What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate’s “College Week.”
What is the knowledge most worth having? In the Western tradition, sages have asked this question since the era of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, about 2000 B.C. One Egyptian magistrate declares, “It is to writings that you must set your mind. … There is nothing that surpasses writings! They are a boat upon the water. … I shall make you love books more than your mother.” A thousand years later, a second Egyptian scribe provides a succinct curriculum: “Write with your hand, recite with your mouth, and converse with those more knowledgeable than you.”
The answers offered by Western thinkers from Socrates to Benjamin Franklin have been remarkably consistent over the years: The aim of education is to teach reading (analytical interpretation), writing (clear and persuasive communication), and the moral development of character. As Franklin put it, “The Idea of what is true Merit should also be often presented to Youth … as consisting in an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind … which Ability … should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.”
This clarity, however, does not at first glance characterize the history of the American college curriculum. When America’s great universities were founded in the 18th century, the privileged young men who attended them marched through a common curriculum. Often, the undergraduate career culminated in a “capstone” course in metaphysics, taught by the college’s president.
Today, a small liberal arts college like Kenyon—of which I am president—offers study in more than 30 academic departments and 10 interdisciplinary programs, mounting almost 400 courses each semester. Other sectors of higher education offer courses ranging from “turf management” to “the behavior of consumers.” This proliferation of courses mirrors the explosion of knowledge in our era, which has generated professions and entire fields of thought (nanosciences, financial derivatives, videography) that simply didn’t exist in past decades.
Does the expansion of the curriculum mean that the fundamentals have been lost sight of? I suspect not. Last year, a national survey found that 99 percent of faculty said “the ability to think critically” was crucial to a college education; 90 percent said “the ability to write effectively.”
But what of the emphasis on moral development? On the same national survey of faculty, only 69 percent identified “developing moral character” as the most important aspect of a college education, and only 39 percent chose “enhancing spiritual development.” When I have asked my faculty colleagues their views, they say they are too “modest” to assert the ability to develop moral character and too wary, in today’s political climate, to meddle in students’ spiritual development. Perhaps it’s time for me and my fellow presidents to draft the syllabus for that capstone course in metaphysics with which the presidents used to send their graduates off into the world.
What would be the syllabus for such a course? My response—not at all flippant—would be: It doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is not a required reading list; rather it is an experience of understanding and growth that might take a myriad of forms. The goal is not mastery of a subject but maturity as an adult—attaining a degree of self-understanding, an appreciation for the limits of the human condition, empathy for others, and a sense of responsibility for civil society. For me, as a classicist, the syllabus would probably focus on the Homeric epics and Greek tragedy. These texts have, to my mind, almost unparalleled power to anchor us in the world and confront us with both our wrenching limitations and our soaring possibilities as human beings. But for another colleague, the entire syllabus would be Melville’s Moby Dick; for another, such a course would consist of teaching his students to construct a scientific instrument by hand; for a fourth, the course might be organic chemistry taught inductively through group discussion. What matters is not the subject but the sensibility. In fact, each of these hypothetical courses is one I have known a fine faculty member to teach, in a way that offered not information “to pass the exam” but the wisdom of a life-changing experience.
Re-introducing the ethical dimension into American higher education is not, I believe, a matter of specifying certain readings (à la E.D. Hirsch or William Bennett). Nor is it, finally, something to be left to “capstone” courses taught by college presidents. Rather, a recommitment to the moral dimension of higher education requires all of us who are teachers to re-focus our sights on the Big Questions: Why am I here? What is asked of me? What is the good? In another national survey taken last year, a substantial majority of undergraduate students said that what they expect from college is guidance in defining their life’s values. In this, it seems to me, today’s students join that long line of sages who have understood that the education that most matters must touch the soul.