Boyer, Cronon, Curtler, Lucas and Weingartner all provide responses to the question “What is college for?” This paper aims to compare their thoughts about the purposes of higher education, in particular what the goals should be for liberal arts institutions like Beloit College, and how those goals might be achieved.
Cronon describes liberal arts education as a “tradition that celebrates and nurtures human freedom” (73). To expand on this idea, he discusses the origins of the word “liberal” and the meanings it had in Greek, Latin, Old English and Sanskrit, explaining that the roots of the word literally meant “freedom” and “growth”. He argues that these two values “lie at the very core” of our understanding of what a liberal education is about. Cronan clarifies further by stating that he believes “liberally educated people have been liberated by their education to explore and fulfill the promise of their own highest talents” (73). This notion of education providing a form of freedom is echoed by Curtler in The Purpose of Higher Education. He elaborates further than Cronon, by explaining his view that a liberal arts education “liberate(s) the human mind by enabling it to make informed choices and, through knowledge of theory and principles, to understand why such choices must be made” (6). Here, Curtler is equating freedom with autonomy, which he explains “is an acquired trait” that needs to be taught (7).
Curtler believes that this sense of autonomy is part of the wider goal that liberal arts colleges have to “prepare young minds for citizenship” (9). This, he explains, is necessary to meet society’s need “for reasonable citizens”, through providing a wider, more liberal education, as opposed to producing highly specialized individuals such as “accountants, engineers…or Ph.D’s” that graduate from universities (19). This is in agreement with Cronon, who also emphasizes the importance of creating good citizens. He writes “liberal arts education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community” (78). In essence, both Curtler and Cronon claim that liberal arts education should “remind us of the obligations we have to use our knowledge and power responsibly” (Cronon, 77). They argue that students should be taught how to become, and shaped into, responsible members of society.
Boyer criticizes, as Curtler does, the obsession in higher education with “serving individual interests” of students above the needs of society (2). He is against individualism for personal gain, and instead urges liberal arts colleges to “help students relate what they have learned to concerns beyond themselves” (11). This can be aligned with Cronon’s philosophy that colleges ought to promote the notion of creating good citizens; indeed, Boyer writes “students should become…committed to the common good” and not only to complete courses to improve their own situation or prospects (12). Similarly, this can be compared to Curtler’s belief in citizenship; Boyer says students ought to “learn about the world around them, (and to) develop a sense of civic and social responsibility” (11).
In Missions and Goals: What are colleges and universities for? Lucas expresses similar viewpoints on the importance of developing citizenship as those of Boyer, Curtler and Conon. However, he writes about this in the context of two-year community college courses rather than four-year liberal arts colleges, and emphasizes that it is the role of interdisciplinary courses to create citizens who demonstrate “full awareness of the social and natural environment in which they live” as well as being “critical and reflective thinkers” (46). He believes this is the “civic function” of community colleges to create these kinds of citizens, which is in contrast with Boyer, Curtler and Cronon who stress that liberal arts colleges should perform this role. Lucas comments that liberal arts colleges generally believe that they have a “strong commitment to developing civic virtue and literacy, personal character and morality, refinement of judgment, (and) breadth of perspective”, but that often this no more than “public rhetoric” (71).
Lucas doesn’t clarify how he believes liberal arts colleges could actually achieve their aims of producing the kinds of citizens that he talks about, but Cronon does offer a list of personal attributes that he believes “embody the values of a liberal education” (75). Weingertner classifies this type of educational goal as “the cultivation of certain character traits” (10). Cronon provides his list in an attempt to solve what he sees as a problem within liberal arts education; “that it is much easier to itemize the requirements of a curriculum than to describe the qualities of the human beings we would like that curriculum to produce” (74). This expands on his notion of enabling human freedom, and his list is based upon the idea that “a liberal education is not something any of us ever achieve; it is not a state”, but it should be viewed as “a way of educating ourselves…that our educations will never be complete” (77). However, the list Cronon provides is just that; another list, much like the “lists of mandatory courses, lists of required readings, (and) lists of essential facts” to which he is opposed (74). The final item on his list is “only connect”, by which he means “a liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect” that allows people to “make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways” (77). This is in agreement with Lucas’ observation that within liberal arts education there is “the notion that learning should touch the spirit and heart as well as the intellect” (71). Although they do not provide concrete suggestions for how to achieve these aims, Cronon and Lucas’ views do appear to be compatible in this way.
Weingartner discusses “what undergraduate education seeks to accomplish”, by focusing on what higher education institutions are “attempting to do” for their students” (1). He decides to avoid discussion on curriculum requirements, because in his view “requirements are too often thought of as courses, with debates raging as to whether some course should or not be required” (3). There is also the danger, he says, of considering required courses “to be the educational goal” (3). This is similar to Cronon’s observation that the itemized “requirements of a curriculum” often become the educational aims rather than focusing on the wider ideology of nurturing “human freedom in the service of human community” (78). However, Weingartner does not disagree with the notion of requirements, as long as there is sufficient “prior discussions and decisions” relating to the institution’s specific mission (4).
Other than developing “good” character traits, Weingartner also identifies another goal of higher education, that of developing “proficiencies or skills” (10). He argues that in many ways, all educational goals work toward developing skills, whether they are physical or behavioral in nature. However, there are some desired outcomes, such as specific character attributes, much like those listed by Cronon, that Weingartner suggests are difficult to test, and are therefore problematic when devising college goals. These include “whether a student has learned to think critically or whether he or she is imaginative” because “any manageable tests we might devise are likely to be inadequate” (11). He is suggesting that although these maybe admirable goals, they are not easily proven at the end of one’s liberal arts education; a given student may be able to “make courageous and moral decisions” but there is no way to verify if these goals will have been achieved due their liberal arts education (11).
Weingartner refers to the concept of conversancy, which is comparable to Boyer’s perspective that students of liberal arts should be enabled to “discover how they, as individuals, can contribute to the larger society of which they are a part” (Boyer, 11). Weingartner uses the term “conversancy” to include not only the development of particular skills, but also “the possession of extensive information in quite different categories and the ability to use it, as well as what we call “understanding” of a sort that is not reducible to a formula, even a complicated one” (11). This is in agreement with Boyer’s suggestion that “college has an obligation to give students a sense of passage toward a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated life” (11). These are not goals that are easily outlined in course objectives, but are desirable nonetheless.
There are clear similarities between these five authors. They agree that a liberal arts college education is different from other forms of higher education, with its own characteristics and different goals. Many of their opinions relate to each other, for example the notion of developing citizenship among students to enable them to participate fully and responsibly in society is a common theme, although it is described or labeled slightly differently by each author. The main goal of college that they appear to be suggesting is, as Boyer writes, to provide “a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated life”.
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