Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Pollard

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014



Pollard, S. (2014), "Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Pollard", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Pollard

Article Type: Authors' Comments From: On the Horizon, Volume 22, Issue 1

In the course of describing and defending his general education scheme, Scott (2014) expresses reservations about some current approaches. Here is a passage that particularly caught my attention.

While the goal [of general education] may be to introduce students to varied forms of knowledge and varied modes of analysis, too often the introductory courses selected to fulfill general education requirements are the same courses used as the first step for the major, which often is designed as the preparation for graduate study in the field (Scott, 2014, p. 27).

I take the point to be the following. Consider some courses distributed across the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and formal sciences. Suppose each of these courses is a first step in a major that prepares students for graduate study in a liberal field. Then (we are told) these courses will do a poor job of introducing students to varied forms of knowledge and varied modes of analysis or will, in some other respect, make a poor contribution to the liberal education of students. Scott offers reasons for believing this. We now consider those reasons.

The student’s experience will be too narrow. Scott (2014, p. 27 writes, "In this way, a requirement intended to encourage breadth and thinking across disciplines can actually end up being overly focused and pre-professional, the opposite of liberal." Well, just imagine that our package of courses spans the length and breadth of the liberal arts. Then our package, considered as a whole, will not be too narrow. Our courses will range all the way from poetry to physics. If there is excessive focus, it must be because the individual courses are somehow too narrow. How could that be? Our assumption is that each course is a first step in a program that prepares students for graduate study in a liberal field. If such a program supplies good preparation for graduate study in liberal field X, it will introduce students to the practice of X: it will introduce students to forms of inquiry or creativity characteristic of X. Among other things, it will introduce students to forms of knowledge and modes of analysis. Courses in different distribution areas will, presumably, introduce students to different forms and modes. So our package of courses will "introduce students to varied forms of knowledge and varied modes of analysis." So far, so good. Perhaps, though, exposure to various forms and modes is not enough.

The student’s experience will not be sufficiently interdisciplinary. Scott’s main point may be that instructors will focus too narrowly on their own fields and will not "encourage thinking across disciplines." This would, however, be an odd point for Scott to stress since he later argues that such a narrowing of vision would be contrary to the inclinations of most professionals.

While schools and colleges are organized around departments, we do not organize our brains this way. As a professional, when confronted with a puzzle or a problem, we do not metaphorically reach into a history "box" or a sociology "box." Instead, we draw upon all that we know in an effortless, interdisciplinary, integrated method (Scott, 2014, p. 28).

If interdisciplinary thinking were a rarity in standard introductory courses, it would follow that many professors are not real professionals. I hesitate to attribute that view to Scott. I hope he would, instead, concede that an introductory course in a liberal field, a first step in a major, will often have a substantial interdisciplinary component because that is how we professors "organize our brains." One might still complain that a course is not interdisciplinary enough. Two responses: first, I have very little idea what counts as enough here; second, I share Graber’s (2014) concern that we may do students a disservice by making too many connections for them.

Instructors will focus on answers rather than inquiry. Having just characterized major coursework in liberal fields as "pre-professional," Scott (2014, p. 27) remarks that, "liberal education " focuses on questions and the pursuit of meaning rather than on professional … subjects which focus on answers rather than on inquiry.” Is it really inevitable for a first course in a liberal major to "focus on answers rather than on inquiry"? Here at Truman State, we are doing our best to demonstrate that this is not inevitable. The slots in our liberal-arts distribution scheme are called "Modes of inquiry." We try to make this more than an empty label by requiring that Mode courses satisfy explicit standards that emphasize practices and techniques. For example, the first three goals of a Life Science Mode of Inquiry course are that students: "[engage] in scientific experimentation, including the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; understand how scientific theories are evaluated and applied; [and] understand that science is a human endeavor, influenced by both historical and technological context." One of the goals of a Historical Mode of Inquiry course is that students: "[draw] upon and [synthesize] the content and methodologies of humanistic and social-scientific disciplines to study and interpret the past." A course that emphasizes disciplinary and, indeed, interdisciplinary practice would be an ideal gateway course for a major. So it is not surprising that many Mode of Inquiry courses are first steps in a major program. It is entirely natural for a gateway course in a liberal major to focus on inquiry (the pursuit of knowledge and understanding) rather than answers.

Note, by the way, that students who take a first step in a liberal major may discover, to their surprise, that they want to take more steps. Few students enter Truman State with the intention of majoring in my field: philosophy. It is much more common for students to consider philosophy after a positive experience in a gateway course taken to satisfy a liberal-studies requirement. Requirements that steer students toward introductory courses in liberal majors are not only pedagogically sound and, therefore, good for students – they are also good for the liberal programs themselves. They give professors a chance to light a fire in students who might otherwise never have imagined that philosophy (to give just one example) could be so interesting.

I conclude that the inclusion of gateway courses in general education programs is to be encouraged rather than deplored.

Comment by Stephen Pollard, Department of Philosophy & Religion, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, USA


Graber, R. (2014), "Why is liberal education so incoherent? An anthropological perspective", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 10–18

Scott, R. (2014), "The meaning of liberal education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 23–34

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