A Slippery Slope

by Conor Dugan | 11/18/99 6:00am

What are the ends of a liberal arts education? This is a good question. The term is bandied around by Dartmouth and other schools of like character. However, I wonder if these schools have paused to contemplate the actual definition of a liberal arts education. Dartmouth's mission statement states that Dartmouth "combines the best features of the undergraduate liberal arts college with those of the research university." Nowhere within the statement do we find a definition of a liberal arts education. It does state that Dartmouth is a "vital learning environment rooted in the liberal arts tradition" and that this environment "depends upon: a faculty dedicated to outstanding teaching, scholarship, and research; a talented, highly motivated, and intellectually curious student body; and a staff committed to the institution and its purposes." In this column I propose to argue that Dartmouth is not imparting a liberals arts education to its students and then to propose a possible manner in which it could remedy this situation.

To begin this discussion let me first offer a definition of what a liberal arts education is. I realize that in defining something one is already in sense shutting himself from certain answers. Mine is simply one possible answer. However, I believe it is consonant with traditional definitions of the liberal arts. A liberal arts education is an education which imparts to students a solid, comprehensive, and integrated foundation of knowledge so that they may engage the world on the pertinent questions of the day and also the perennial questions of history.

A liberal arts education presents the answers man has given within the different disciplines (literature, philosophy, politics, theology, and history) to the ancient questions of existence and ethics. These answers are given not as the definitive answer on these questions but as foundations from which to explore new avenues of thought.

What then is the Dartmouth situation? I have reflected on this over my years here at Dartmouth. The most telling fact is this: Dartmouth only requires its students to study one philosophy, history, or religion course. It does not require one of each or even two of them but simply one. Add to this fact that one can go through four years of Dartmouth without having read a word of Shakespeare, Milton, Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, or Dante and picture looks even bleaker. Dartmouth students have no sort of common or core knowledge. One could limit his studies to philosophy, English, or some other discipline never allowing any sort of cross fertilization between disciplines.

The big questions of one discipline are not necessarily ever seen in another light. Dartmouth's education is both atomized and too broad. Distributive requirements spread students over a wide range of subjects but don't promise any depth.

Now of course this might not be any reason for concern. If Dartmouth has no desire to be a liberal arts college, then certainly no change is warranted -- save one. Dartmouth should stop claiming to be a liberal arts college. However, if Dartmouth truly wants to be what she claims to be then some changes are in order. A liberal arts education as I have defined it and I would suggest as it has been traditionally defined would at least require a new framework of courses and it would require some sort of common curriculum.

A simple proposal that actually might have a chance of being accepted at Dartmouth would be to require Humanities 1/2 to be taken by all first-year students. This might be modified a bit by changing it to a three term sequence over the course of the freshman year. This course would present the so-called "Great Books" to all students giving them a common core of knowledge which they could discuss and debate; this core would give students something from which to critically analyze the content of future courses and debates.

I obviously anticipate many objections to such a proposal. First, why would we want to indoctrinate our students with the patriarchal writings of dead white men? Isn't this the imposition of a monolithic tradition? To this one first can answer that the writers within the so-called 'Western Tradition' are hardly a homogenous bunch.

Secondly, it cannot be denied that among the current fashions of academy is a critical view which must call into question all traditions and bodies of knowledge; this critical view forced upon students teaches them to cut down and question all they are taught; it especially casts a critical glance upon the Western patrimony. Assuming for the sake of argument that such a view is valid, one can still raise the point that one should know what one is attacking. Diatribes against the Western tradition are fine; what is not to be sanctioned is a dismal of that about which one knows nothing.

Another objection might be that my view is limiting and narrow and in some sense static. In actuality it is the exact opposite. It allows a vibrant engagement of the world and because it allows a ground on which to stand, from which one can actually engage the world. One can liken Dartmouth's current situation to a dock ripped from its moorings. The dock is washed in whichever direction the waves push it. So too are students washed and pushed in different directions. A core curriculum could give students a necessary mooring.

Dartmouth can again be a liberal arts college. That is, if it wants to be. But a liberal arts education is not premised on small class size or having certain departments. It is premised on giving students some sort of comprehensive set of studies, allowing them to see the great questions and answers of different writers throughout history. By this measure Dartmouth is not even close to a passing grade.