Annapolis Office of the President
“Whither the Future of Higher Education?”
Address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Christopher B. Nelson, President of St. John's College, Annapolis
March 11, 2010
It will not surprise anyone that I will offer a little different answer than my colleague from the University of Phoenix to the question of what we should expect of higher education in the coming years. Like him, I imagine many different futures for such a diverse group of institutions that constitute the whole of higher education. But I will restrict my remarks to one kind of education that will always have a future because it is timeless. I am speaking of a liberal education.
Very simply, my argument goes something like this: human beings are much the same in this century as in the last and in the many centuries before now. Thus, the best education for what it might mean to lead the best human life cannot have changed in its fundamentals all that much. The most complete form of education serves this purpose: to help us come to understand the human condition in order that we might make for ourselves lives worth living. As important as the world of work is to us, we don’t live in order to get a job, but we work in order to make it possible for us to live a good life.
So, my answer to the question: “Whither the future of higher education?” is that the future will always have room for an education in what it means to be human, irrespective of all the business modeling to find ways to “deliver” certain kinds of educational products to consumers. The education that is best for understanding our place in the world and making the best lives for ourselves must surely be tomorrow pretty much what it should be today. I wish to make the case that men and women have always deserved a liberal education, an education in the arts of freedom, in order to accomplish their highest purposes and in order to achieve their greatest happiness. Freedom of the mind allows us to exercise the choices we have with care and deliberation, without the shackles of popular opinion and fad, without fear of the unknown, without slavish adherence to the will of others, and without the tyranny of our own ignorance. A study of the liberal arts, I will argue, will be the best way to such a liberal education, and that a liberal education for the next century will look a lot like it does today because such an education is timeless and most fitting for the human condition.
Let us remember that everyone is a liberal artist, whether or not he or she is formally educated, because all men and women exercise their reason, however little evident this may be from time to time. Robert Maynard Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago, put it well when he said:
“The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.”
Let me put the question in an historical context. Consider that the earliest of recorded history dates back only a few thousand years.
We frequently look to Homer as a progenitor of our literature. We understand that The Iliad may have been set to writing in the 7th to 8th century BC, or some 2700 years ago. And yet we still look to it for some of our greatest of literary examples of honor and glory in battle, statecraft and leadership, heroism and cowardice, the effects of rage in war and within a community of would-be friends, and the pain suffered and fury released over the loss of a friend. These examples are as familiar to each of us as if we witnessed them today.
Consider the Books of Moses. We hear that Genesis may date back between 2700 and 3000 years, but it contains a story of origins that is contemporary to the ears of many today and speaks to the relationship between the natural and the divine. The book gives us examples of love and betrayal, sibling rivalries, men’s and women’s relationship to the Almighty, and their duties to fellow human beings, all of which raise questions that have a remarkably contemporary sound to them.
Or look at the Book of Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian epic which was said to have been reduced to stone tablets some 2700 years ago. It tells a tale of heroism, the foundations of friendship, the pain of loss, and man’s desire for immortality, his attempts to achieve it, and his lesson in humility at the impossibility of defeating death. What about our basic humanity has changed in these many years?
So looking at a few different civilizations, we imagine that recorded history is less than 3000 years old. Consider that Harvard has been around for nearly 400 years, or roughly one-eighth the full length of recorded history. Or look at St. John’s College, which traces its origins to 1696 and has been around for more than 10% of recorded history. Better yet, consider our own meager lives. I am in my sixties, and have already lived more than 2% of the length of all of recorded history. It’s stunning to imagine the relative youth of our race! I have a grandson who has lived approximately 2% of the length of my life. I think of my grandchild and me as occupying the same world and having a common foundation for asking what it means to be human. And yet my life is in same proportion to the life of the whole of the human race in recorded time as the length of my grandson’s life is to mine.
Well, I’ve had my fun, while making a point. I would never demean the progress made over the centuries, though there have been great regressions too. Sophistication and understanding in the arts and sciences have blossomed and flourished in recent centuries and in more recent decades. Democratic forms of government have taken hold only in the last two hundred years or so. Mankind’s material productivity has grown astonishingly, and every day there are new discoveries and new paths of learning that have opened up to us. The world grows more and more complicated, and it becomes harder and harder to comprehend even a small piece of it.
Nonetheless, even in these times, any proper course of instruction in the liberal arts, the arts of freedom, should be designed to give us the tools to ask the question “Who am I?” The invocation here is the same as the words at the entrance to the temple of Delphi, consulted by Socrates in his youth: “Know Thyself.” It presumes that the question “Who am I?” is a real one, and that we ourselves have not answered it. It presumes that the stakes are high, that our happiness depends upon our investigation into this question. It suggests that coming to know oneself is a high and sacred duty, a task of monumental difficulty, requiring courage, and worthy of being called “heroic”, as Socrates is called by many of our students at St. John’s. And it suggests that the ways our students will choose to live their lives after they leave our colleges may depend on how they go about answering for themselves the question: “Who am I?” This is not a question left to any one or two or even three of the so-called “disciplines” in our universities; it belongs to them all.
Consider the texts our students might study together in mathematics and science, in the humanities and the political disciplines, in the study of things divine or eternal. All of these books in any of their courses should help our students consider some aspect of the question: Who am I, and what is my place in the world? Am I merely a featherless biped or a rational being, a lover of wisdom, a political animal, a son of Adam, a child of God, a collection of molecules and a product of genes, an evolved kind of ape, an acquisitive animal, a noble savage with a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, but still created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights? Those are just a few of the possible answers our students might consider from their studies over the course of four years in a college committed to liberal education.
As much as we speak about the good of a liberal education for the sake of the individual, our liberal arts colleges also serve the public good. We do this by helping to bring thoughtful adults into the world — adults who are free to think for themselves and free to choose paths of action they consider to be best rather than those that are easiest or most popular. This brings me to the question of public policy. Should we as a nation care whether a liberal education is available to the citizens of tomorrow? I think that the answer is ‘Yes’, but let me state the argument in a nutshell:
Our nation’s foundation rests upon the principle of the intellectual freedom of each of its citizens; its political, economic, moral and spiritual freedoms are all derived from this intellectual freedom, and its political, economic, moral and spiritual strength depends upon it. We are a nation built upon a respect for the individual and a trust that our citizens are capable of self-government.
For the sake of our country, we therefore need our citizens to have an education in our democratic traditions and foundations, as well as in the arts needed to question and examine those very foundations so that we may keep them vibrant and alive for us against attack or atrophy. There is a real tension between these two goods. The traditions, customs and laws of the nation are at times at odds with the very things that encourage the autonomy of the individual citizen who might question them. This tension is healthy in a free republic.
A college education that will strengthen this tension will serve this nation well because it will help us educate independent and self-sufficient citizens who will be fit for the freedom they enjoy in our country. Providing the access and opportunity to as many as possible to undertake such an education will serve that public interest.
If we prize the individual in our society and value the ways an individual may become self-sufficient, we also ought to support the many and various means our colleges employ to help their students become independent and strong. In the end, the independence of our citizenry will strengthen our nation. Education in the arts of freedom and self-sufficiency make the promise of America possible.
You will note that I have not stated that a first principle of public policy ought to be global competitiveness in the marketplace, or financial supremacy, or military superiority, or international leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These things will follow upon any sound investment in the broader public policy I have mentioned. They are all good things, but they require that we acknowledge first the source of our historic strength in these areas, and that this strength comes from our commitment to a liberal education, which is prior to an education in work force development.
The human mind, like the human being, is not compartmentalized into humanities, arts and sciences, or into specialties either. We may have left and right sides of the brain, but we think with a whole mind. We should thus have concern for all of the humanities. The study of the humanities properly conceived is about the whole human project, and it crosses all those artificial, disciplinary boundaries, including mathematics, the sciences and the arts. The work of our colleges and universities ought to recognize the whole of their study and not just the parts. Our students should be asking what it means to be human in all of its many forms and should be studying both the whole and its parts for some period of their undergraduate education, before they pursue a necessary area of particular concern requiring special expertise. These questions belong to us in our liberal arts colleges and universities. We are or should be taking some responsibility for seeing that these deeply human questions have a place somewhere in our classrooms and on our campuses.
What then would a plan of education look like that would attempt such a project? I will give you just one such plan that I know something about, the plan of instruction for all of our students at St. John’s College, a plan that bears the simple name “The Program”. We prescribe a single course of instruction for the would-be liberal artist. Where others have shopping malls for universities, the students are customers, the customers are always right, and the shoppers select from among countless offerings, purchasing the course load they want, we at St. John's have said that we think we know better than the typical 18-year-old freshmen what a good education is, and we refuse to flatter them and pretend that they know more than they do about what is best for their education. We can imagine that other faculties will make other curricular choices, but they should not give over their responsibility to design a strong curriculum for students who have yet to begin a college experience.
Our students have four years of a language tutorial in which they study ancient Greek, modern French, and English and American poetry. They have four years of mathematics in which they do together the proofs and demonstrations of Euclid (who first organized plane geometry into a system) and Lobachevski (who wrote the first non-Euclidean geometry text); they read Aristotle (who wrote an early book on time and place) and Einstein (who helped us think about time and space in entirely new ways); they study the motions of the heavens from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Newton and beyond. They do three years of laboratory science, in which they first look at the world about them and ask what they are seeing; they study chemistry and biology and ask what the organizing principles are of matter and of life, before proceeding to the study of classical mechanics with Newton, quantum mechanics with Heisenberg, and the tools and texts of modern biology from Darwin to Watson and Crick, and experiments in recombinant genetics. They sing and learn the elements of music in order to be able to understand the principles behind, and listen intelligently to, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and in order to grasp the power of music in communicating what a text alone cannot.
Yet, all of this classroom activity revolves around the centrality of the four-year seminar, in which the students read in roughly chronological order the books we are best known to read, from Homer and Virgil to Chaucer and Shakespeare, from Cervantes and Milton to Austen and Eliot, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Woolf and Conrad; from Plato to Aristotle and Descartes to Kant; from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to Augustine, Aquinas and Spinoza; from Herodotus to Thucydides to Tacitus to Hegel; from Hobbes and Rousseau to Lincoln and Douglass.
Every subject is required of everyone, and all of it is difficult. We don't pretend to teach anyone how to think, but we give our students many occasions for exercising thought. The more it's done, the better it's done.
We defend the search for truth, or at least avoid foreclosing the possibility of truth. We don’t have to have the truth to believe it is there, or to have some sense that one thing is better than another for a good reason. For learning to take hold, the student must find some way to make the lesson his or her own. To make it one’s own requires that something be at stake for the student. The student is driven then to ask, not just what something means, but whether it makes any difference what something means (i.e., whether it is true or not).
We direct our students not to contemporary ills and the conflicting prescriptions for treating those ills, but to the fundamental texts that help us consider the human condition at its best and at its worst. We try to read the best books for all ages rather than those now in vogue. We think our students should consider the ideal before they pass over to the imperfect and the broken. Thus, they ask what is good and beautiful and what is worthy of their love before they look at the fallen images of these things.
We promote the desire to learn over the mania to test performance; success in passing tests will follow the former as night does the day. Therefore, we construct an academic program that encourages the desire to learn for its own sake rather than for the sake of the grade. This requires that we give attention both to the quality of the materials we use to teach from and our ways of giving them life in the classroom. We assign to our students matter that will be worthy of their love. After all, it is love that moves us to the good in this world, including all the good that can be learned. Thus, our chief criterion for selection into the community is the desire to learn. If you have it, you can probably learn and help others learn too. Our students are a self-selected community of presumptive equals.
We think that a college is a republic in miniature, a community in which the common good is considered and balanced with the individual needs. We select our books as a community of teachers, whom we call ‘tutors’; the selection criteria that guide us consider what is best for our students to be reading together. Our tutors teach across the entire curriculum so that they can properly serve as model learners for our students, and so that any one of them can engage with any one of our students in a discussion about any aspect of their communal learning. When we have differences of opinion about what we should be doing, we exercise reasoned discourse rather than power politics.
We encourage in our students the freedom to be at leisure. Freedom requires that students have some time to look at, contemplate, and talk about fundamental questions. This requires that they get some break from the practical pressures, even from paid work, if possible. School is “time out” to study; it’s not just another job, another test, more work. We try hard to avoid loading our students with more and more work, which would mean giving them less and less time for “leisure” in its highest sense.
We encourage all opportunities for learning together: faculty, students, and staff. Learning is a social activity and a cooperative art. We thus support any number of ways to come together on and off campus to pursue learning together. We try to treat all community members - students, faculty and staff - as ends in themselves, not simply as means to our institutional purposes. This is impractical at its limit, but is nonetheless a worthy object of pursuit.
We refuse to use the language of the marketplace. Our program of instruction is not a delivery system; our students are not consumers; and a liberal education is not a product that can be bartered, going to the highest bidder. Socrates had it right when he reminded us that the power of learning is in the soul of each of us and cannot be put into us just as one cannot put sight into blind eyes. Learning actually requires commitment and effort on the part of the student as well as on the part of the school, which is a far more complicated activity than the purchase of goods at the mall.
We are sometimes asked whether we aren't elitist. One former dean's answer to that was, "We are small, but we are about as exclusive as a pick-up baseball game. If you have a glove, want to play and make an effort, you belong." It's a particularly good image because it suggests something that is very all-American. We are a model of an American institution in at least two respects:
◊ First, democratic participation is our primary mode in the classroom. Our students are responsible for participating in their classes, all of them in the same way. They must all read the books, and then they must learn to listen to the authors, listen to their classmates' contributions, and listen to themselves speaking. They have equal responsibilities, equal rights and equal opportunities to learn according to their abilities, their desire and their preparedness for class.
◊ Second, all of our students read, and read critically, the principal documents that define our American democracy: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the great speeches of Washington and Lincoln, and certain key Supreme Court decisions.
Our students must practice the intellectual virtues to succeed at St. John's: courage in the face of the unknown and the difficult, industry and persistence in preparing for class, and candor about their shortcomings.
I have been asked by some of my older friends why we would waste such an education on the young. My answer is that we are prone to expect too little of our young. The sooner we recognize that students learn more when more is expected of them, that students achieve more when the bar is set higher, the sooner our plan for education in this country will improve to meet the needs of our citizens rather than simply cater to their desires.
This is a program suitable for today and well into the next millennium, with adjustments along the way to account for what we will learn from our experience with the Program and for the new and enduring discoveries, productions, ideas, and works that will help us better understand the world we live in, all for the purpose of preparing our students to live and flourish in the world they will be inheriting.
I owe a debt of gratitude to our former dean, Miss Eva Brann, for the felicity of expression used in much of this last description of the college.