THE ULTIMATE DESPAIR OF LIBERAL EDUCATIONWritten by Lynn Varco with contributions by W. Joshua Lucas
From The Chicago Maroon, February 16, 1993
"The purpose of the university is nothing less than to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution throughout the world."
So said Robert Maynard Hutchins, the "almas pater" of our "alma mater". His vision of liberal education forever changed the purpose of undergraduate education at the University of Chicago and has left a powerful intellectual legacy. But in practical terms, his legacy has been neglected and abused.
Last month, six faculty members, gathered at Ida Noyes Hall to discuss "The Ultimate Concerns of Liberal Education," a forum sponsored by University Ministries. The Social Sciences and the Humanities were both represented, but the Natural Sciences were absent. The discussion touched upon topics such as positivism, the importance of "caring," and the oral and written natures of learning. But, in the end, the discussion failed because of the members' unwillingness to discuss properly the ideas implicit in the title of the colloquium.
Clash among panel members was nonexistent because, save for Humanities Division Professor Amy Kass, all failed to clearly delineate individual positions on the "Ultimate Concerns" alluded to in the title of the colloquium. Prof. Kass accurately described the nature and purpose of liberal education. She said that liberal education is "not the making, but the discovery of meaning," and that she encouraged students to become "radical thinkers and inquirers." It is a process by which "thought can be turned on all of life."
According to Prof. Kass, the intrinsic worth of liberal education lies in the intellectual growth and the creation of "good men, good citizens, and good families," not personal gain or "self-worship." She linked this "self-worship" to the conflicts between the ultimate concerns of liberal education and "ultimate concerns, period."
Kass, unlike the other panelists, was willing to explore the contradictions and tensions inherent in a liberal education, be they between the humanities and the social and natural sciences, or between academic life and life in society at large. The other panelists beat both around and miles away from the bush. They bantered back and forth in a game of academic posturing and the type of intellectual self-worship Prof. Kass execrated. None of the other panelists even legitimately stated what in their eyes was an "ultimate concern," or even established any criteria or method for applying those concerns.
The Hutchins-Adler College
It is difficult to imagine a debate about liberal education at the University of Chicago without the mention of both Robert Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. They fought hardest for the reinstitution of true liberal education into the college and shed enormous, valuable insight on the entire debate. Landmark progress was made in undergraduate education during the Hutchins' tenure as president from 1929 to 1951, in the Great Books seminars that he and Adler conducted and in the institution of a common program of study for all undergraduates.
The change is a shift from the Hutchins-Adler College's truly liberal education toward an intellectually fragmented, visionless, professionally oriented graduate factory. What passes today for liberal education is nothing but undergraduate specialization. The narrowness of specialization prevents students from participation in a true liberal education.
In an essay entitled "Liberal Education-Theory and Practice" (1945), Mortimer Adler wrote:
"A liberal curriculum should, therefore, include no vocational training; nor should it permit any subject-matter specialization. In a liberal college there should be no departmental divisions, no electives, no separate course in which grades are given for "covering" a specified "ground," no textbooks or manuals which set forth what students must memorize to pass true-false examinations. . . the basic precept of pedagogy should be the direction of the mind by questions and the methods of answering them, not the stuffing of it with answers."
True liberal education ought to affirm education for intellectual growth instead of solipsistic personal profit. The university has falsely combined these patently contradictory goals, making opaque the real differences between them. Thus, the hope for true liberal education in the College grows less and less as the forces of specialization and faculty "self-worship" take over, as was exhibited by the colloquium.
Undergraduate education has never since undergone such a critical and effective examination of its purpose and "ultimate concerns" as it did in the Hutchins-Adler college. Moreover, no "liberal" educational program created since, including the University of Chicago's present one, has fulfilled their original criteria. Any meaningful debate on the nature and purpose of liberal education must address the Hutchins-Adler program.
The panelists' neglect of this legacy is stupefying. The University of Chicago is today as similar to other educational institutions than it was dissimilar in Hutchins' and Adler's day. That this regression could pass unmentioned by the panelists reflects their denial of the truth of the Hutchins-Adler achievements.
The Corruption of Positivism
English Professor J. Paul Hunter alluded to the problem of the effect of both positivism and anti-empiricism on liberal education. His discussion of both issues did not fully elucidate the real problem. He neglected to elaborate on the objectives of positivistic philosophy, which rejects the metaphysical foundations upon which a liberal education must be ground. Positivism views the scientific method as the only path towards infallible knowledge. Positivism discounts both ancient and medieval metaphysics as impediments and roadblocks to the true acquisition of knowledge. Inherent in such a doctrine is the rejection of any moral or ethical judgments grounded on immutable truths. Rather, the alleged absolutism of metaphysicians is shunned in favor of the scientific method.
A rejection of positivism is not a rejection of science. Science can tell us about the empirical state of nature. It cannot tell us how to pursue happiness, how to ultimately live our lives, and inevitably how best to use all the new technology and weaponry that science itself produces. These questions, the ultimate existential questions of man, are in the domain of metaphysics. Science has no role in such an area of inquiry. The precepts behind positivism are totally and fundamentally opposed to true liberal education.
Liberal education demands that we make value judgments based on our common experience. A value judgment is both impossible and unimportant to positivism, which views the human experience as one ideology battling against another, and the victor as the one that prevails. It rejects any metaphysical basis upon which morality and ethics can be decided. The ultimate end of such a doctrine is the principle that might makes right.
Liberal education cannot tolerate the corruption of positivism. Positivism does demand that, as Prof. Hunter says, we should have "respect for different disciplines," but truly liberal education demands value judgments concerning importance or lack thereof of certain fields of studies. It is not about learning as many facts as possible on fundamental questions. Liberal education cannot be all things to all people.
For too many years there has been no constructive debate about the aims of liberal education at the University of Chicago. The dominance of the professional academics and the transformation of the College into an antechamber for graduates are accomplished facts. What remains now are fading institutional memories and an atavistic, unknowing clinging to a legacy long gone.