By Katherine Kirkpatrick
A liberal arts education is an education that reaches beyond pure instruction. It is not the teaching of facts, or even of a specific set of skills, but is an education which creates a way of thinking, a sophisticated and finely-tuned mental capacity, and a graduate who has the innate ability to be comfortable and capable in any career. In “The Idea of a University”, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the father of liberal arts philosophy, writes that an education takes on one of two forms: “The end of the one is to be philosophical, of the other to be mechanical; the one rises towards general ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external.” (Newman, 1014).
Newman’s description offers that a liberal arts education teaches philosophy, which is significantly more valuable than a mechanical or trade education because it teaches the student how to think, as opposed to what to think. If a student is schooled in varied thoughts, analyzation, documents, and ideas, he becomes better prepared to handle whatever range of employments he might eventually undertake.
“The man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze,” Newman writes, “who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision…will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to…mental culture is emphatically useful.” (Newman, 1018). To achieve such mental maturity, Newman asserts, is to be schooled in a liberal education, one which requires the imposition of general studies on any and every student. Many schools, USC included, demand general studies of their students in the hopes of achieving Newman’s goals, but their good intentions are often lost in a flurry of facts and trivia that consequently become meaningless to the student in question. Therefore, USC’s General Education requirements, although necessary to advance the tenets of a liberal arts education, are inherently flawed by their interest in requiring students to study and to memorize facts in a variety of absurdly specific subject manner.
At the University of Southern California, undergraduates spend much of their early years taking classes that complete their General Education requirements. With the exception of Thematic Option students, all undergraduates are required to complete nine courses that collectively satisfy their General Education instruction. This series includes two courses in writing, one diversity course, two classes in cultures and civilizations, two courses in science, an Arts and Letters course, and a social issues course. This General Education program is successful insofar as it exposes all students, no matter their specific major or interest, to varied types of subject matter. The very idea behind these requirements, then, would seem to succeed in giving students a vast liberal arts education.
In his essay “What’s Wrong – and Right – with American Higher Education,” James Axtell complains that many liberal arts universities have become excessively vocational in their instruction, an approach which “severely compromises, if not eliminates, the essential offerings and values of liberal education,” At first glance, then, it seems likely that Axtell would be pleased with USC’s General Education curriculum, which is far from vocational and encourages students to study a variety of subject matter that does not specify fact but instead encourages thought. Axtell might also be satisfied with USC’s varied offerings of courses in science, a field of interest from which many universities have slowly stepped away in favor of the humanities (Axtell, 13).
However, closer examination of the classes offered in USC’s undergraduate program reveals that favorable successes in achieving a solid liberal arts education can hardly be reached when students are offered course options like “La Frontera: The U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” or “Diversity in Aging.” These sorts of niche classes delve into such specific experiences that students can in no way take part in practicing philosophical thought – instead, they are simply confronted with a multitude of facts that they likely won’t use again.
“USC’s General Education requirements, although necessary to advance the tenets of a liberal arts education, are inherently flawed by their interest in requiring students to study and to memorize facts in a variety of absurdly specific subject manner.”
USC currently offers ninety-one course options for students to consider when aiming to fulfill their diversity requirements. Unfortunately, many of these classes teach information that only appeals to a small sector of the campus population. The focus of these courses is so narrow that a student might never use the instructed material again, unless the class in question also happens to fulfill a requirement of his chosen major.
There are multiple classes that demonstrate General Education gone wrong. One in particular, a biological anthropology class entitled “The Creation of Man,” provides a strong example of the problem with niche knowledge. Taught by a leading researcher in the sexual habits of bonobos, a species of ape, the class’ students are tested on facts, not theory. In order to get a passing grade in the class, students are forced to memorize specific characteristics of monkeys, gorillas, and apes. The result: a group of students in different majors that all have an extensive knowledge of Bonobos. The students have not advanced in their quest for a liberal arts education and they will most likely never use the information again. As a result, they frequently become disheartened by the “unnecessary” work.
“It all seemed useless,” said Alex Rautzen, a student who took the course as a sophomore. “It didn’t teach me how to think and it had nothing to do with my major. I worked hard to get an A, but I didn’t even retain any of the knowledge after it was over. And why should I? I’m never going to need to know this!” It would seem that Newman’s idea, to “teach all knowledge by teaching all branches of knowledge,” can hardly be achieved when the “branches” of knowledge become whittled down to the breadth of toothpicks (Newman 1018).
The notion of General Education, and its objective of informing a student’s basic habits of learning, has existed since the early inception of college. In Russell Thomas’ The Search for a Common Learning, General Education 1800-1960, the author cites a passage written in 1829 which discusses “general education” and its potential:
“Our colleges are designed to give youth a general education, classical, literary, and scientific, as comprehensive as an education can well be, which is professedly preparatory alike for all the professions. They afford the means of instruction for all the branches, with which it is desirable for a youth to have a general acquaintance before directing his attention to a particular course of study,” (Russell, 11).
The author of the passage, a professor at Bowdoin College, strongly advocates for the separation of “professional schools” like law and medical school from undergraduate liberal arts arenas of education, which emphasize a different set of skills, disciplines and interests.
“Today, many students seem to be in enrolled in college in preparation for an ultimate career, not for the sake of acquiring a vast range of knowledge. Many years ago, however, American universities grew out of the spirit of [General Education] philosophies like Newman’s.”
USC is by no means the only university that struggles with the problem of General Education requirements. In a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni called “The Hollow Core,” published in April, the council reprimanded numerous American universities for neglecting to provide students an overall general education. The report assessed 50 colleges’ requirements for foundational classes in writing, literature, foreign language, American government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. Such elite universities as Yale and Harvard received D’s, Columbia received a C, as did USC. (Council, 3). The Council believes that universities which do not uphold such requirements are not providing their students a true General Education experience, instead depending too heavily on catering to the whims of the student body.
This argument is not without merit. Today, many students seem to be in enrolled in college in preparation for an ultimate career, not for the sake of acquiring a vast range of knowledge. Many years ago, however, American universities grew out of the spirit of philosophies like Newman’s. In one early 19th century university, students were required to take courses in mathematics, language arts (including grammar, logic, and rhetoric), physical sciences, geography, biological science, natural history, philosophy, religion, and history. (Thomas, 15). However, schools today have changed curriculum by “rightly responding to the dramatic changes in our world,” (Axner, 13). While such a shift can be positive, some colleges like Brown University have eliminated general education courses completely, and colleges like UCLA have no diversity requirement whatsoever. NYU, among other universities, only requires its students to take four General Education courses, and many public schools are cutting out their General Education courses to save costs.
Such trends cannot continue. The success of a liberal arts education, which requires extensive General Education requirements, prepares students for a changing world. Most people often change careers numerous times, and vocationalism or mere instruction will not prepare them for this eventuality. When faced with the realistic career requirements of a competitive, educated workforce, a student who knows how to think can take on any number of diverse vocations. Without extensive exposure to courses outside of his major, however, a student will know nothing besides what he has chosen to study.
“Most people often change careers numerous times, and vocationalism or mere instruction will not prepare them for this eventuality. When faced with the realistic career requirements of a competitive, educated workforce, a student who knows how to think can take on any number of diverse vocations.”
According to James O. Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Idealism and Liberal Education, the acquisition of diversified knowledge “is time-tested and provides a solid grounding for future pursuits,” (Freedman, 28). Freedman discusses his belief that liberal education prepares a student to be a good citizen and an entrepreneurial success by schooling them in the way of philosophy, not in mere fact memorization:
“Why is liberal education and general education so important? A liberal education acquaints students with the cultural achievements of the past and prepares them for the exigencies of an unforeseeable future…It fires their minds with new ideas – powerful and transcendent ideas that will trouble them, elevate them, and brace them for new endeavors,” (Freedman, 2).
Freedman believes that without general requirements, students will lapse into specificity, which is far less valuable than general study, and fails to lead young minds to probe the mysteries of the natural world.
In essence, USC’s undergraduate program has the right idea by requiring extensive general requirements of its students. However, changes must be made to keep students from experiencing Rautzen’s discomfort. Courses focused on specific or narrow subject matter should be eliminated as options for fulfilling the requirement, and a broader array of knowledge should be presented. Instead of picking from 91 diversity requirements, students should be able to pick from a set of five, taught by a vast cross section of professors that have studied “liberal” subject matter like political science or communications. This approach would ensure that, if all students are required to take the same subjects, there is a much higher likelihood of conversation and analysis amongst the student body. As Columbia professor David Helfand put it, “It’s inevitable that if you and your roommate are both reading Aeschylus at three in the morning, you’ll discuss it.” (Dubrow, 3).
“…[W]ith broader subject matter, there is a greater chance for a course to have broad-based appeal among a vast number of students. If a course involves the discussion, analyzation, and philosophy of one subject, a student might be more likely to become interested in some minor element of the subject – each could find something that appeals to him, or affects his daily life or major of study.”
In addition to the inevitable coinciding of varying subject matter, students in this proposed education system would enjoy the benefits of being able to digest the information as a group while studying their course material. Also, with broader subject matter, there stands a greater chance for a course to have broad-based appeal among a vast number of students. If a course involves the discussion, analyzation, and philosophy of one subject, a student might be more likely to become interested in some minor element of the subject – each could find something that appeals to him, or affects his daily life or major of study.
General Education classes would also benefit greatly from being broken up into smaller sizes. Universities should devote a large chunk of their budgets toward providing students with the chance to analyze and discuss their subject matter, as moderated by a professor. With increased possibility participation and discussion, a student is more likely to fully involve himself in the subject of study. This sort of engagement with the course will no doubt aid him in absorbing the material and, hopefully, in growing from the experience of taking the class. The University of Iowa’s required freshman rhetoric course, which integrates critical reading, writing, research, and speaking into a yearlong freshman class, achieves this objective. (Globe, 2). In Iowa’s system, students are rigorously grounded in critical thinking and content, foundations for a solid liberal arts education that can be applied in almost any course.
General education programs should also encourage students to study abroad for a period of time. This globalized theory of education, currently being championed at Harvard University, encourages the embrace of different experiences and different disciplines at an international level. Students at American universities are often far too sheltered, and a vast, philosophical liberal arts education would benefit from including cultures too often not reached by standard coursework: “A liberal education invites students to explore the ordeal of being human – the drama of discovering the darker side of the self; the responsibility of imposing meaning on one’s life and one’s society, the challenge of transcending the ambiguity-entangled counsel of arrogance and modesty, egotism and altruism, emotion and reason, opportunism and loyalty, individualism and conformity…an element only reached by life experiences.” (Freedman, 2). Because the cost of American university tuition has skyrocketed, costs of most study abroad programs are now equal to, or sometimes less than, costs of a regular stateside semester, a fact which makes studying abroad a more feasible option today than ever before.
“[A] globalized theory of education, currently being championed at Harvard University, encourages the embrace of different experiences and different disciplines at an international level. Students at American universities are often far too sheltered, and a vast, philosophical liberal arts education would benefit from including cultures too often not reached by standard coursework.”
USC administrators should also consider the formation of a committee that is vigilant in its review of the General Education system and in the satisfaction of the students. Courses should adhere to philosophy and education, not instruction, but they should also be relevant to a student’s experience of modern society and necessity once he embarks on careers in the professional world. “A program of general education is not general simply in the scope of its content,” wrote Russel Thomas, “it is general because the whole of the program has been planned with a view to problems that are of continuing concern to all students. It is therefore within the general interest of the faculty that the whole of the program shall be under the same continuous review that a department gives to a program of concentration.” (Thomas, 296).
General Education requirements at liberal arts universities are too often mistaken for mere roadblocks on the way to a degree. They should instead be viewed as useful, necessary, thought-provoking and interesting requirements on an undergraduate’s path to education. Competitive educational atmospheres have made many students take college as a route toward getting a job, not as an intellectually enriching experience, and that is unacceptable. Study of the depth and breadth of liberal arts should be the only way to produce a valuable and extensive education, and USC would be wise to follow the lead of elite universities like Harvard and Yale, which have undergone the first comprehensive reviews of their curriculums in decades. (Dubrow, 1).
Of course, students may complain and rally against requirements that seem to, at the surface, fail to pique their interest. But as Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow says, “requirements are essentially a matter of making the kids eat their broccoli.” It seems distasteful at first, but the rewards will no doubt make themselves apparent in the end.
About the Author:
Katherine Kirkpatrick is a junior majoring in print journalism and political science, hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently interning for a member of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, and hopes to one day enter the very broad field of law, journalism, or politics. Luckily, she is finished with her USC general education requirements.
American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The Hollow Core. April 26, 2004.
Axtell, James. What’s wrong-and right-with American higher education? The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2003, Volume 72, Number 2.
Boston Globe. A Rethinking at Harvard. April 28, 2004.
Dubrow, Rebecca Tuhus. Aeschylus or Swahili? The Village Voice. August 10, 2004. New York, NY.
Freedman, James O. Idealism and Liberal Education. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, 1996.
Newman, John Henry Cardinal. The Idea of a University.
Thomas, Russel. The Search for Common Learning, General Education 1800-1960. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York, 1962.
Interview with Amy Parish, professor of anthropology. October 20, 2004.
Interview with Alex Rautzen, student. October 23, 2004.
University of Southern California website. Primary university statement. Available here.