Universality and a Liberal Arts Education

In a recent post in the New York Times Opinion blog, Stanley Fish couched an impassioned case for classical, liberal arts education within a review of three recent books on the state of American education (“The Core” by Leigh Bortins; “Not For Profit” by Martha Nussbaum; and “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch). With two Ivy League degrees and teaching appointments at a slew of big-name Universities, Fish still cites his time at Classical High School in Providence, RI as the most formative educational experience of his life. As stated in the review, “the name tells it all” in regards to Classical’s curriculm; “offerings and requirements included four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.” This post will not contribute directly to the lively discussion already happening on pressible and elsewhere in regards Ravitch’s recent book. Instead, in the spirit of Fish’s article, I will discuss encounters I have had with the contemporary argument for classical liberal arts education, and how I see my past experiences and present thinking working at times with, and other times against such an argument.

My high school experience at the University School of Jackson in Jackson, Tennessee (USJ) was a far cry from Fish’s reports from Classical High. While many of the course and club offerings from Fish’s article sounded familiar enough, by the time I had reached my sophomore year at USJ I had essentially checked out. Why? That’s a complicated question that I’m sure none of you really want to hear about, but let’s just say that the adolescent angst fueled by a genuine lack of any real understanding of how the content in my classes connected to my everyday life made for a less than engaged experience. Not to mention, from age twelve I had an increasingly nagging urge to spend the majority of my time playing music. Because of a lack of funding, the music program at USJ left a lot to be desired (things like…you know…a band), consisting mostly of musical productions and show choirs (mind you, the football team never went without).

Luckily, I had a great guitar teacher in town, was conscientious enough to keep my head above water in school, and was admitted to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz guitar. My experience at Berklee was extremely rewarding, and nowhere near a liberal arts education. I spent 6-10 hours a day practicing my instrument and playing with some of the world’s most technically gifted improvisers. I didn’t just learn how to play jazz at Berklee, I learned what it meant to fully immerse myself in something I loved with a community of like-minded learners and practitioners. That being the case, after spending a number of years working as a musician and teacher, the lack of breadth in my learning experience began to catch up to me. This wasn’t so much of an issue of career limitations (though that certainly played a part) as it was a reoccurring feeling that I wasn’t engaging with the world in all the ways that I might be able to. This feeling is what led me to liberal arts graduate study, and I can honestly say that the noise from that feeling has been considerably dampened. That said, my decision to dive into the classics was entirely my own, and one that could not have been made without the preceding 8 year period of a drastically alternative, practice-based educational approach.

In her Fall ’10 lecture in the Philosophy and Education program colloquium, recently appointed Dean of Columbia College Michelle Moody Adams made a case for Columbia’s famed undergraduate “core curriculum.”A very brief synopsis of her argument can be found in this video. Adams playfully refers to herself as the “cheerleader for the core,” the crux of her argument being that immersing young undergraduates in the great books of western civilization is “central to helping people become constructive and responsible citizens.” In all my encounters with these kinds of impassioned arguments for the inherent value of a liberal arts education, it is at this very moment of prescribing the supposed effects of such an education such as “creating responsible citizens” or “molding critical minds” that the author has to step back and qualify such a claim. In the same breath, Adams makes concessions that it’s not required, but that you’re “more likely to be a good citizen” if you’ve gone through Columbia’s core curriculum, or something comparable. If we look back to Fish’s article, he acknowledges right away that his argument for a “return to the classics” in public schools might be “elitist,” but he advances the argument nonetheless. Why the qualifications? If these people believe in the universal value of a liberal arts education, why can’t they just say it?

They can’t just say it because the current historical moment is rendering such universal claims less and less tenable. A liberal arts education has the potential to be enormously valuable, but so do other approaches to education. A liberal arts education also has the potential to reinforce power structures (can you name a president that doesn’t have at least one Ivy after his name?), or to shut down students desire to learn because the time just isn’t right (like my high school experience for example). Broad universal claims about the nature and purpose of education is a fundamental problem I have encountered at the level of policy and discourse, as well as in my own personal growth. In regards to the former, operating under the assumption that any approach to education could possibly stand in the face of the impossibly multi-faceted human condition without gradual and sometimes radical change makes for an always “one-step-removed” universal discourse that purports to speak to everybody, but really speaks to a select few (see my post about the ethnic studies ban in Arizona), or to no one at all. In regards to my own growth, there is a palpable tension between digesting canonical material (which is often framed as being universally benevolent) and allowing my own idiosyncratic interests and abilities to develop. Here I should be clear that it is not the canonical materiel itself that I am taking issue with (I’m totally down with Bach and Plato), but the justification given for it’s presence in so many institutions. While I want to shy away from making an entirely culturally relativistic or individualistic argument for educational growth, as a society I’d like to think that we’ve surpassed that idea that, “if it worked for me, it ought to work for everybody.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Teachers College, Columbia University or the Arts and Humanities Department.