This fall, after a year’s hiatus, Columbia College will welcome a new entering class to campus. Within hours of their arrival, the new students, numbering almost 1,300, will gather together under the same roof for the first time. There, they will begin their Columbia education with a lecture on the mammoth poem that launched Western literature: Homer’s Iliad. For many of them, as was the case for me when I underwent the ritual thirty years ago, their encounter with the Iliad will commingle with the effort to make sense of their new life as college students: “Sing goddess, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians.”
If I had to summarize the Iliad in a single word, I would venture the word “mortality.” The hero of the poem, Achilles, lives and fights under the shadow of a dilemma. He must choose between two destinies decreed by fate at his birth: either to live a long and uneventful life, or to die young and gloriously, with generations after him singing of his great feats and undergraduates writing innumerable papers about him. But Achilles can’t make up his mind. It’s a startlingly hard question, and being confronted with it is not a bad way to begin your college education. After the Iliad, Columbia students move on to the Odyssey, in which, among many other curious incidents, they encounter Achilles in the afterlife reflecting on the choices he made outside the walls of Troy.
This baptism in the Homeric epics kicks off an intellectual tour de force that has come to define the Columbia undergraduate experience: the Core Curriculum. In the mid-1930s, the College began requiring that all students complete a yearlong sequence in Western literary classics, later integrating similar sequences in music, art and social thought. The “Great Books” approach to general education garnered early evangelists who took it far and wide—most immediately to the University of Chicago, and from there to St. John’s College in Annapolis and beyond.
From its early colonial beginnings, the American college—and later the American bachelor’s degree—has been characterized by an emphasis on liberal or general education. To this day, most American undergraduate degrees require substantial coursework outside a student’s major or professional track, typically in the humanities and the social sciences. Most American colleges, and not just the ones that call themselves “liberal arts colleges,” have maintained the liberal arts tradition in the form of general education requirements. But the anodyne blandness of the term “general education” should not distract us from its critical place in the curriculum. Because it focuses on what is presumed essential for all students, general education forces a question that most institutions today would probably rather avoid: What should all students learn? General education programs, more than anything one can find in a school’s promotional literature, tell the actual story of what an institution thinks a college education is ultimately about.
At Columbia, the required Core Curriculum—weighted toward the past and toward “dead white males”—immediately invites questions about inclusivity, diversity and representation. In my ten years as director of the program, I faced these questions continually—from students who did not see themselves represented among the authors they studied, from faculty who had been trained to suspect “the Western canon” and from outsiders who wondered how so unfashionable a program manages to thrive in a major research university. As a student, I asked those questions myself, perhaps with a slightly different flavoring of concerns. As a faculty member, I continue to ask them. Indeed, debates about exclusion, domination and representation in the Core Curriculum are integral, rather than a distraction from, the liberal education the Core delivers, and the questions become explicit as the chronological syllabus takes us into the nineteenth, twentieth and 21st centuries and issues like gender, race, colonialism and intersectionality come to the fore. The threat to the Core comes not from that debate, but from those who decide, either out of boredom or exhaustion, that the debate is no longer worth having.
The American college stands suspended between the tutelage of high school and the specialization of graduate and professional schools. “What should students learn?” is its perennial question. Reformers have eyed its dissolution for a long time, conceiving the proper business of the university to be, on the one hand, the advancement of new knowledge and, on the other, the training of professionals. The traditional emphasis of liberal education on the open-ended cultivation of young people to live productive lives of no specified character has always been at odds with the materialistic, pragmatic and entrepreneurial thrust of American culture.
With the rise of the American research university in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely modeled on its German counterpart, it is something of a miracle that colleges survived, even if sometimes marginalized within the universities that share their names. In 1889, Columbia President A. P. Barnard proposed that the college be eliminated, though the measure failed before the trustees.1 At about the same time, Harvard historian Edward Channing pressed President Charles W. Eliot to “suppress” Harvard College or move it “out into the country where it would not interfere with the proper work of the University.” In his 1929 inauguration address, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins acknowledged that “members of the Faculty have urged that we withdraw from undergraduate work, or at least the first two years of it.” Johns Hopkins, established in 1876 and often recognized as the first full-blown American research university, was initially conceived without an undergraduate college at all.
But the college idea has proved hard to kill. In his penetrating account of the history and meaning of the American college, Andrew Delbanco invokes a diary entry by a student at a small Methodist college in southwest Virginia in 1850 that helps explain the appeal and endurance of the college idea:
One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal. “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.” That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today … yet I have never encountered a better formulation—“show me how to think and how to choose”—of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.
What Delbanco describes is a far cry from the vision recently articulated by Miles Davis, the embattled president of the once proudly liberal-arts-oriented Linfield College, now Linfield University. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the university leader declared that “the age in which we were able to offer education for the sake of inquiry has passed. It’s passed because we priced ourselves out of that market … people want a return on their investment.” In seeking to present college as a value proposition—a financial investment worth making—Davis probably speaks for many college leaders and university trustees who are grappling with the breakdown of the tuition-driven business model under which many small colleges have survived. At Linfield and across the nation, the pressure is on to replace liberal education with career education: English and history with business and nursing. The pressure is real, and those of us who believe in liberal education have to come to terms with that reality and do better than simply denounce the neoliberal takeover of higher education.
One way to respond to the changing cultural landscape and expectations about college is to reinvigorate general education. For decades, general education has been neglected and relegated to a secondary status, with disciplinary and departmental priorities taking precedence. The organization of the university into disciplinary pigeonholes, with corresponding budget and faculty lines, has made general education an ad-hoc venture, patched together from disparate elements and retrofitted to meet the requirements of various accreditation agencies. For the typical professor at a top university, undergraduate general education is a kind of professional backwater, a form of “service” with little to negative value in the ladder of professional advancement. Specialized research and discipline-specific teaching shapes the academic profession, even at colleges whose mission and identity are bound up in the liberal arts ideal.
For students, too, general education can take on a dutiful quality, with most colleges and universities organizing a checklist of distribution requirements—mandating that students take a given number of courses in various academic disciplines and modes of inquiry. While Columbia-style core curricula with common readings and intellectual experiences were once common, today they stand as exceptions to a general fragmentation of the curriculum. While often presented as a principled embrace of student choice and “diversity” in curricula, the real reasons have more to do with the administrative structure of the university and with the incentives that shape the academic profession. At most institutions, faculty and administrators have concluded that general education curricula are not worth the trouble. This means that few schools make an effort to present students with a deliberate educational program that takes seriously the question “What should all students learn and what is the best way to teach it?”
The questions, and the controversies, over what students should learn are as old as schooling itself. One straightforward answer often proposed is that students should simply learn what is “useful.” A less straightforward answer is that students should be taught to ask, “useful for what?” The first answer gives us an applied approach; the second, a liberal one. At least since the time when René Descartes “completely abandoned the study of letters,” in favor of “reflection … that I was able to derive some profit from,” the applied approach has been ascendant in university education.
One of the mechanisms by which today’s colleges have repackaged their discipline-specific course offerings into “programs in general education” is by shifting the focus of requirements away from content and toward skills-based “learning outcomes”—shifting their focus, that is, from things to know to ways of knowing, from knowledge to competencies. This epistemological “mission drift” brings the added benefit of allowing institutions to sidestep the difficult and contentious questions of what an educated person should know, or to articulate any hierarchy among the things that are worth knowing.
But approaching college education in purely instrumental terms has never, and can never, address the underlying concern of liberal education, a concern artfully expressed by the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: “The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.” In a similar vein, Aristotle wrote in the Politics that “a complete community … comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.” Aristotle’s point is crucial to understanding the purpose of liberal education: beyond the material requirements of a comfortable existence, human flourishing involves the development of nonutilitarian capacities that are an indispensable part of a full life. Once safety and sustenance are reasonably assured, the questions of living shift fundamentally and we begin to concern ourselves not just with survival but with existence. How do we live well? What kind of knowledge best guides life? What are the sources of human fulfillment and meaning? What is the good of beings constituted as we are?
But do these kinds of questions belong in a college education? And if they do, how can one approach them in an intellectually rigorous way? That they belong in a complete education has been understood for as long as there have been institutions dedicated to the education of the young. In the Politics, Aristotle puts it this way: “It is evident, then, that there is a certain kind of education that children must be given not because it is useful or necessary but because it is noble and suitable for a free person.” Some centuries later, Cicero would insist, “The search for truth and its investigation are, above all, peculiar to man. Therefore, whenever we are free from necessary business and other concerns we are eager to see or to hear or to learn, considering that the discovery of obscure or wonderful things is necessary for a blessed life.”
A liberal education is a structured exercise in “the discovery of obscure or wonderful things,” not because they are useful, but because they satisfy our thirst for wonder and self-knowledge. Jesus pointed in the same direction by asking, “Is not life more than meat and the body more than raiment?” Closer to us, W. E. B. Du Bois linked the insight to higher education: “The true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”
But the question remains, beyond these inspiring formulas, what should students learn in a college curriculum? The issue is easier to answer in the academic disciplines. Disciplines have characteristic methodologies, founding questions, histories and lineages of scholarship that give them recognizable, if sometimes fuzzy, contours. Yet even within disciplines, defining just what, say, the undergraduate major should consist of, can be a contentious undertaking. When we extend the question to a general education curriculum, the issue becomes vastly more complex. General education is not confined to competency in a circumscribed field of knowledge, but concerns itself with cultivating the whole range of human capacities that make a life most worth living.
What curricular approach can best achieve this lofty aim? The best answer I know revolves around the study of what is sometimes called “Great Books.” Other names have been used: classics, core texts, foundational texts, transformative texts, masterpieces, the canon, or—as in the name of a precursor to Columbia’s Literature Humanities course—“important books.”
Before one even finishes listing these appellations the question arises: What constitutes such a book? And who decides? To my eye, no one has done better for a workable definition than John Erskine, who faced the question when designing Columbia’s first Great Books course. Erskine immediately discovered “that the faculty could not define a great book; at least they couldn’t agree on a definition.” The impasse nearly scuttled his whole plan. The Committee on Instruction, “worn out by futile talk,” ultimately returned the task to Erskine himself, who drew up a list of about 75 books, guided by the remarkably ecumenical principle that “a great book is one that has meaning and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.” We may not want to follow this definition as far as its logical corollary that in order to be “great” a writer must be dead. But the definition captures something essential: “Great Books” have a demonstrated capacity to speak to many different kinds of people in many different historical circumstances. Such books can only do so by reaching for some common base of humanity that transcends the conditions of their own creation. What makes, for example, Toni Morrison a great writer is not her rootedness in the Black American experience but her ability to make that reality accessible to her readers regardless of their connection to the experience.
More important than a definitive criterion for “greatness” in a book is the process of forging a working consensus within a faculty about what books and works from the past are most conducive to the general education of undergraduates. A historically Black college or university might arrive at a different set of works than a Catholic university, or a STEM-focused state university, or a Hispanic-serving community college. There is no final list of “Great Books,” but there is also no shortage of works that illuminate our common humanity and inspire reflection about fundamental human concerns. Shared encounters with great works is a time-tested way of delivering the kind of transformative education that college, at its best, is capable of.
Revitalizing general education is, in my view, the most effective response institutions can make to the fragmentation of the undergraduate curriculum, the declining student interest in the liberal arts, and the growing pressure within and without the academy for career education. The way forward is not better marketing of liberal arts majors but strengthening liberal education as the basis of all majors. Liberal education should not be offered primarily as an alternative to technical, vocational or professional training, but as its indispensable foundation.
The success of Purdue University’s Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program is a case in point. Built around a two-semester sequence for first-year students in which they read, in chronological order, “transformative texts” from antiquity to the present, the program has reinvigorated the humanities at Purdue, attracting large numbers of STEM students as well as faculty from across the humanities and social sciences. Students can go on to earn a certificate in liberal arts by following the first-year sequence with thematically arranged courses that extend humanistic thinking into fields like engineering, technology and the health sciences. Inspired by the success of the Cornerstone program, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Teagle Foundation have launched an initiative that aims to “reinvigorate the role of the humanities in general education” through “shared experiences with transformative texts.”
Beyond the common study of texts of major cultural significance, two other curricular considerations should go into designing robust general education programs: first, a commitment to small, discussion-driven seminars where the professor acts not as an expert but as a guide in a conversation in which students grapple with questions of deep and enduring human significance and, secondly, moving away from general education as introductions to academic disciplines and instead creating courses that explore the questions and problems from which the disciplines arise.
To summarize, there are four curricular commitments that can serve as a basis for reinvigorating undergraduate general education: (1) uniform required courses that are (2) taught as small, discussion-based seminars by (3) an interdisciplinary faculty with nondisciplinary content and (4) based on the study of primary texts. Together, these four commitments embody an old-fashioned idea about college education that has proved persistent not only in the face of the twentieth-century ascendancy of the research university, but also through the political, scholarly and institutional upheavals of the last four decades. This idea maintains that the business of college is not only to feed the intellect but to enrich the inner life of the student; it is not only to fit the student for economic activity, but to prepare him or her to live a life of emotional and intellectual integrity, of self-examination and of critical engagement with the larger world. In addition to pondering the dilemmas of being human as the Columbia students do through the Iliad, this means that every college student should reach graduation with a concrete sense of the historical development of the institutions, aesthetic idioms and ethical norms that underpin contemporary life. And this task is most directly the charge of general education.
This conception of the college, of course, has its roots in a time and a social order that excluded the vast majority of people from its high-minded pursuit of culture—culture in its original sense, of the deliberate cultivation of human excellence. The process by which access to this kind of education, at least in America, was expanded to larger and larger segments of the population, has gone into reverse. We stand at a critical moment for the future of mass higher education. To the extent that colleges see themselves as businesses in which success is defined by revenue, growth and the average income of its graduates, they betray the idea of liberal education and put it further beyond the reach of non-elites. Wealthy families will continue to seek—and pay for—exclusive and artisanal liberal education, with vocational, technical and preprofessional education, perhaps free and online, made available to those less privileged. This is the tragic bifurcation into which we are in danger of falling, or perhaps have already fallen.
It is an open question whether we, as a society, can recommit to the idea of liberal education for all. Those of us who work in academia cannot determine or control the large-scale forces that, like tectonic plates, are reshaping our society. But we can, within our sphere of influence, reinvigorate the liberal idea in higher education. Doing so is perhaps the most important contribution we can make to our collective future.
Art credit: Matthew Simmonds, Tetraconch, marble, 31 cm, 2015; Mystras, carrera marble, 39 cm, 2020