Frank Bruni has a column this week attacking the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, an easy target for anyone who understands the purpose of an education. He points to UMBC as an example of the kind of school that serves its STEM and humanities students well, that is welcoming and nurturing of its African-American students, and that is much more successful than many elite institutions in giving students both what they want and what they need.
Here's my definition of a good liberal arts education:
A good liberal arts education should teach students how to think, not what to think. A class in which a professor teaches either Plato or Judith Butler as unquestionable is not a good class. A teacher should ask his students to first consider the questions the text asks itself. Then the student should impose whatever questions he wishes upon the text.
A good liberal arts education should balance a study of canonical texts and traditional subjects with a study of non-canonical texts and non-traditional subject matter. No student should expect to read the entirety of the Western classics in four years or in his lifetime. It is not a tragedy if a student goes through four years of college without encountering Milton. It is unfortunate if he goes through four years of college without encountering any canonical text, from Homer to Virginia Woolf, or from Plato to Freud. In other words, the student should know what it means to engage with a tradition. But culture is not static. It breathes. And the non-Western world is just as important as the Western world. A student should at some point read Confucius and Native American literatures. A student should take classes on the history of Sub-Saharan Africa, French comics, Hungarian animation, Argentine silent film, diplomacy in Latin America, the history of gay life in New York or Japan.
A good liberal arts education should teach a student to care more about learning than grades.
A good liberal arts education should teach a student to pursue areas of study in which he will not excel.
A good liberal arts education should teach a student to respect people of different races, classes, gender identities, sexual orientations, religions...It should teach a student to respect, accept, enjoy, and try to understand difference. The student should be open to getting to know all of his fellow students.
If the university is located in a large city, the student should be able and desire to take advantage of life outside the university. He should visit museums and interesting neighborhoods. He should volunteer in local schools. He should go to interesting concerts, meet and get to know other people in the city. If the university is in a small town, the student should be genuinely interested in getting to know his neighbors.
The student should be unafraid of remaining true to himself in all situations.
Essentially, I want the university to create good citizens, people who will question, who will listen, who will remain curious, who will be creative, who will be responsible to their fellow man, and giving to all for the rest of their lifetimes. The three universities I have attended (Columbia, University of Iowa, University of Washington) succeeded in some respects and failed in others to create these good citizens. Those failures existed at every level of the university, from the administrators, to the professors, to the student body.
When the administration fails to pay its custodial workers a living wage, it gives permission to the student body to disrespect the custodial workers.
When grades are the primary criteria to get into certain programs, which promise a lucrative career, the university tells students to only take courses in which they will excel.
Some of my classmates from Columbia are coming out of the closet now, while they're in their mid-30s. It was a liberal school in a gay-friendly city, but I suspect the competitive nature of our college made them afraid to admit to any form of difference, anything that might suggest they couldn't achieve status.
If student organizations pride themselves on inviting the Minutemen or Ann Coulter, they are creating an atmosphere which celebrates poor scholarship and a fundamental disrespect of their minority peers. On the other hand, if students scream in protest of William J. Bratton instead of questioning his policies, based on research, they are failing at elementary civics.
If a professor cancels classes and encourages students to protest a cause, any cause, he is teaching a few bad lessons. A professor should not tell the students what they should believe. A professor should also tell students that political action sometimes requires sacrifice. If the student believes attending a Black Lives Matter march is important, he should be willing to sacrifice some of his education, and perhaps accept a lower grade in order to do so.
When a professor calls Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories a genocide without doing his own rigorous work of explaining the histories of genocides, and explaining, with some degree of nuance, exactly what he means by genocide, he is telling his students avoid hard, moral questions.
If the student's immediate response when someone tells him that he is studying African comics or the Finnish language is to roll his eyes, the university has failed him and he has failed the university. If the student calls Thomas Hobbes a "dead white male," without irony, and refuses to read him for that reason alone, the university has failed him and he has failed the university.
Every university fails. Every university succeeds.