Liberal views on education

One of the most fundamental and distinctive aspects of the American approach to undergraduate education is the priority given to making sure that students receive a broad “liberal education.” What this phrase means has nothing to do with “liberal politics”; instead, it is a theory of education that holds that the undergraduate student needs to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives from all the liberal arts: the humanities, history, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences. The student is required to take a broad range of courses that provide exposure in all of these areas. He or she also has a major subject – an area of greater specialization; but the course work in the major discipline is usually only about twenty-five percent of all courses. So the American system usually emphasizes breadth as an important academic value, and specialization in a discipline (biology, sociology, literature) receives somewhat lower priority. Even engineering education – traditionally a fairly specialized curriculum – requires significant exposure to courses in the humanities and social sciences. (Martha Nussbaum has written a very important book justifying this approach, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.)

What are the reasons for this educational philosophy? What advantages does it offer in helping to develop the intellectual capabilities of the student? Other national systems of higher education place the balance somewhat differently. For example, in France and Germany it is expected that university students will have received a broad education in secondary schooling, and that the university is a place for specialized education in a discipline. However, American educators have multiple reasons for thinking that a broad general education is a crucial component within the process of intellectual maturation and development that is the goal of an undergraduate education. These reasons fall in several categories: preparing young adults for thinking innovatively and imaginatively; helping young adults to recognize the historical and social context of the problems and processes they study; helping students to deal with moral and political issues in a thoughtful and critical way; helping young people to recognize the value of racial and ethnic diversity within a modern society; building a foundation for deep interdisciplinary work and study at later stages; and cultivating the skills of independent critical thinking.

Imagination and innovation. Most people would agree that the challenges of the twenty-first century, whether in China, Brazil, or North America, will require new ideas and innovative approaches. This is true in business; creating new products and solutions requires great creativity. But it is true in social and political life as well; the social challenges all modern societies face cannot be resolved by simply applying “off-the-shelf” solutions. So cultivating an ability of young people to think with originality and creativity is a major priority for educational systems in every country. And a broad liberal education is very well suited to developing these features of thought. When a student has struggled to provide interpretations of a difficult poem, or to understand the cultural practices of modern Navajo people in the American southwest, or to genuinely comprehend the theory of natural selection that Darwin proposed – the student will have created for himself or herself a set of mental skills that would not have developed if her education were restricted to a single discipline and its methods. Too much “paradigm dependence” discourages creativity.

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