I have just put down “The Second Plane,” a collection of essays about that critical moment on September 11, 2001, when the second plane rammed into the World Trade Center. We all remember what happened. Still, I would not have encountered this collection by Martin Amis if I had not perused the shelves of the bookstore, wondering what my colleagues in various departments were assigning. Every semester I browse in literature, economics and philosophy.
By reading across disciplines I am continuing my liberal education. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the goal of a liberal education is liberation from intellectual narrowness and myopia; it enables us to engage with a dramatically changing world.
The goal of Northern’s Liberal Studies program is to equip students to thrive in that rapidly changing world. The Liberal Studies Committee has been working to improve the program and give it a sense of cohesion. We recognize that intellectual narrowness and myopia have no place in our world.
The social upheavals of the 1960s, followed by a communications revolution, undermined the old intellectual “core.” As the world changed, people asked new questions and challenged the accepted answers to old questions. University faculty no longer identified a content college-educated people should know, because there was simply too much to know.
Instead, they identified the intellectual skills which students needed in order to effectively engage with the unending barrage of new information, and they allowed students to choose from a menu of courses accepted as imparting those skills.
Despite popular rhetoric, these choice-driven liberal education programs are not out-of-step with our culture. If anything, they are too reflective of modern culture. They represent optimum choice within a “Have-It-Your-Way” society.
Even the nature of information confronting the public has changed. In the 1960s, more than 80 percent of all Americans got their news from daily newspapers, many of which got their national news from one of two wire services. Television news came from three remarkably similar networks. Most Americans got the same news.
Now, cable offers a smorgasbord of television news, and internet sites provide specially tailored news to people seeking out information that confirms their preconceptions. “News” becomes increasingly extreme as it becomes increasingly isolated from opposing viewpoints. Public arguments are engaged by people equipped with rhetoric, but little understanding of other perspectives.
Both liberal education and modern society seem to have a lost a sense of cohesion. Universities have re-examined their liberal education programs, finding that they lack a way of bringing the various pieces together into a meaningful whole.
The solution has proven evasive. Some argue for a return to the earlier, content-driven core, others have stressed civic engagement. No idea, however, has gained the broad support enjoyed by the earlier “core.”
At Northern, we already expose students to a variety of types of problem solving skills. We need to provide students clear opportunities to bring those disparate approaches to knowledge together in some cohesive manner.
Liberal education succeeds whenever a student embraces intellectual curiosity; it truly succeeds when a student sustains that intellectual curiosity long after graduation.
Editor’s Note: Alan Willis is an associate professor of history at NMU. He is also a member of the Liberal Studies Committee. The Professor’s Corner is a weekly column written by various NMU faculty. Anyone interested in writing should contact the opinion editor at [email protected]