class then staged a humanities "classroom" in which they might have attended a lecture on Cicero in a large hall in the city center, rented for that purpose by the municipal council. The 14th century humanities students would have made a colorful audience, wearing their usual clothes with all the accompanying signs and adornments of civil rank. These scholars would take their educational training back to their own cities and towns, where it would become the language of politics and diplomacy.

After these exercises, Enright's students turned their analytical skills upon themselves, discussing the role liberal arts institutions play in 20th century American society and how these institutions respond to issues of class, gender and race.

For their final research papers, the students approached diverse questions--from why Petrarch embraced the classics in the 1300s to why present-day American parents choose to home school their children. The theoretical umbrella was the relationship between education and society.

"In essence, my career as a researcher, a teacher and an active member of 20th century American society revolves around the question of how education and society interact," said Enright, explaining her idea for the course. "I wanted to confront liberal arts students with this topic and its history and see how they would respond. The aim was to expose my students to the origins and development of the humanities in order to raise their consciousness about their own place in history."

And were her goals met? "Definitely," Enright said. "The students gained a much greater sense of purpose and agency in their own intellectual and professional development. They have a clearer sense of why they are at Emory. Rather than having to sop up the promises poured out in orientation and commencement speeches, these students have the tools to reach their own conclusions about how their course of study might affect their future role in society."

--Cathy Byrd

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