Webster program hosts conference

by Marielle Battistoni | 11/24/08 4:26am

The Daniel Webster Project, formerly the Daniel Webster Program, hosted its first "ancient and modern conference," which featured papers by several prominent professors of political philosophy and debate over the role of classical and modern influences in contemporary liberal arts education. The conference, titled "Socrates or Rosseau: Ancient and Modern Ideas of Higher Education," was attended by approximately 60 people, including students, faculty and visiting professors Friday and Saturday at the Rockefeller Center.

The main goals of the conference were to inspire and inform Dartmouth student attendees about the liberal arts, advance debate between attending faculty regarding modern liberal arts education and initiate campus discussion regarding the state of liberal arts studies at Dartmouth, according to James Murphy, government professor and faculty director of the Webster Project. Approximately 10 students attended the conference, more than half of which said they attended to receive extra credit in Murphy's government class.

The concept of obtaining a traditional liberal arts education has become "lost in the fray" in the recent drift toward more job-centered education, Murphy said. The Webster Project is an "informal faculty initiative" that attempts to "enrich and provide focus to the liberal arts experience," he said, adding that the classic idea of receiving an education in the liberal arts still holds "immense value" because it draws on coursework from many different fields, and consists of texts that have stood the test of time.

"Students are freed from the tyranny of the immediate and the transient," Murphy said. "The liberal arts liberate students from the immediacy of the now."

Every academic year, Dartmouth students are able to choose from more than 1,600 courses listed in the Organization and Regulation of Courses. Without guidance, Murphy said, course selection can be difficult because there is little information for students about which courses deal with the "transient" as opposed to the "permanent," he added. With many classes focused on emerging and experimental fields, Murphy said he believes the "core body of knowledge" is often forgotten or dismissed.

"It's not stagnant book learning," he said. "The liberal arts enable us to reflect on our lives and the current political situation."

Mark McPherran, a philosophy professor at Simon Fraser University, read from his paper, "Examining the Self: Love, Reason, and Socratic Midwifery." He warned of the dangers of ignoring classical texts, citing America's high divorce rate as a reason students should return to the classics and read Plato's dialogues on friendship and the nature of romance.

McPherran acknowledged the necessity of technical education -- "we need people to take our x-rays, clean our sewers, keep things going"-- but lamented that a career-focused education is often narrow and does not include texts that are the foundation of contemporary society.

"There is a commonly held belief that a liberal arts education is the luxury of an elite," McPherran said. "But without a common background and a sense of history, we're going to live in a fragmentary society that is easily prone to class division."

The Webster Project follows a recent trend of attempts to return to the foundations of Western civilization and intellectual heritage throughout academia. Of the 37 academic centers devoted to this cause on college campuses, 20 were created in the past three years, according to a list compiled by the National Association of Scholars. NAS is an independent member association of academics who assert "Western intellectual heritage as the indispensable foundation of American higher education," according to the NAS web site. The organization, created in 1987, regards itself as "higher education's most vigilant watchdog," according to the site.

These new centers may be eligible for federal funding under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, signed into law Aug. 14, which will provide grants for "academic projects or centers" devoted to "traditional American history, free institutions or Western civilization," according to The New York Times.

The Webster Project's curricular proposals include a great books minor called, "Touchstones in the Liberal Arts," a common core curriculum for freshman that would include the greatest books of the natural and social sciences and the humanities, and a required sophomore summer course, Great Debates Sophomore Summer, which would debate modern issues using classic texts and contemporary speakers, according to Murphy.

Arthur Melzer, a visiting political science professor from Michigan State University, lauded the Webster Project's emphasis on the importance of a liberal arts education.

"Americans are very practical people," Melzer said. "If they can't see the immediate payoff, they'll say, 'What's the point of that?' Questions about the value of a liberal arts education are so narrow to me. You need to know how to write, how to think, how to argue."

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