Friday, June 3, 2011

The College Try

I'm teaching a new course in the fall. It's a freshman seminar, geared to introduce students in their first semester of college how to write, how to read, and how to think like liberal arts college students.

My seminar is about the history of the liberal arts, and specifically about medieval education. The university is a medieval institution, and the liberal arts reach back even farther, to late antiquity. We'll be examining what medieval students learned (the liberal arts curriculum, and a bit of the theology, law, and medicine curricula), where they learned it (tutors, monasteries, cathedral schools, and universities), who they learned it from (monks, clerics, masters, and professors), and how they learned it (pedagogy and educational technology). But I'll be pairing the historical content with more contemporary content, as well. They'll be looking at mission statements of liberal arts colleges, examining curriculum requirements, and analyzing new educational technology (like the internet) as well as old (the codex). I want these new students to learn about the history of the liberal arts education, and to reflect on their own decisions to attend a liberal arts college.

So I was delighted to read
Louis Menand's essay in this week's New Yorker, which examines competing ideologies about the purpose of college. One view is that college is meritocratic--it allows society to sort human capital according to ability and aptitude. The other view is that college is democratic--it socializes people and empowers them with intellectual habits to become part of an informed citizenry.

When I was a student, I was a bit closer to the meritocratic idea of the purpose of college, but what I got (and what I want to impart to my students) reflects a more democratic idea of college. I wanted to spend time learning a lot of stuff about the subjects that I enjoyed. Basically, I wanted to be able to get all the jokes, or at least most of them. You know in "Shakespeare in Love" when that sadistic little kid who says that he wants to write really bloody plays about vengeance turns out to be John Webster? I got that joke. But I also got a whole set of practices and habits. While I thought I was mastering some information, it turns out that I was learning how to manage my time, how to read closely, how to form and articulate my ideas clearly, how to argue for and against my own views, how to evaluate others' arguments, and how to nurture my curiosity. Now, as a teacher, this is what I want my students to learn, even after they forget about the Edict of Milan or the Donation of Constantine.

I think that the original liberal arts curriculum (grammar, logic, and dialectic comprising the trivium, and music, geometry, mathematics, and astral science comprising the quadrivium) is an imperfect fusion of both ideologies. Liberal arts education allowed the elites of medieval Europe to train a group of people to do necessary work, from executing contracts to interpreting the Bible. And the liberal arts education required significant mastery of information (things had to be committed to memory, as books were so scarce). But it also provided an elite group--dispersed in time and space--to have a common language (literally and figuratively) and participate in an ongoing cultural conversation. Furthermore, mastery of the disciplines inculcated intellectual habits and practices--how to read and write, how to argue, how to measure, and how to interpret. And, although the European Middle Ages is often mistakenly described as an intellectual wasteland, intellectual curiosity spurred many (most?) of the new ideas, art, and inventions that flourished during the period.

What do you think college is for?

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