One of the most fundamental and distinctive aspects of the American approach to undergraduate education is the priority given to making sure that students receive a broad “liberal education.” What this phrase means has nothing to do with “liberal politics”; instead, it is a theory of education that holds that the undergraduate student needs to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives from all the liberal arts: the humanities, history, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences. The student is required to take a broad range of courses that provide exposure in all of these areas. He or she also has a major subject – an area of greater specialization; but the course work in the major discipline is usually only about twenty-five percent of all courses. So the American system usually emphasizes breadth as an important academic value, and specialization in a discipline (biology, sociology, literature) receives somewhat lower priority. Even engineering education – traditionally a fairly specialized curriculum – requires significant exposure to courses in the humanities and social sciences. (Martha Nussbaum has written a very important book justifying this approach, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.)
What are the reasons for this educational philosophy? What advantages does it offer in helping to develop the intellectual capabilities of the student? Other national systems of higher education place the balance somewhat differently. For example, in France and Germany it is expected that university students will have received a broad education in secondary schooling, and that the university is a place for specialized education in a discipline. However, American educators have multiple reasons for thinking that a broad general education is a crucial component within the process of intellectual maturation and development that is the goal of an undergraduate education. These reasons fall in several categories: preparing young adults for thinking innovatively and imaginatively; helping young adults to recognize the historical and social context of the problems and processes they study; helping students to deal with moral and political issues in a thoughtful and critical way; helping young people to recognize the value of racial and ethnic diversity within a modern society; building a foundation for deep interdisciplinary work and study at later stages; and cultivating the skills of independent critical thinking.
Imagination and innovation. Most people would agree that the challenges of the twenty-first century, whether in China, Brazil, or North America, will require new ideas and innovative approaches. This is true in business; creating new products and solutions requires great creativity. But it is true in social and political life as well; the social challenges all modern societies face cannot be resolved by simply applying “off-the-shelf” solutions. So cultivating an ability of young people to think with originality and creativity is a major priority for educational systems in every country. And a broad liberal education is very well suited to developing these features of thought. When a student has struggled to provide interpretations of a difficult poem, or to understand the cultural practices of modern Navajo people in the American southwest, or to genuinely comprehend the theory of natural selection that Darwin proposed – the student will have created for himself or herself a set of mental skills that would not have developed if her education were restricted to a single discipline and its methods. Too much “paradigm dependence” discourages creativity.
Social and historical context. The important problems that modern societies face are rarely confined to a single academic discipline. And there is often a very important component of social and behavioral complexity to even the most technical of contemporary problems. Suppose that a city is concerned about automobile traffic congestion, and that the civil engineering experts who consult to the city propose adding an additional tunnel to provide more capacity for an important river crossing within the city. This might be looked at as a civil engineering problem, and it is, to a certain extent. But even more importantly, it is a problem of human behavior. What will be the behavioral consequences of an additional tunnel? Sociologists may provide a basis for thinking that the additional tunnel will increase congestion rather than decrease it – because more drivers will be encouraged to think that there is a more convenient way of driving to their destination. So the unintended consequence of the civil engineering project is to increase rather than decrease the social problem it was designed to solve. (This is approximately what has been observed in the experience of the third harbor tunnel in Boston.) When students have been trained to look within a problem to discover its historical context and its social dynamics, they are likely to solve problems more effectively.
Moral and political thinking. It is an important social goal that our society needs to create young people who will be moral persons and engaged citizens. But behaving morally and exercising the duties of citizenship are skills that we need to learn. Both require a sophisticated ability to analyze and reason about behavior and about the needs of society. A broad liberal education is well suited to giving young people the intellectual skills associated with thinking critically about difficult moral and political issues. For example, suppose a person has received a medical education but now needs to make ethical decisions about possible treatments for some of his or her patients. The concept of “informed consent” is a complex moral idea, and it is not self-evident. After all, if the physician himself is confident that a treatment will benefit the patient, why should he need to gain the consent of the patient? There are very basic moral reasons why this should be the case; but unless the young doctor has had extended experiences in analyzing and debating moral issues, he is poorly prepared for solving this practical issue in his own practice.
The value of diversity. A broad liberal education is a very good basis for learning to understand and value the perspectives of people whose racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds are very different from our own. Literature is one such tool. When students read and discuss a book like The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, they are quickly drawn into an understanding that the perspective of an African-American writer from the 1960s is profoundly different from their own. And they begin to see that their own parochial interpretation of the events around them is just that – parochial and limited. It is important to have the tools that permit young citizens to understand these diverse perspectives. And, as Scott Page documents in a recent book, when we are successful in incorporating diverse perspectives into concrete problem-solving contexts, we get better solutions (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (New Edition)).
Interdisciplinary studies. Problems like global climate change cannot be effectively addressed from the point of view of a single academic discipline. Climate change involves ocean chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, international politics, and individual behavior. And no single discipline can be the basis for a policy that will effectively address climate change. This means that it is very important to create an intellectual environment that favors interdisciplinary cooperation. A broad liberal education can do that very well. When a student graduates from a good liberal arts university in the United States, he or she has a reasonably good grasp of some areas of natural sciences, quantitative reasoning, policy analysis, and historical context; and he or she is able to think critically and communicate effectively with others. This means that the undergraduate student is in a very good position to be a part of an extended interdisciplinary research or policy effort.
In short, the advocates for a philosophy of liberal education believe that a liberally educated student is best prepared to be a critical and innovative thinker; a person who is well prepared to think with originality about novel problems; a person who has learned to look for the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts; and a person who has a sophisticated ability to think about complex moral and social issues. This individual is likely to be a productive contributor to the organizations he or she joins later in life; he or she is likely to be an engaged citizen and a moral person; and he or she is more likely to embody the qualities of respect and civility that are crucial for collaboration and public life.