Feature - January 27, 1999
Liberal Education, Moral Education
Can -- and should -- a university teach its students
to be better citizens and better people?
by Harold T. Shapiro *64
The idea -- or perhaps it is better to say, the ideal -- of a liberal education has been with us for almost two thousand years. Indeed, few educational ideals have attracted more adherents, sustained more controversy, or had more staying power than the concept of a liberal education. For many centuries, citizens and societies across a broad range of the political, social, and cultural spectrum have urged colleges and universities to meet their civic responsibility by providing a curriculum that fulfills the imperatives of a liberal education, whatever they believe those imperatives may be. This consistent devotion to the concept of liberal education is all the more remarkable given the enormous and continuing growth in our stock of knowledge, changing notions of what the word "liberal" implies, the ever-shifting nature of society's educational objectives, and the rather more startling fact that at any particular time there has been considerable disagreement about what educational program or programs the coveted label of "liberal education" implies.
Over these two millennia, only two organizing ideas about the aims of a liberal education stand steady and clear. One is the importance of achieving educational objectives that complement those of purely technical or narrowly professional training; such objectives include a better understanding of our cultural inheritance and ourselves, a familiarity with the foundations of mathematics and science, and a clarification of what we mean by virtue. The other is the importance of molding a certain type of citizen. In practice, of course, professional and liberal arts curricula overlap, and notions regarding the "right" type of citizen are in a constant state of flux.
Even the Greeks, who are credited with identifying the basic components of the liberal arts, had several different educational strategies that focused variously on literature, the search for truth and new understanding, and the training of effective civic leaders. The articulation, in Roman times, of the seven liberal arts -- grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy -- did not lead, even then, to the adoption by Roman educators of a coherent curriculum based on these subjects. Rather, Roman society included a number of different approaches to higher education, with greatly different emphases.
For Thomas Aquinas in late medieval Europe, a liberal education included, in addition to the seven liberal arts, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics. As time passed, additional objectives for a liberal education were developed, such as the freeing of the individual from previous ideas, the pursuit of alternative ideas, the disinterested search for truth, and the development of the integrity of the individual and his or her power of reason. In many ways, of course, this expansion of the agenda of liberal education was a natural development as society's educational requirements expanded and evolved over time.
The classical societies of Greece and Rome, the European societies of the Renaissance, 19th-century Europe and Britain, and both colonial and contemporary America have all had their own quite distinct understandings and conflicts regarding the purposes and components of a liberal education. Not surprisingly, these tensions usually reflected disparate and contending social and cultural commitments (such as Hellenism vs. Christianity, or reason vs. revelation), as well as distinct views of both the source of new wisdom and understanding and the role of institutions of higher education. My point is that while the concept of a liberal education goes back to classical times, so does controversy over its structure and purposes.
Despite a history of controversy and change, the pursuit of this amorphous ideal of a liberal education remains an article of faith in much of higher education. As currently understood, the term liberal education can include everything from a narrow focus on the "old" or "new" canon of "great" texts to a serious study of any and all aspects of liberal arts subjects. The catalogue of those subjects now extends far beyond what we think of as the humanities (including languages, literatures, and philosophy) to encompass all of the burgeoning sciences and many other subjects as well. Liberal education may cover curricula in which the institution prescribes students' programs as well as curricula that leave all choices to students. It incorporates all kinds of pedagogies that distribute responsibility and initiative for learning in remarkably different ways between student and teacher. It embraces approaches ranging from those that emphasize breadth of knowledge, to those that emphasize depth of understanding in a relatively narrow area, to those like Princeton's, which try to achieve both.
Thus, while the concept of a liberal education continues to have passionate adherents across the ideological spectrum, this adherence frequently masks important differences in educational philosophies and objectives. This is not necessarily a problem; in my view, there is never a single "right" curriculum, and given rapidly changing circumstances and aspirations, it is appropriate that we periodically re-examine what we mean by a liberal education. Our goal should not be a hard-and-fast definition so much as a thoughtful and conscientious exploration of the various possibilities at any given time.
So while I would not claim, nor should anyone else claim, to have identified the most appropriate liberal arts program, I have tried to identify some characteristics of a liberal education that I believe are important for our time.
DEFINING A LIBERAL EDUCATION
I begin by associating a liberal education with the educational needs of western liberal democracies. In this respect I recognize two of their most remarkable characteristics. First, they have sustained, over a number of centuries, a great many institutions that oppose or provide a balance to the power of the state. Moreover, these institutions are protected, and often financially supported, by the state. The idea that the state should support, and even encourage, institutions that prevent its own monopoly over power and truth from becoming too extreme is historically novel. As educators and citizens we must search continually for the right balance between constraining the state's power and enabling it to do its work. We must also educate a large cohort of thoughtful, responsible, and independently minded leaders capable of administering a democracy and heading the institutions that share power with it.
Second, while the historical legacy of a liberal education emphasizes our common humanity rather than the needs of particular individuals or groups, western liberal democracies have increasingly recognized and protected the needs and desires, not only of individuals and small family units, but of an ever-increasing number of groups.
Both of these special conditions of western liberal democracies -- the sharing of power with institutions other than the state and the effort to accommodate a range of frequently conflicting individual and group interests while attaining enough common agreement to sustain a coherent community -- require, in my judgment, that a liberal education include at least three characteristics:
(1) If we are to understand ourselves and our times, a liberal education needs to provide an understanding of the great traditions of thought which have informed the minds, hearts, and deeds of those who came before us. We are part of a stream of human experience which is broad and deep. Whatever the shortcomings of our predecessors -- and there were many -- and however limited the surviving remnants of their efforts, they remain a source of inspiration and insight as long as we do not deify any particular aspect of this valuable inheritance.
(2) If we are to meet our responsibilities as citizens, a liberal education needs to free our minds and hearts from unexamined commitments and unquestioning allegiance to authorities of all types. Such freedom allows us to consider new possibilities (including new "authorities") for enhancing our own lives and the human condition more broadly, and to achieve a sympathetic understanding of those who are different from us. In other words, liberal education should help us find a balance so that freedom from authority does not lead to excessive demands for individual gratification -- demands that are antisocial, leaving no place for individual sacrifice for the common good. We aspire to create a citizen suited to a society of independent individuals committed to the common good.
(3) If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, a liberal education needs to prepare us for an independent and responsible life of choice that appreciates the connectedness of things and peoples. We need a capacity to make moral and political choices that will give our individual and joint lives greater and more complete meaning, an understanding of how the world works, an ability to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments, and an appreciation of both the benefits and the challenges of living in a diverse society. This is especially important in a world where we increasingly depend on individual responsibility and internal control to replace -- or at least to supplement -- the rigid kinship rules, strict religious precepts, and other aspects of totalitarian rule that have traditionally imposed order on societies.
It would also be helpful if a liberal education encouraged and enabled students to distinguish between self-interest and community interest, between sentimentality and careful thought, between learning and imagination, and between the powers and limitations of knowledge.
These particular characteristics of a liberal education are closely related to a set of notions and institutional arrangements which I associate with liberal democracy. Importantly, they would encourage both an empathic understanding and a critical assessment of the different social arrangements and cultural experiences that give meaning to our individual and community lives. Liberal education must be committed to tolerance and freedom, and be open to the broadest stream of human ideas and experience. Just as the idea of a completely neutral state is unattainable, so is a curriculum free of normative content. And just as a liberal democracy needs some core commitments and values, so does a liberal education -- values such as tolerance, respect for others, and self-restraint.
In pursuing these values -- in a liberal education or in a liberal democracy -- we need to remember that the human condition places limits on the agreements that can be reached by a group of citizens (however well-meaning) with different ideas about what is most worthy, or what will best serve the common good. This means that some voices will inevitably feel suppressed as the voices of others carry the day. Liberal thought faces an inevitable tension between its commitment to tolerance, respect, and the liberty to pursue one's individual identity on the one hand, and the restraints necessary to ensure the survival of the community on the other. Despite the hopes of the Enlightenment, reason, truth, and voluntary consent have not yet completely replaced coercion or majority rule. I have no easy answer to resolving these tensions, but I believe that an important role of liberal education is to make us aware of them, and to help us explore the boundaries created by the issues that separate us.
The curricular criteria I have suggested are tied to fundamental liberal notions of the autonomy and importance of the individual and of finding new and better ways to respect differences and reject domination. These are not commitments that are shared by everyone. For me, however, these notions -- together with the judicial and political systems and the many civic organizations designed to give them operational meaning -- remain the greatest guarantee of our capacity to most fully realize, and give sustained meaning to, our human aspirations.
Closely related to the questions of what we mean by liberal education and what we hope it will accomplish is the question of what responsibility the university has to provide its students with a moral education.
Events over recent years have led many to feel that as a society we have lost our moral compass, that we are either uncertain about our values or willing to accept significant disparities between the values we espouse and the ways we live our individual and communal lives. Many also feel that our history, social institutions, and economic arrangements still provide very uneven possibilities for different individuals and groups -- that our society is not as open and equitable as we would like to believe. This demands that we take a more critical look at our values as a society -- at what they are and how they should be applied.
We live in a time when liberal democratic values are criticized for putting both too much and too little stress on the role of individual rights against the claims of tradition, social stability, and community. Moreover, from many quarters in contemporary society one senses an increased concern over the lack of principled and responsible behavior in both public and private life, particularly with respect to the web of mutual obligations and understandings that should bind us together as a community. Examples of irresponsible and unprincipled behavior are only too easy to identify, on campus as well as off. Within academic communities, students, faculty, and administrators do not always exhibit a shared commitment to the values that sustain and enrich a community of learning, including such values as honesty, nonviolence, and the maintenance of thoughtful communication, even when we disagree. It is also true, of course, that in a pluralistic world there will always be questions about whose moral values should dominate or how we should take into account the interests and commitments of others. One of the resulting issues for universities is the place of moral education in the curriculum.
One aspect of a student's moral education lies not in the curriculum but in the behavior of the faculty, staff, and administration and in the policies of the institution. Students will observe how fairly and responsibly they are treated, what values are reflected in the university's rules and regulations and the ways they are administered, how the university treats its employees, how the university relates to the community, how faithfully faculty and administrators keep their promises, and how assiduously they defend the values of open and thoughtful debate that are central to a learning environment. How tolerant are we of others' views? How thoughtful is our feedback to students? Is this feedback an exercise in judgment and honest criticism, or is it merely punitive? Do faculty and administrators allow their individual liberty to overwhelm all other values? Do we shock and patronize our students or awaken them? Do our programs assist students in entering the world of internal speculation and reflective thought? Students will be smart enough to discern if the university remains a symbol of enlightenment or an institution whose defining ambition is to sustain the status quo and its own special privileges.
Questions about the role of ethics in the curriculum itself produce great uneasiness that stems mostly from a reluctance to establish any particular moral orthodoxy. To put the matter simply, many faculty feel it is not appropriate for the institution to decide what ethics or whose ethics ought to be taught. In my judgment this concern is valid, but it need not -- and cannot -- prevent us from taking other avenues (direct or indirect) to moral education. If our curriculum offers students an opportunity to develop their capacities to identify and analyze ethical issues, to understand that it is important to continue to discuss important moral issues even when there are no ready answers, to recognize that we can learn from our disagreements in these matters, then a great deal is gained. If the classroom experiences of students help convey an understanding that the capacity to choose is a critical aspect of being a moral person, a worthy objective is achieved. If, in addition, students begin to focus on which constraints they will choose to accept in making ethical choices, the university will have made a major contribution to students' moral educations. Complex moral reasoning is not a substitute for moral behavior, but it is a beginning, and if we unite this capacity with a commitment to democracy and concern for others then much has been accomplished.
FINDING A BALANCE
We need an approach to moral education which will help students develop values that will enrich their lives as individuals and as members of society. It should enable them to participate in a communal effort to find a balance between individual liberty, private property, market competition, and due process on the one hand and self-restraint and community obligation on the other. Two centuries ago, it was within the power of the president and trustees of a college to declare a moral consensus and insist that students and faculty abide by it. Although there are many who yearn for a return to those days, it is not at all clear that this method was effective even while students were on campus. It is even less clear that this kind of prescription carried over well into later life. In any event, this approach provided little nourishment for the greater part of our national community, which was excluded from higher education.
I am not recommending a return to the "good old days." But I do believe there are valuable traditions and insights from earlier times that we need to carry with us as we address the moral issues of our time. Our universities should play a role in helping us give our lives meaning and moral significance. They should help us understand the "golden rule" (taking other people's interests into account) in a contemporary context. They should teach us to accept the inevitable anxiety that characterizes any moral and pluralistic society committed to democracy and change. Since we as a people have chosen pluralism and representative government over other forms of social organization (such as official moral orthodoxies or totalitarianism), it is incumbent upon our universities to prepare their students to live in a society where they will have to make their own moral choices, where they will have the capacity to help shape the moral contours of the society as a whole, and where their lives will be directly affected by the moral choices of others.
The appropriate university response to the contemporary need to create shared values upon which we can build a sense of community and to increase the moral significance of our lives is neither to adopt the discarded practices of earlier years nor to abdicate responsibility to others. In my view, universities must do all they can to ensure that students and faculty, and the society at large, wrestle with the great questions of human existence. Universities are not necessarily places to come for answers, but they are places that have an obligation to be sure that important questions are being addressed honestly, thoughtfully, and with full respect for the worth and dignity of all people. They are also places that must try as hard as they can to exhibit, by both word and deed, an exemplary commitment to ethically informed principles, and to a set of values that enables them to meet their civic responsibilities.
Harold T. Shapiro *64 is the president of Princeton. This article is adapted from an address he gave at a symposium at Cornell University honoring the retirement of its president, Frank H.T. Rhodes.