The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. XV, No. 1, January, 1944: pp. 1-10.

Liberal Education and the College Curriculum


Through the Discipline of Formal Thinking, Empirical Investigation, and Hypothesis, to Appreciation

Will the liberal arts, and in particular the humanities, after the war regain their former place in the college curriculum? With many other persons, I believe it to be of the highest importance for the future of this country that liberal education should not only persist, but should be made both more real and more truly liberal than hitherto.

By more real, I mean that students should be required really to know the relatively few things which they are asked to learn and really to master the modest intellectual skills which they are supposed to acquire, instead of, as too often now, being allowed to graduate with only the impressionistic knowledge and the half-skills which marks of C represent. Their work in the war courses which they are now taking proves they are quite capable of it. To make a college easy to get in, easy to stay in, and easy to graduate from not only debases the educational currency, but is both morally and psychologically obtuse -- morally, because it tacitly assumes that it is important that a college should keep going even if the education it gives is not worth getting; and psychologically, because the love of the strenuous, the difficult, the risky is in man, especially when young and vigorous, a spring of action as natural and effective as the love of pleasure.

But if postwar college education is to be adequate to the responsibilities which will rest upon it, it must become more truly liberal as well as more real. Any attempt, however, to make it so must, if it is to bear fruit, be based on a more definite philosophy of liberal education than has commonly shaped such attempts. Only when we know clearly what is this thing we aim at under the name of liberal education, can the curriculum we devise be truly functional instead of randomly experimental. Also, only when we know it clearly, can we in turn explain to each entering student -- as, of course, we should thoroughly do -- what the college aims to do for him and to him, and what specific contributions to this the several components of the curriculum and of college life are intended respectively to make.

In order to reach a conception of liberal education relevant to the present state of American society, relevant also to the stage human knowledge has now reached, and at the same time clear enough to have definite implications for the college curriculum, there is no need to examine the various lists of subjects which, at one time or another through the centuries, have been held to comprise "the liberal arts" and hence to constitute the proper content of the sort of education to be called liberal. It will be enough to consider briefly the remarks Aristotle makes on liberal education; for his conception of its nature is, I believe, both sound in essence and still relevant to the task of our colleges today.

Aristotle holds that the best, most truly human sort of life is one characterized by what he calls arete. By this term -- usually but not too well translated as virtue -- he means the combination of two things: one, wisdom of the reason; and the other, readiness to act always in ways conforming to the proper mean between extremes, as discerned by the wise reason. In the common language of today, we might, it seems to me, express the essence of Aristotle's idea by saying briefly that man lives most truly, most efficiently, and most happily as man, only if he possesses a rounded perspective on human life and governs his acts in accordance with it.

To live in this way -- today as in Aristotle's time -- is not possible for men if they are not free both politically and economically; for a slave cannot choose to live wisely but has to do whatever his master commands, and a man in dire economic want may easily be forced by this to live in ways reason would not approve. But political and economic freedom is not enough. The burden of Aristotle's remarks, as I interpret them, is that, for the best individual and social life, a man also needs inner freedom of two sorts.

One is freedom from the inner anarchy which exists when a man yields to the impulses or opportunities of the moment without, or despite, the counsel of reason. This freedom is a matter not of insight, but of training -- of a man's having acquired the habit of letting reason determine on each crucial occasion which impulses or considerations should be allowed to prevail, and which should be restrained or subordinated.

The other sort of inner freedom needed is less obvious, but the nature of it is suggested by Aristotle at one place in the description he gives of a liberal education. After pointing out that some pursuits are illiberal because they tend to deform the body or degrade the mind, he says that although some pursuits which do not by their nature have this effect are proper for a freeman to engage in, yet he should engage in them only up to a certain point, for, if he attend to them too closely in order to reach perfection in them, the same evil effects will follow as from illiberal pursuits. This translated into terms of the present day would mean, I take it, that even if a pursuit is of a kind which has a proper place in a human life of the best kind, nevertheless the disposition to strive for success in it at any cost is incompatible with the maintenance of the perspective and with the preservation in action of the balance between the too much and the too little, which are the very essence of a liberal outlook and of a wisely managed life.

A liberal education, then, is not simply one suitable for men in so far as they are free politically and economically; rather, and essentially for us today, it is an education which bestows on them inner freedom of the two kinds just mentioned. It is a liberating -- a liberalizing -- education. In Dewey's words, it is an education which begets "hospitality of mind, generous imagination, trained capacity of discrimination, freedom from class, sectarian or partisan prejudice and passion, faith without fanaticism." [Education Today, p. 185]

Briefly then, a liberal education is one which endows the mind with perspective and habituates the man to judge and feel and act in the light of it. The polar opposite of an education liberal in this sense is an insularizing, provincializing education. A vocational or technological or professional education often in fact is insularizing. But it need not absolutely be so, for almost any subject may be studied in a liberalizing manner, that is, in a manner which gives the student perspective upon it -- acquaintance with what lies beyond it in a variety of directions. Yet, just as there is certain to remain a difference of scope between the perspective obtained from an ant's-eye-view and from a bird's-eye-view, so here, the more a subject is circumscribed by preoccupation with limited concrete tasks for the sake of which alone it is studied, the narrower is likely to be the perspective on human interests and affairs obtained from study of it even in a liberalizing manner. Therefore, a vocational education, even if conducted in such a manner, may properly be contrasted with a liberal education in that the latter not only aims at perspective, but takes as center for it some subject of such broad human importance that perspective upon it will require at least a bowing acquaintance with most if not all of the other main fields of human interest and human capacities.

If the analysis attempted in the preceding pages is correct, a liberal education is then essentially an education which endows man with perspective and, indeed, with a broad not a narrow perspective, and an education which habituates him to judge, to evaluate, and to act in the light of such a perspective. This implies that a liberal education cannot be provided through the college curriculum alone, but that other educative factors both within and outside the college, and both anterior and posterior to the college experience, are required for such an education. Here, however, I am concerned solely with the contribution that the college, and more specifically, the college curriculum should and peculiarly can make to the liberal education of its students. But before concrete proposals for the curriculum can be derived from the conception of liberal education outlined in what precedes, it is necessary to inquire what, exactly, is this thing I have called perspective, which it is the essential business of a liberal curriculum to furnish. Perspective, in the sense relevant here, is something which has not only degrees but, like space, several directions or dimensions. By examining now briefly in turn each of those for which the curriculum of a liberal college should provide, we shall at the same time be gaining a clearer idea of what perspective means in the present connection and of the nature of its importance.

One of the dimensions of perspective is what may be called the disciplinal dimension if one agrees to understand by a discipline what President Wriston describes in his book, The Nature of a Liberal College. A discipline, namely, is a form of mental activity specially requisite for dealing with problems which are typical of a given category of studies. To give disciplinal perspective to a student will then mean to give him some personal experience of, if possible, each of the disciplines other than the one he principally gets automatically through his work in his major subject. What, then, are the main disciplines -- the typical kinds of mental skill?

From the standpoint of college studies, the disciplines may, I believe, be reckoned in the main as four, which I shall label the disciplines of formal thinking, of empirical investigation, of hypothesis, and of appreciation. This list, however, coincides only in part with President Wriston's; for what he calls the discipline of synthesis [Education Today, p. 160] seems to me not a discipline in the sense stated -- not a distinct species of intellectual method -- but rather a distinct species of questions, the answering of which provides a particular kind of perspective, namely, philosophical perspective, on anything about which it is asked. Also, there is one important discipline which does not seem to me recognized as distinct in President Wriston's list.

The discipline of formal thinking is the one typically provided by mathematics and pure logic. Its distinguishing character, from which comes the rigor of the inferences in these fields, is that inference is there based solely on the formal properties assigned to the symbols which make up the equations or other expressions. That is, no need ever arises there to consider what real things, or whether any real things, are represented by the symbols.

It might be urged, however, that the mind may be trained to think logically otherwise than by studying logic or mathematics, that in some branches of economics, for example, or indeed of almost any other science, rigorously logical thinking is often called for. But although this is true, the fact remains that the experience of thinking logically about even highly abstract aspects of a specific subject-matter is an inherently different experience from that of thinking logically in complete abstraction from any subject-matter, that is, purely in arbitrary symbols, as one is made to do in mathematics and symbolic logic. It is this which most clearly exhibits mathematics and logic as essentially a reasoning machine, whose essential function in use is to extract with remorseless rigor the hidden implications of the premises which are fed into it, irrespective of whether these premises be true, false, or even absurd. No other sort of experience so effectively cultivates the capacity to consider an argument purely on its merits, independently of such opinions or bias or wishes as one may happen to have concerning the matter at issue.

The second basic discipline is that of empirical investigation. It is provided by the laboratory part of the laboratory sciences, but not by mathematics or formal logic, nor by the theoretical part of the laboratory sciences. It results from grasp of the principles and from experience with the techniques of measurement, formulation, sampling, experimentation, generalization, and verification. What one essentially learns through experience with these processes is how to question nature herself directly, and how to get from her, by means of observations and manipulations, which are inherently never more than approximately exact, answers whose probability and approximateness are quantitatively specifiable and capable of independent verification.

The third discipline is that of hypothesis, or more specifically, of opinion. A hypothesis is an idea which attempts to respect the facts one knows, but which, on the basis of one's estimate of plausibilities, tentatively reaches beyond those facts. In science, the function of a hypothesis is to suggest experiments or investigations which will either refute the hypothesis or confirm it and will thus replace hypothesis by knowledge. In everyday life, on the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is not ordinarily our task, and hypotheses, therefore, do not function, as in science, primarily as instruments of discovery. We use them rather as bases for the practical decisions which we make on the numerous occasions where we do not have and cannot get the facts which would definitely dictate one course of action rather than another, but where we nevertheless must act or be ready to act. On such occasions, the hypothesis we accept, and which then dictates our course, has the status of a belief. A hypothesis, in so far as it has this status and therefore serves to direct practical action rather than research, is called an opinion.

That our opinions are thus only hypotheses yet unproved, but which seem to us plausible enough to act on, is not always realized. When we fail to realize it, we are likely to be intolerant of the divergent opinions which are the similarly untested beliefs of other men. But the discipline of opinion demands development of a lively awareness that although each of us has to act much of the time on the basis merely of the opinions he has, nevertheless opinions are one thing and knowledge is another; that opinions opposed to our own may happen to be true; that where opinions are concerned, open-mindedness is therefore in order; and that in any event we are likely to gain light from a candid examination of opinions divergent from our own.

This discipline may be obtained in some degree from the theoretical, speculative part of the natural sciences; but it is best obtained in the study of such subjects as political and economic theory, sociology, religion, or philosophy, where the hypotheses concern matters tied up, more closely than in the natural sciences, with our emotions, prejudices, tastes, or private interests. For although openness to reason is needed here as much as elsewhere, it is just where such matters are concerned that open-mindedness is most difficult and possible only with discipline. The natural effect of these studies is to provide it -- to develop the habit of examining and discussing emotionally charged hypotheses with the impartiality and objectivity which are easy and usual in the case of the cool hypotheses of the natural sciences.

The fourth discipline is that of appreciation. It is called for by the fact that man is not only a thinking, knowledge-seeking being, and a doing, practical being, but also a being of emotions, moods, sentiments, sensations; and that because art is the language of feeling, works of art function for the enlargement of his emotional life as treatises function for the enlargement of his knowledge-seeking life. But just as to profit from treatises, he has to learn to read them, so does he have to develop the capacity for aesthetic contemplation of works of art -- the capacity to throw himself open to the reception of the feelings, sensations, and emotional experiences which were embodied by the artist consciously in his works, or by nature unconsciously in her works. Accordingly, receptivity to the sensuous and emotional import of the works of art and of nature is what the discipline of appreciation cultivates. This is obviously something quite different from acquisition of scholarly information concerning the history or the technique of the arts.

There are, of course, other disciplines besides the four just described. For example, there is what might be called the political discipline -- the development of skill in the art of getting along with people, of enlisting their co-operation and of lending them one's own. This sort of discipline, however, is obtainable in college through participation in extra-curricular activities rather than from any studies. The four which have been mentioned seem to me the principal ones entering into the disciplinal perspective the curriculum should provide.

As already stated, however, disciplinal perspective is not the only sort of perspective possible or needed. There are also the several sorts of perspective respectively provided on a given subject by the main types of information possible about that subject. This would mean chiefly historical perspective, contextual perspective, and philosophical perspective; and in many cases, also, what may be called applicational perspective. Each of these may now be considered briefly.

To have historical perspective on a given subject is, of course, to know the history of that subject. For example, to have historical perspective on physics is to know the history of physics, or better, of science. To have historical perspective on contemporary literature is to know the history of literature and so on. By a "subject" may be meant in this connection either the things themselves studied or the study of them. The study of them always has a history. For example, the study of the earth has a history, namely, the history of geology. But here the thing studied, the earth itself, also has a history because it too exists in time.

Mathematical entities, on the other hand, which do not exist in time, have no history; square roots, logarithms, triangles do not have a youth, a maturity, and an old age. But the study of them does have a history, namely, the history of mathematics.

Although one of the subjects taught in colleges is commonly called simply history, yet history is properly the name not of a particular subject, but rather of the time dimension of any subject which has temporal extension. History, that is, is always the history of this or the history of that. Courses in "history" are courses in the history of nations or peoples. They used to concern mainly their political history and fortunes. As taught today, however, the history of peoples includes much more than this; but although there are no hard and fast lines between what it shall include and what it shall leave out, the fact remains that, for example, the history of American literature or the history of American painting would not ordinarily be parts of the content of the course in American history offered in the department of history but would be taught respectively by the departments of English and of art. On the other hand, courses in the history, that is, in, primarily, the political history, of Greece and Rome are frequently taught in the department of Greek and Latin classics by the same men who offer there also courses in the language, the literature, the art, and the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. From the standpoint of a student attempting to organize a program of courses with perspective as his aim, there would be much to say in favor of describing every historical course explicitly in terms of the particular subject or group of subjects of which it attempts to cover the history.

From historical perspective, let us turn to what I have ventured to call contextual perspective. It has to the former a relation analogous to that which space has to time. To have contextual perspective on a given subject is to know something of the subjects materially contiguous with it -- contiguous, that is, in the sense that no sharp line can be drawn between it and them at certain points. In this sense astronomy, for instance, is contiguous with physics, physics with chemistry, chemistry with biology, the history of English literature with the history of philosophy and of course with the social, economic, and political history of England. Similarly, economics, political science, and sociology are among themselves mutually contiguous.

The nature of philosophical perspective cannot adequately be described with the same brevity, for the nature of philosophy itself is not commonly well understood. The fact to grasp first is that philosophical perspective is informational in kind, not essentially disciplinal, for the method of inquiry typically used in philosophical thinking is not peculiar to philosophy. It is much the same as the method chiefly employed in the social studies and in the speculative, theoretical part of the natural sciences. It is the method of hypothesis. Both in philosophy and in the social studies, however, the requirement that hypotheses shall be put to the test of accordance with observable facts is as yet for the most part much less rigorously complied with than in the natural sciences.

What differentiates philosophical perspective from the other kinds of informational perspective is the kind of questions philosophy asks; and alone systematically investigates about any subject on which it turns its attention. These are ultimately questions as to values. For whenever a man reacts with "yes" or with "no" -- whether by word, by act, or by emotional response -- he is making a judgment of value. What he judges may be specifically an opinion, in which case his "yes" means "true" and his "no," "erroneous." Or what he judges may be an act -- his "yes" then meaning "right" and his "no" meaning "wrong." Or again, if an inference be what he judges, his "yes" and his "no" respectively mean "valid" and "fallacious"; if a consideration, they mean "important" and "unimportant"; if an appearance, "trustworthy" and "deceptive"; if an object of contemplation, "beautiful" and "ugly"; and so on. In all cases, "yes" or "no" expresses a judgment of value -- positive or negative. Philosophy thus could be summarily described as the general theory of "yes" and "no." Its ultimate business is the scrutiny and criticism of evaluations.

The natural sciences, on the other hand, are solely concerned to discover and explain the laws of nature; and these, like all laws, are always of the form: "if so and so, then so and so." Knowledge of the laws of nature, that is to say, is knowledge of what happens when something else happens or is done. Such knowledge discloses to us the means by which our aims can be reached; it enables us to construct the tools that will implement our purposes. But it does not provide us with aims nor evaluate the purposes we happen to have. Natural science gives us power over the course of nature and over the lives of men, but itself never tells us what it would be good or evil, wise or unwise, to do with this power. Knowledge of the laws of nature serves with equal docility and equal efficiency the physician and the poisoner, the philanthropist and the tyrant, the arts of peace and the arts of war.

In contrast with this, the knowledge philosophy seeks, as to any subject on which it reflects, concerns the place, the specific role, and the worth of the given subject in the lives of men, the manner in which that subject is related to the variety of interests and values in terms of which human life is livable. The philosopher might be compared to the geographer, who enlightens us as to the characters, the directions, and the mutual relations of the various ports toward which we can elect to set the course of our ship; and the natural scientist to the engineers and the crew of the ship, who make it go, no matter in what direction we steer it.

An example may serve to clarify further the nature of philosophical perspective. Perspective of this kind on, let us say, any science -- and by implication, on any decision affecting science -- would result from inquiry into the functions, the values, the methods, and the norms of scientific activity as compared with those of such other typical human activities as the artistic, the religious, the philosophical, the sportive, the practical activities; and from inquiry as to how scientific knowledge differs from common knowledge, how it is related to opinion, to truth, to probability, to theory, to inference, to observation, and to experiment. Without the perspective furnished by knowledge of the variety, the nature, the order, and the interconnections of the values at stake in a decision, it is only by chance that the decision can be a wise rather than a foolish, blind one.

There now remains to say a word concerning applicational perspective and concerning also another dimension of perspective I have not yet mentioned. Applicational perspective is obtained on any subject susceptible of it when one learns something of the practical applications of a knowledge of that subject. Some knowledge of medicine, for example, would provide perspective of this kind on biology or chemistry. Again, it would be provided on botany or chemistry by learning something of the manner in which these sciences are applied to solve agricultural problems.

Applicational perspective on the humanistic subjects is perhaps today the most greatly needed, for, being more difficult to gain on them than on the sciences, it is likely to be more completely and dangerously lacking. The practical utility of the humanistic subjects, although possibly even greater than that of the sciences, is of a kind more subtle and easier to overlook. Men commonly labor under the illusion that, if only they had power, they would know well enough what to do with it; and therefore the knowledge they mostly seek is knowledge of means. It is not until they have won it and have found to their cost that they have misused it, that they realize their need of other sorts of knowledge, such as philosophy seeks, which concerns not means but ends; also, their need of the lessons history might have taught them and the need also of the sensitivity and catholicity of appreciation which literature and the arts develop. Only then do men discern that the practical utility of the humanistic subjects lies in their potential capacity to guard human beings from self-stultifying, or temporally provincial, or callously undiscerning use of the powers they happen to have.

The remaining dimension of perspective may be introduced by the remark that just as perspective in the literal, spatial sense, is always from some center where one stands, so in the figurative sense in which I have been using the term in connection with the curriculum, perspective always has its center in some field of study which the student has chosen as his intellectual home, but the relations of which to other cultural realms he can know only by visiting them. Yet the fact that his major effort is given to the study in some detail of the subject which he has chosen as his central one, and to the acquisition of a degree of mastery of it, should furnish him with a sort of perspective which he does not get outside that subject, namely, the perspective of thoroughness. The experience at first hand of what it means to know something thoroughly instead of only sketchily or superficially is what gives the educated man the perspective on the abysmal degree of his own informed ignorance, which the uneducated man lacks.

If perspective, as I have contended, is the essence of liberality of outlook, then the curriculum of a college aiming to aid its students to gain such an outlook should be so constructed as to give them perspective of each of the kinds already described. That a student's program should include both concentration of a part of his effort in one field and the distribution of the remainder of it over a variety of other subjects is commonly accepted. These other subjects, however, are too often selected or prescribed, if not at haphazard, at least with none too clear a realization of the principle which should determine the diversification if it is to contribute most to the attainment of a truly liberal outlook. To indicate what seems to me the nature of that principle has been my chief aim here.