College for What?

"Liberal education" is a fighting phrase nowadays. "In the current discussions between the Armed Forces and the educators on the conversion of colleges to the war effort we have a vague picture of a group of horn-rimmed but humane deans in a gallant losing struggle against a tight-fisted clique of electronicists. It might help to clarify this picture, and assist both sides, if we had a more definite idea of what liberal education was all about, and what were the values for which it stands.

Clearly the liberal education we are anxious to defend is not the patchwork of Sanskrit, airplane salesmanship, and fraternity life that we have today. It is rather a non-existent ideal towards which at least some existing institutions are working. Our job is to clarify and solidify the ideal.

There are at least two false criteria which are confusing us in this attempt: the identification of liberal education with content rather than method, and the measure of value in terms of abstruseness. It is a mistake to believe that literature or philosophy are essentially more "liberal subjects" than science or math. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of education today is the cleavage between science and "the humanities." We have no more Leonardos or Goethes. Anyone who has studied the history of science, or read Whitehead or Eddington can testify to their superior value as general training for the mind, over an intensive course in German grammer, or a study of literary names and dates.

The other all-too common fallacy is that liberal education is best represented by Indic philology or Oriental art. This is to raise liberal education to a realm so ethereal that only the privileged few can breathe its rarefied atmosphere, and consequently it is to deny a great part of its significance. Perhaps the most important "liberal" subjects are the more mundane social sciences, provided always that they are taught not as a series of unrelated facts, but as a pattern of thought-provoking ideas.

The theory that underlies a belief in liberal education seems to be that if you start people thinking freely and courageously, they will eventually arrive at the right conclusions. In a world as confused as ours is today, the only possible dogma is the dogma dictated by self-interest. But in the free exchange of ideas we can at least hope that truth will win out. It may be that the colleges are not the place for this kind of education. Certainly they are not the only place for it. There is, however, an opportunity in college to escape at least the most violent pressures of special interest, and to gain at least a minimum of perspective. It is this opportunity that we must maintain throughout the war and into the peace.