March 20 , 2006
Liberal education at Emory
Robert Bartlett is associate
professor of political science.
In the Feb. 28 issue of Emory Report, history Professor Patrick Allitt defended the Goizueta Business School’s idea of admitting freshmen, arguing that the tradition of liberal arts education—one in which students are exposed to a broad range of disciplines before choosing their focus of study—is a quaint anachronism.
Like a friend’s offer to buy what will definitely be the last-last round, Allitt’s defense of freshman admissions at the business school is immediately attractive, persuasive and ultimately … not such a good idea. Friendly but firm refusal is best.
Allitt’s argument is remarkably sweeping, for he advocates permitting not only the business-minded but in fact all students to pursue immediately—and “solely”—whatever is of interest to them: “Let the philosopher philosophize,” he suggests.
The case for this dismantling of everything but the major requirements rests on two things: Allitt’s experience at Oxford and the future benefits to students and faculty alike. Before I address these, let me say a word about what is probably at the core of the difficulty: our different understandings of the purpose of a “liberal education.”
The adjective “liberal” points not to ideology but to liberty: Liberal education is the education necessary for those who would be free in fact and not only in right. As such, it is the core of an education to responsible democratic citizenship—critical, reflective, informed.
Moreover, the great promise of liberal democracy is to permit each of us to “pursue happiness” as we think best. How can anyone make proper use of that liberty without awareness of the full range of possible human types and ways of life, an awareness attainable chiefly through liberal education? You needn’t be a Tocqueville to see that all our talk of “individuality” produces in practice an amazing conformity. Something much graver than a “sentimental tradition,” as Allitt calls it, is at stake.
His argument presupposes that the 18-year-olds we admit already are fully formed in this decisive respect and thus are in need of no real transformation, but simply a kind of “polishing up”: They know what they like and like what they know, and that is good enough.
But the (potential) philosophers won’t, in fact, philosophize, as Allitt supposes—10-to-1 they’ll be off studying something “marketable.” For there are a great many intellectual delicacies that even the brightest high school students haven’t tasted because they aren’t quite ready for them or simply haven’t encountered them. With ever fewer takers, those departments at Emory with such delicacies on offer will be forced eventually to close up shop. Goodbye Classics, hello Accounting.
Allitt’s experiences at Oxford are intriguing, but might the finest products of the British public schools (in their sense and ours) be better equipped than their American counterparts for the specialization-without-philistinism he describes?
I confess I don’t know.
As for the benefits of the proposed reform, Allitt sketches an alluring picture. I too have had students who, when exposed to the wonders of Plato’s Republic, sit glassy eyed and open-mouthed, to all appearances wholly consumed by the conversion of oxygen into carbon dioxide. But then again—since we are sharing experiences—I have had many more students, initially indifferent or hostile, hostages to Emory’s general education requirements, slowly awaken to those wonders. In so doing, they become fundamentally different from the men and women they were: more inquisitive, less self-satisfied, more serious. I say this in praise not of myself but of liberal education.
As for the specific policy question now before us as a university, I urge my colleagues to follow the prudent and even profound dictum of Marx (not Karl, of course, but Groucho): “Whatever it is, I’m against it. No matter who proposed it, I’m against it!”