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The Work of

the University
Richard C. Levin

Yale University Press New Haven and Tondn


identifies liberal education with its content, the second with the qua! subtle truth though the curriculum is thsiss chancing it is nrc to
itics of mind it seeks to develop. find among the faculty advocates of curricular change.
These views need not he in conflict. I quote from a report ofthe This example also teaches a more general lesson. It is all too easy
Yale College faculty: By a liberal education has been understood, to endorse certain values and remain quite blind as to how they
such a course ot discipline in the arts and sciences, as is best calcu should he applied in one s osin life \s I shall suggcst shortli s hherii
lated, at the same time, both to strengthen and enlarge the faculties of education leads us to question and define our values. But this is not
mind, and to familiarize it with the leading principles of the great ob enough. To understand fiilh what our values mean, we must also test
jects of human investigation and knowledge. These words come what it means to live by them.
from the text of a report submitted to President Jeremiah Day and In defining liberal education, the Yale Report gave equal weight
the Fellows of Yale College in 1827 and published the following year to the content of the curriculum and the development of a particular
along with President Days own report on the plan of instruction in qualits of mind Although thi. content of a liberal cducation h as
Yale College. Note the facultys emphasis on two distinct objectives: changed, the capabilities it seeks to encourage have not. I believe that
the development of qualities of mind and the mastery ofcertain spe the essence of liberal education is to develop the freedom to think
cific content. Concerning the content of a liberal education, the critically and independently, to cultivate ones mind to its fullest po
document that has come to he known as the Yale Report of 1828 tential, to liberate onescif from prejudicc supcrsnnon and dogma
continues: It has been believed that there are certain common sub The content ofa uirnculum intcndcd to foster thest qu almes is
jects of knowledge, about which all men ought to he informed, who not without consequence. Science and mathematics are essential
are best educated. The faculty recognized, however, that the corpus comronents of any such project. because they present to the student
of knowledge appropriate to a liberal education was not immutable. methods ofinquirv that are indispensable to the full development of
...
The authors observe: What at one time has been held in little the human mind and its powers to reason independently. In pure
estimation, and has hardly fbund a place in a course of liberal instruc mathematics and theoretical phi 51cc for cxamplc onc hams how to
non, has, under other circumstances, risen into repute, and received a reason deductively from clearly defined premises. In the eperirnentah
proportional share of attention \s knowledge varies, education sciences one learns the method of induction. how to make proper in
should vary with it. ferences from evidence. Similarly, the great works of Western philos
As observers and frreeasters of the development of the liberal ophv provide examples of how the mind liberates itself from prejudice
curriculum in America, the authors of the Yale Report were quite ac hi the rigorous appli.ation of rcason to qucstlons of how w c know
curate. We no longer consider rhetoric and theology, for example, to and how we should act
he indispensable cubjects. And, in contrast to our eighteenth-century What you read does matter. But I would suggest that we give
forebears at Yale, we consider the literatures of living languages to he less attention to the race, ethnicity, or gender of the authors we read.
central elements in a liberal education. Yet the Yale College facultys and more to the seriousness with which they confront what it means
endorsement of change in the content of a liberal education is ironic to be human Truls profound works from ins cultui-al tradition can
in the context of a report that rejected curricular innovation and re serve to develop and exercise ones capacities fur reflection and criti
tained the mandatory study of Greek and Latin. This irony reveals a cal judgment. Indeed, if these caracrics were more thoroughly exer

4 The Purpose ola College Education On Liberal Education 15


cised in thinking about the curriculum of a liberal education, the de entangle a skein of thought. to detect what is sophistical, and to dis
bate could be guided by the light of reasoned argument rather than card what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and
the heat of passion. to master any subject with facility.
2
Whatever the content of the curriculum and however it may This thcmc thst i liberal ..ducation best prcpsres one to sersc
evolve, let me suggest that a liberal education is not intended to teach society resonates deeply with Ysles historical purpose In 17(11 the
you what to think, but how to think. For advice on this subject, con General Assernhk of Connecticut approved An Act frr Lihe;tv to
sider what Thomas Jefferson told his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: Erect a Collc,jintc Scimol, which it defined as a place wherein Youth
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every may he instructed in the Arts and Sciences who through the hlessing
opinion. . .
.
[ L]av aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither be of Almigh God may he fitted for Publick employment both in
...
lieve nor reject anything, because anx other persons have rejected Church and Civil State. For nearly three centuries Yale has fulfilled
or believed it. lour own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven. its founding mission with distinction. supplying leaders to the nation
and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the and the world.
decision.
1 This endorsement of the powers of reason and indepen The theme of public sers ice finds i different more immednte
dent critical thinking has lost none ofits force. The university remains and direct expression in the lens Ities of those who has e preceded s ou

committed to these values of the Enlightenment. to studs it YiIe in recent s ears I wt s ear os cr2 200 sIc ( ollege stu
I have argued that the purpose of liberal education is to develop dents engaged in community service activities in schools, Soup
the capacity for independent thought rather than to acquire specific kitchens, health care facilities, counseling centers, and churches
or useful knowledge. In this view I find mvselfallied with Cardinal throughout New Haven and the surrounding region. I encourage
Newman. who rejected the straightforward utilitarian arguments for you now to join them, and I expect that, when we gather in the sprine
support of higher education. But, as Newman concluded with some of 1997 to celebrate the completion of your course of study. I shall
irony, a liberal education aimed solely at developing the capacity to encourage you then to keep service to society among your priorities
reason can he defended on utilitarian grounds because it produces as s ou pursue sour chosen soc itions
citizens who can make a genuine contribution to society. To equip students for public or communits sersiec. is onls one
Training of the intellect, Newman observes, which is best eontnhution th st liberal education makes to the si cli being of our n I
for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to tion and the wider world. Liberal education is also a powerful force
society If ...
a practical end must be assigned to a University for the preservation of individual freedom and democracy.
course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Newman Let me develop this argument, because I believe there are two
continues: It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious distinct points to he made. First, because liberal education develops
view of his ow-n opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, the capacity for reason, reflection, and critical judgment. democratic
an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It processes work best when citizens are liberally educated. This idea
teaches him to see things as the are, to go right to the point, to dis stood behind Jeffersons support for public education, and it was svell
Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, T7?e Papers f Thomas Jef7invon,
edited Es Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), volume 12, 2. John Rents Cardinal Newman, The Idea ofa Unicersit. edited by Martin I .Ssaghc
pp. 15-17. \orrc Damt I.. nors,ts of \otrs I) Press 1960 Di oursc 5 11

I6 The Purpose ofa College Education On Liberal Educanon 1


understood by Tocqueville, who observed that in the United States pendent minds, you will have the burden of defending freedom and
the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of independence for all.
the democratic republic.
3 He described with admiration the ability You enter an institution rich in the traditions of scholarship,
of Americans to think clearly and precisely about public issues, and he abounding in the joys of learning. But a liberal education is not sim
noted especially the high level of civic intelligence among the inhabi ply given to you. You must actively pursue it. Take every advantage of
tants of Connecticut and Massachusetts. the treasures before you. The world is all hetbre you, where to choose
Second. a liberally educated citizenry is the most reliable source your place of rest.
of resistance to those forces of prejudice and intolerance that would In four ears, we beginners will meet again at another ritual cel
undermine our nations commitment to free inquiry and free expres ebration to assess what we have accomplished. As we begin together,
sion. Those educated to fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her let us, with open minds and steadfast hearts, dedicate ourselves to the
tribunal every fact, every opinion are those most disinclined to fall pursuit of light and truth.
under the sway of prejudice, to succumb to intolerance. It is no acci
dent that universities have historically been bastions in the defense of
free inquiry and free expression, no accident that within Eastern
Europe and China they harbored and nurtured resistance to totalitar
iani Sm.
The forces of intolerance are not easily overcome. Forty years
ago, President Griswold outlined the dangers of McCarthvism. To
day, threats to free inquiry and free speech come from within as well
as outside the university. Doctrinaire advocates of the politically cor
rect substitute a wish to rewrite history for critical self-examination.
The, and many of their opponents, manifest little toleration for
open-minded debate. The issues at stake need frill and free discussion.
with toleration and respect for differences of opinion. We must bring
to this debate the full power of our intellects and all our capabilities
for making critical distinctions and reasoned judgments. These are
precisely the qualities that a liberal education seeks to cultivate.
A liberal education will prepare you to he thinking citizens for a
lifetime, to subject the claims of all groups and interests to critical
scrutiny, to resist those who would substitute the emotional appeal of
prejudice for the use of reason. Given the blessing of free and mdc

3 Alexis de Tocqueville, Dnnocracv in A,nprica (New York: Vintage Books, 1945,


olurne I, p. 329.

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