The Liberal Arts as Pedagogy

Mary Halavais
Arthur Warmoth
Sonoma State University

Historically, in the United States, there has always been a tension in higher education between the education of the person and the achievement of more specific, pragmatically defined objectives. The idea of the university, at least in Western European historian, began around 1200 A.D. Initially there were two models for what a university was. Italian universities, particularly the University of Bologna, exemplified the first model, that of a student-run institution. Students decided what courses were taught, what faculty were hired, and how much they were paid. In the second model, faculty, instead of students, made these kinds of decisions. Thus, at the University of Paris, for example, where Thomas Aquinas, among others, taught, faculty, in addition to teaching, also managed the university, deciding among themselves what would be taught and who would teach it. This second model, filtered through the lenses of Oxbridge, of Scottish philosophy and New England Puritan theology, became the American liberal arts college, with its continuing emphasis on molding the character of the leaders of the community and the nation.

However, in the United States, another model also developed, with a nod in the direction of the 19th century German research university. The Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 set aside land "out there," on the frontier, for schools which would teach useful information -- agronomy, engineering and so on. The CSU system owes a great deal to this model. There was even a model, proposed in the late 19th century by an academic, Thorstein Veblen, which suggested that the university could be seen as a business entity, a training school to prepare young men for business, run as if it were a business itself. Veblen himself didn’t seem to think much of this model for the university, and I think that most of us would agree with him.

Liberal arts colleges in the United States have traditionally tipped the balance in favor of educating the whole person. Character building was viewed as equal in importance to intellectual development in a liberal arts education. The core of the liberal arts experience is a commitment to the excitement of learning. This requires faculty who are passionate about their own learning and committed to eliciting a similar passion in their students. The key liberal arts pedagogy is the seminar, an educational setting in which faculty can serve as role models for intellectual curiosity and scholarly discipline. However, liberal arts colleges have also recognized informal contacts, extracurricular activities and dormitory bull sessions as an integral part of the college experience. Harvard investigator William Perry's 1970 effort to assess the cognitive development of college students addressed both intellectual and ethical development. Important aspects of the liberal arts experience include values clarification, integrity, self-awareness and self-direction, empathy and compassion, and democratic tolerance and inclusion.

Sonoma State's core mission and the commitment of the faculty is to a liberal arts education. Many faculty are committed to their own learning in a disciplinary context, some are committed to interdisciplinary learning. All are committed to initiating their students into the excitement of higher learning, an excitement that is most effectively nurtured in seminars and through mentoring. Therefore, in addition to thinking about who we are as a university, we need to think about what we do. This is not as simple a question as it seems at first, particularly in an age of new technologies. A part of education is transmitting information, but increasingly, technology makes information directly and immediately accessible for our students. Does this mean that the university of the future will need fewer teachers? Not at all. There is a difference between information and understanding.

The university is, after all, about teaching. And teaching will remain at the heart of the university that is about encouraging understanding and insight, rather than simply conveying information. Each of us has experienced that moment -- the sudden spark in a student’s eye, the smile when all of the numbers add up and make sense, when the equation balances perfectly -- that joy that is visible when a student "gets it." That sudden insight, that gift of understanding, is, in the end, the reason we all teach, and it is something that does not happen in large lecture halls.

This does not negate the value of lectures or media. Lectures, films, videos, and well-designed web-based experiences can be inspiring. But there is a core of faculty-student interaction that cannot be dispensed with. It is incumbent on the university as a whole and each department within it to define this indispensable core and to defend it as a non-negotiable foundation of the curriculum. If we can define and agree upon this core, there are two complementary concepts that also need to be examined: adaptation and investment.

Adaptation. While affirming the perennial value of a liberal arts education, the university and its departments must also be responsive to the technological and social changes taking place around us. The university has a central role to play in helping society at large adapt to those changes. This means that we are called to educate not only our students but also the community we serve. (This latter is particularly important for the CSU as a consortium of regional universities.) We need to be willing to make the best possible educational use of new technologies, but we must also be prepared to explore the pitfalls inherent in an uncritical fascination with technological potential. We need to be responsive to the social, political, and economic needs of our region and of our state, nation, and evolving global society. But our most effective response is to be found in our passionate desire to learn more about these needs and how society can respond to them most effectively.

Investment. We also need to be mindful of the economic imperative that change requires investment. An enormous investment is currently being made in communication and information processing technology. Contemporary society urgently needs to figure out how to invest in the social infrastructure that is necessary to adapt to the intended and unintended consequences of that technological investment. We need to explore this issue intellectually, in terms of developing more sophisticated insights into the developing economy at both the local and global levels. But we also need to insist that the university recognize the centrality of investment in its financial planning and budgeting processes. And we need to model -- for our students and for society -- a principled refusal to acquiesce in the exploitation that follows the failure to recognize this basic principle of capitalism.

Unfortunately for the current chancellor, most of the faculty are principled idealists. (Faculty's resistance to the FMI program is a moral, not an economic, issue. That is why it is so difficult for many administrators to understand.) We are therefore more willing than many to take advantage of what John Kenneth Galbraith has referred to as the constitutionally guaranteed right to entrepreneurial self-exploitation. We are used to investing in curricular innovation and mentoring students "out of our hides," as the saying goes. However, the investment that is required to adapt to the changes precipitated by the information revolution and the new global economy is on a scale that cannot be accommodated by the self-sacrifice of the faculty. We see too many consequences of the effort to do this in the many stress related illnesses of our colleagues. Self-exploitation is inadequate to the task at hand, and the attempt on the part of the administration to demand and cajole self-exploitation, whether through the FMI program or other forms of speed-up, is immoral.

The university is called to defend the honorable tradition of liberal arts education and to promote the passionate and free inquiry that is the only adequate response to the information society. The faculty must also insist on economic sophistication and realism, on the part of the administration and of the body politic, in facing up to the scale of investment in human infrastructure that the developing economy demands. And we must be willing to model for our students a principled opposition to economic exploitation, whether of ourselves, of our students, or of any group of workers in our democratic society.


  • Reference

    Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.