In yesterday’s post I commented on a forum on liberal learning in The Cresset, the literary and public affairs magazine of Valparaiso University. I focused on a conversation between Valpo’s Mark Schwehn and Columbia’s Andrew Delbanco about the relevance of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.
After their discussion of Newman, the conversation moved toward the future of liberal learning and how it may be experiencing a renaissance outside of the academy.
Schwehn: Frank Oakley in his book Community of Learning…would say liberal education is flourishing at liberal arts colleges. The other side of this is that it is conceivable to argue that the character of today’s students is shifting radically, not least because we’re having a lot of non-traditional returning students. You might argue that liberal education is flourishing more in extension programs like the University of Chicago’s Great Books extension where you have adults coming back and reading the Great Books. Or consider the work of state humanities councils, which have all kinds of folks reading books outside of the university. Many of the conversations that take place under the auspices of these councils would pass muster as liberal education, so that what we might be looking at is not a decline of liberal education but a kind of renaissance of it. It’s just that it has new social locations.
Delbanco: That’s a very good point, and I would add the proliferation of reading groups throughout the country, all of which speak to the point that there’s a tremendous appetite for reading, thinking, and sharing thoughts. After all, human beings are communitarian creatures, and they are introspective creatures. They’ve been trying to figure out why they’ve been dropped into this world ever since they developed consciousness, as far as we can tell. The appetite that liberal education seeks to meet is not going to go away. Just anectdotally I know all kinds of young people who’ve been prepared for careers by our most prestigious educational institutions who achieve the goal for which they’ve been prepared and find themselves miserably unhappy and unfulfilled.
Schwehn and Delbanco’s observations about adult learners and the liberal arts cause me to wonder if most 18-22 year-olds are really ready for a liberal education. Would such an education be more appreciated later in life? Most of my students have no idea that they are being liberally educated and, frankly, I am not sure if they care. General education courses are little more than hoops they have to jump through to get their degree. The real courses that matter–the ones that they believe are preparing them for life–are the courses in their specific major.
On the other hand, I have done a lot of work lately with adult learners and my experiences with them confirm Schwehn and Delbanco’s thoughts. The adult learners who show up for one of my book talks or Pennsylvania Commonwealth lectures are eager for ideas and texts in a way that puts the intellectual curiosity of my traditional undergraduates to shame.