The Search for American Liberal Education: Liberal Education and the American Context

This article originally appeared in Rethinking Liberal Education, edited by Nicholas H. Farnham and Adam Yarmolinsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, USA.

When Charles William Eliot launched his radical reforms at Harvard in the late 1870s, he was convinced that the fixed curriculum, based on English liberal education models, was ill-suited to the democratic spirit, the cultural diversity, and the rapidly changing circumstances in America. By introducing the free elective system, he hoped to develop in students the habits of self-reliance that he regarded as essential to the American democratic system. Seventy years later, in a post-World War II climate of concern about the “unifying purpose and idea” for American education, Harvard issued a new version of liberal education in its famous Redbook. To address the new American circumstances, these reforms reduced rather than increased choices for students. These benchmarks of American higher education notwithstanding, the final chapter of a widely respected study by Bruce Kimball, published in 1986, opens with the observation that there is no “distinctively American view of liberal education.”1

This observation contains an irony that raises interesting and significant questions. After such high-profile efforts as those made at Harvard, why is there no clear model of American liberal education? And if there is no such model, do we need to develop one, especially in the context of the dramatic changes affecting American society today—changes that in many ways are more radical than those faced by Charles William Eliot? Why, in this latest round of debates about the core curriculum in our colleges and universities, has the issue been posed in terms of the primacy and purity of Western civilization rather than in terms of the adequacy of our educational models to address the realities of America in the late twentieth century?

These questions are even more striking when one considers the almost complete reversal of roles and the dramatic changes in orientation that have occurred in the relationship between the United States and its cultural ancestors in the Anglo-European world. While in the late nineteenth century Great Britain was extending its rule to much of the rest of the world, and other European nations were its chief competitors for imperial influence, in the late twentieth century the United States stands alone as the remaining superpower of the world. In that earlier period, cultural influences flowed primarily from the Anglo-European world to the United States, but now cultural influences flow primarily from the United States to other parts of the world. When Eliot was president of Harvard, the United States was almost entirely oriented toward the Atlantic community in terms of commerce and culture, but in our own time, Bill Clinton, the president of the United States, has declared that the economic future of the United States lies in Pacific Rim trade, and the influence of non-Western cultures on the United States is increasingly evident. Immigrants coming to the United States in the nineteenth century were overwhelmingly from the Anglo-European world. Immigrants coming to the United States in the late twentieth century are overwhelmingly from Asia and Latin America.

Limits of the traditional model

In examining the history of curricular reform in American higher education, we see clearly the reasons for the absence of an American model of liberal education. While the Harvard reforms were concerned with adapting traditional models of liberal education to American circumstances, the reforms did not challenge essential assumptions built into those models. Some of these assumptions seriously inhibited the possibility of even considering an American model of liberal education. The Oxford model of liberal education that flourished in America was best articulated by Matthew Arnold. He believed in a concept of high culture, mediated through great books, which contained the best that had been thought and written. In practice, this translated into the assumption that the best ideas contained in the texts of Western civilization were universal—they applied to any time and any place. If liberal education equaled universal truth, then there was no need to distinguish an American model of liberal education from an English model of liberal education. Arnold’s model of liberal education, like the Great Books program advocated by Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago, was valid for all cultures. You could apply the model to different circumstances, but the model itself was timeless and not related to place. Even as Eliot grew determined to respond to changes in American society, he promoted publication of the Harvard Classics, which assumed a great books notion of liberal education.

Arnold’s emphasis on liberal education as high culture also discouraged consideration of a distinctive American model. In nineteenth-century England, liberal education as high culture was suited to a class-conscious society in which gentlemen of the aristocracy were groomed for leadership responsibilities. But this high culture was self-contained, self-perpetuating, and comfortably insulated from the rapid changes occurring in other parts of the society. In fact, Arnold’s liberal education envisioned not only a self-contained but also a harmonious culture, and this concern for harmony and order easily translated into a fear of rapid change, which represented disorder. Although Eliot was concerned with responding to the many changes occurring in American society, the model of liberal education he used had its own built-in limitations that kept it from achieving that purpose. These limitations were to appear repeatedly in many, if not most, subsequent efforts to reform liberal education in America. The self-contained high culture became that of the American college professor rather than the English aristocrat, and efforts to create new forms of liberal education inevitably sparked internal arguments among professors rather than efforts to develop a new model appropriate to the changing realities of the larger society. Given that from the outset college teachers were largely oriented toward Anglo-European culture, the internal debate was not likely to emphasize distinctive American features or requirements.

Impact on curricular development

This unwitting and almost unconscious dependence on an Anglo-­European model of liberal education has had pervasive impacts on how American higher education has approached those areas of the curriculum that we variously call liberal education, general education, or core education. One impact has been succinctly described by philosopher John Searle. According to Searle, our notion of liberal education has emphasized extreme universalism, on the one hand, and extreme individualism, on the other. Our objective has been to provide individual students with the intellectual skills to liberate themselves from their provincial origins so that they could identify with universal humanity. In this kind of liberal education, there is no place for particular cultural identities. To be concerned about what it means to be an American is to undercut the cosmopolitan aspirations implied by universal truths.

Another impact of this model is the almost blind assumption that liberal education must be monocultural because it is universal. This is unsurprising, since many efforts to establish liberal education began with Western civilization courses that virtually presumed that Western civilization was coterminous with universal truth. The notion that Western civilization might be one of many high civilizations that have struggled imperfectly to express their aspirations for universal truth was alien to this approach. The emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline, however, began to erode the traditional concept of Western civilization as the one universal civilization.2 This emergence has paralleled our growing awareness of the existence and integrity of cultures other than our own. That awareness, in turn, has reached a peak in our own time, because global interdependence and communications have forced on us the reality of multiple cultures in constant contact and interaction with each other. In addition, we have a newly acute sense of the pluralism that has always been a feature of American culture. Such developments have dramatized the discrepancies between these realities and our traditional approaches to liberal education.

Still another impact of the traditional model of liberal education is the failure to confront the contradictions between the aristocratic basis of Anglo-European approaches and the democratic, scientific, and technological realities of American life. When Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler launched the Great Books curriculum at the University of Chicago, John Dewey criticized it because of this contradiction. In Dewey’s vision, American education should reflect American society: it should be explicitly democratic and should give emphasis to the aspect of liberal education that Bruce Kimball identified as the Socratic, scientific method of open-ended truth-seeking, as opposed to the great books approach, which venerated established traditional values. Dewey’s approach did not just acknowledge and accommodate the cultural pluralism of American society; it also reflected the multiplying pluralism of the disciplines within the academy. This came from the explosion of new knowledge that was generated by the scientific method. Dewey’s insistence on connecting theory with practice and education with experience reflected the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism rather than the European tradition of Platonic idealism.3 Because of the Anglo-European orientation of the most visible advocates of traditional liberal education, Dewey’s American approach has received little attention in the repeated efforts to restore or reform liberal education in the American academy.

Dewey’s recognition of the growing dominance of the scientific method and the resulting growth in specialization within all the academic disciplines anticipated one more impact of the traditional model of liberal education. While it was possible for advocates of the traditional model to turn away from the rapid changes that led to increased pluralism in the larger society, it was not possible to ignore the increased academic pluralism within the academy. In fact, most debates about liberal education, general education, or core curricula in the past half century have essentially turned around the question of how to reconcile the traditional aspiration for a common, shared academic culture with the separating tendencies of specialized academic disciplines. Those disciplines were increasingly shaped by the different research interests of the faculty. The core curriculum adopted by Harvard in 1979, which helped set off the latest wave of reforms in general education across the academy, was acknowledged by insiders to be a compromise that tried to balance the faculty’s research interests with their desire to impart to students a sense of a shared academic culture.4

In terms of maintaining this kind of balance, the history of these kinds of reforms in the past several decades is not very promising. Because of the dominance of the research ethos in higher education today, most faculty members do not have a sense of a shared academic culture (much less a loyalty to such a culture), and their research priorities inevitably erode the effectiveness of core curriculum reforms. Significantly, the struggle between the ideal of a traditional liberal education and the pluralism of academic specialization has obscured the larger issue of whether liberal education needs to respond to the increasing cultural pluralism of the larger society.

Compartmentalization of liberal education

In another sense, however, academic specialization and the research ethos reinforced the tendency of the traditional liberal education model to separate itself from the larger society and from activities that were considered nonacademic. This tendency is expressed in the comment, often heard among liberal education advocates, that the academy should honor and recognize only “learning for its own sake.” Normally, this belief translates into an attitude in which any applied learning, especially learning associated with vocational or professional education, is scorned and considered less than worthy. Needless to say, this attitude can become effective insulation from the changing winds in the larger society and easily exempts those in the academy from taking seriously the need to respond to such changes.

Ironically, while many in the academy regard liberal education as the opposite of academic specialization, in recent decades liberal education has tended to become a separate academic specialization in itself. This is revealed in different ways. Some scholars of higher education have voiced dismay that the number of pure liberal arts colleges is declining; they perceive this decline to be caused by the increase in professional programs in liberal arts institutions. This outlook implies that liberal education has a function totally separate from that of professional education. In many if not most universities, liberal education is either a segregated college or a segregated portion of the curriculum. This, again, separates liberal education from other aspects of education and implies a form of specialization.

Other trends in higher education have also encouraged the compartmentalization of liberal education. In the last decades, the increased specialization in the academic sector has been paralleled by an increased specialization in the administrative sector. As faculty members have turned more and more toward their specialized research, they have become less and less concerned with those aspects of students’ lives that are not focused on the purely academic. At the same time, student services and athletic programs at universities have expanded dramatically. Each has developed its own multiplying specialties such as career counseling, remedial study, recruiting, and so on. Personnel in these specialties sometimes become more involved than the academic faculty in those aspects of students’ character development and values formation that once were assumed to be part of traditional liberal education. This ironic outcome is another aspect of the failure of the traditional model of liberal education to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances within the American environment.

Search for a distinctively American liberal education

Our analysis shows that the traditional model of liberal education—heavily oriented toward Anglo-European assumptions about the universality of high culture mediated through great books—has discouraged any serious efforts to develop a distinctively American approach to liberal education, despite repeated reforms aimed at helping the academy adjust to rapid changes in American society. This analysis contains a significant implication. As the inclusiveness of the American experience reaches beyond the Anglo-European experience in the late twentieth century, the need for an American view of liberal education has dramatically escalated. It is not too much to say that we are long overdue for a serious exploration of this issue. Where and how would such an exploration begin?

Debates that have emerged recently in the academy’s so-called “culture wars” have often implied that a traditional liberal education, based on a “Eurocentric” view of Western civilization, and the contemporary needs of a pluralistic America are mutually exclusive. However, framing the issue in this manner is both simplistic and misleading. Significant aspects of the traditional model of liberal education can and should be retained in any American view of liberal education. After all, our views about education and culture essentially evolved from Anglo-European roots, and some, if not all, of those views continue to be appropriate for the conditions we face today. At the same time, the limitations of the traditional views of liberal education, many of which were noted in the foregoing analysis, need to be recognized and replaced by ideas that more effectively address the changing realities of America and the educational requirements those realities dictate.

Unity in pluralism

We need not abandon the aspiration of traditional liberal education to find universal truths because we have discarded at least the conscious presumption that Western civilization alone possesses the universal truth. Although this distinction may seem subtle, its consequences are dramatic. A goal of finding universal truths acknowledges the need for some standard that transcends particular cultures so that we are not trapped in a meaningless cultural relativity, but it also recognizes that there must be open and equal transactions between cultures in order to determine what those broader standards might be. Bruce Kimball’s useful typology, in which he identifies the two main strands of the liberal education tradition, can be applied here. One of these strands is made up of the known cultural truths used to develop character and leadership; the other comprises the Socratic-scientific search for truths that are continually unfolding with new experience. In effect, an American model of liberal education would take the Socratic method and apply it to cultural truths, thus establishing universal truths as aspirational rather than presumptive.

Although some recent critics of traditional liberal education have dismissed any notion of universal truth as inherently contradictory to the requirements of cultural pluralism, the combination of the search for universal truths with the reality of many different cultures is deeply and distinctly American. As many observers of the American scene have noted, the Declaration of Independence appealed for the equality of all human beings, a universal claim that permitted American immigrants from many different European cultures to unite in opposition to the British crown. Gunnar Myrdal identified democratic ideas as a universal American creed that provided the unum in e pluribus unum—the unity in the pluralism that was the United States.

If we accept democratic ideas as one of the conceptual cornerstones for an American view of liberal education, revising the traditional model of liberal education has other significant ramifications as well. The Matthew Arnold view of a pure, high culture mediated by the great books of Western civilization for gentlemen of the aristocracy should be replaced by a view of culture that is less pure, less static, less removed from the larger democratic society. This view of culture would be more open-­ended and more multicultural, and its development would be more dynamic. Great books from many different cultures and civilizations would provide the basis for a continuing dialogue about which aspects of these human cultures apply broadly to the general human condition and which are tied only to a particular culture. This view of culture would not repudiate the accumulated wisdom of the past but would require its application to present and future issues, with the open possibility that it might be revised or revitalized. This approach to culture would be more anthropological than metaphysical, more comparative than culture-bound in its method.

The integrating vision of liberal education

In our search for an American view of liberal education, we do not need to abandon the traditional ideal that emphasized integrated learning aimed at the whole student. This integration included character development along with intellectual development, practical knowledge combined with academic knowledge, and education for who they are as well as for what they will do. Insofar as liberal education is a distinctive aspect of higher education, this integrating vision is the essence of its distinctiveness. In addition, we should remember that the roots of American higher education were planted by the early New England liberal arts colleges, which were dedicated to this vision of an integrated, whole-person education nourished in a residential community. Subsequently, of course, American higher education developed other kinds of institutions, such as land-grant universities and community colleges, both of which emphasized service to society rather than detachment from it.

Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has suggested a “New American College” model that implies a distinctively American approach to liberal education. This approach applies the integrating vision of the early American liberal arts college to other distinctive aspects of American higher education so that they can be expressed in a single institution. The traditional model of liberal education had an aversion to involvement in the larger society and its needs. The New American College’s approach would extend the scope of liberal education to engage the needs of the larger society in a spirit akin to the distinctively American land-grant university. Colleges that have assisted local school districts in improving the quality of public education exemplify this broader scope of liberal education. Universities that provide local governments with studies and proposed solutions to environmental problems also illustrate the application of American pragmatism to liberal education.

In a similar way, the integrative priority would be applied to the relationship between what we call general education and the more specialized education of academic and professional disciplines. Rather than rigidly segregating the general education courses from the courses required for a major, whether in the arts and sciences or in applied professional areas, educators would make a conscious effort to provide a theoretical and practical connection between these sectors of the curriculum. This scheme would involve structured efforts to have the teachers of these different kinds of courses engage in conversations about how students can apply the knowledge and skills taught in general education courses to the more specialized courses in the field major. Such efforts would help reestablish liberal education as the intellectual foundation of all academic disciplines and reaffirm the importance of some shared vision of learning within the faculty.

In this New American College model, the traditional American liberal arts college vision that connects character development with academic learning would be restored. This connection has been significantly eroded in the past several decades by the withdrawal of faculty involvement with student behavior and the simultaneous emergence of professional student-life bureaucracies. While it is unlikely that faculty concern with student life can be restored to nineteenth-century levels, a different kind of connection can be established by asking faculty and student-life staff members to collaborate in building academic components into residential life programs. This living-learning focus would promote the integrative vision of the liberal arts in a new and more challenging context.

A New American College model is less a particular set of institutions than general ideas that can be applied to a variety of different kinds of colleges and universities. The model draws strength from the American experience, which, in higher education, is embodied in wide institutional diversity. In liberal arts colleges, the model would challenge the traditional ivory tower syndrome and open up new ways of viewing vocational and professional fields. In large research universities, the model would be more effectively applied in schools or divisions than across the entire university. In comprehensive universities, especially the small private institutions with strong liberal arts traditions, the new concept provides an opportunity to integrate its existing components in synergistic ways that make the whole much more than the sum of its parts.

This integrated American approach to liberal education would need to engage the challenge of academic specialization in a fresh and different way. As I have noted, previous efforts to restore the liberal education vision in higher education have repeatedly been eroded by the dominance of the research ethos and the fragmentation brought about by academic specialization. But it is important to emphasize that specialization itself is not the problem. No one can deny the strengths and advantages that specialization brings in developing new knowledge and high levels of competence. The problem comes when specialization is so dominant and so narrow that it becomes disconnected from other fields of learning, from the broader issues of human values and the human condition, from the needs of the larger society, from the personal development needs of students, and from students’ honest concern about how their education will help them make a living. The problem facing any liberal education reform is “disconnected specialization.” The initial challenge is to envision a practical way to reconnect the academic specializations so that liberal education’s integrating vision is given priority.

Primary-care education

An analogy from the health-care field may provide a useful comparison for addressing this issue in higher education. As many have observed, the dominance of the health-care system by medical specialists has created a situation in which the needs of the whole patient are lost or subordinated to the treatment of particular parts of the patient’s body. There is great advantage in being treated by a heart specialist, an eye specialist, or a bone specialist if those specialists have not lost sight of the fact that good health is the result of a whole human system working well in an integrated way. But the pressures of specialization too often result in a disconnection from these larger concerns. As a result, the medical field today, according to many expert observers, desperately needs more and better trained primary-care physicians whose priority concern is to appropriately connect specialized care to the needs of the whole person.

In a similar way, an American approach to liberal education that invokes the integrating vision of the early liberal arts colleges needs to develop a new model of faculty activity. This model could be appropriately called the “primary-care professor.” These primary­-care professors would have an essential concern for the whole student. They would teach in ways that would have some influence on what students believe and how students behave. They would teach their subject matter in ways that relate to other academic disciplines, and they would not presume that their own discipline had exclusive claims to truth. They would be concerned not only with how knowledge is produced but also with how it is taught, integrated, and applied. They would be concerned about how the general skills and knowledge of liberal education connect with the professional or vocational skills that students will need in order to earn a living. They would be interested in determining how the wisdom and knowledge of the academy can be applied to the urgent problems of the larger society and the wider world.

This primary-care model of faculty activity would complement the academic specialist model that presently dominates the culture of our colleges and universities. Just as the primary-care physician relies on medical specialists to provide the appropriate expertise based on the needs of the patient, in a similar way the primary-care professor would outline the optimal ways for a particular student to use academic specialists to achieve the learning goals considered best for that student. In the ideal New American College model, all professors would have some of the attributes of the primary-care professor, and there would be a balanced distribution of traditional academic specialists to best serve the needs of the whole student.

Some people in the academy would argue that the integrating vision of liberal education is obsolete or at best a nostalgic longing for a lost golden age. If one were to interpret integration as a unity of knowledge of the kind sought by medieval philosophers, such an argument would be valid. But the integration needed today is more modest. It is perhaps better described as a sense of continuity or connection across the borders of academic and administrative specializations. While this vision might appear to go against the grain of an era in which knowledge and information continue to expand at exponential rates, there are significant indications that larger imperatives may be driving us toward increased connections between fields of knowledge. Much of the cutting-edge research now taking place in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities is explicitly interdisciplinary—whether biochemistry, international studies, or cultural studies—and most of the urgent problems that cry out for the application of new wisdom and knowledge require an interdisciplinary approach, whether environmental studies, health care, or the new world order.

To facilitate this kind of American approach to liberal education, colleges and universities need to develop structures and incentives to encourage and reward continuous conversations at the intersections of the varied specialities in our institutions. These intersections must include not only those between academic disciplines but also those between arts and sciences disciplines and professional disciplines, between faculty and administration, between different cultural groups on our campuses, and between the academic community and the larger society. In our current structures and incentive systems, these kinds of conversations are inhibited or even discouraged. But unless such conversations come to be conducted on a continuous basis, the quest for an American model of liberal education will make little progress.


Although efforts to reform liberal education in America have frequently been concerned with adapting to the country’s changing circumstances, they have not been equally concerned with developing a more appropriate model to engage these changing circumstances. Our analysis suggests that as we approach the twenty-first century, the traditional liberal education model, which has its origins in Anglo-European culture, needs to be replaced by an American liberal education model that has its origins in American culture and experience. While this model need not discard all aspects of the traditional model, it should be more democratic, more multicultural, and more responsive to the needs of American society. At the same time, it should take the universal aspirations and the integrating vision of the traditional model and reinterpret them in the context of the cultural and academic pluralisms that constitute major influences in the country and the academy today. As a part of this search for an American liberal education, we might profitably explore a new model that accepts and affirms the cultural and academic diversity presently found in our colleges and universities. At the same time, this model would apply the priority of integration by promoting conversation and creative development at the intersections of the now-divided sectors of academic departments, general and specialized education, academic life and student life, and college and community. At the end of this search, we may find a truly new American college that reflects an American model of liberal education. This innovation could in turn give us a renewed sense of academic community and at the same time enrich our service to American society.n

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1. Bruce Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 205.

2. W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and the American Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 104.

3. John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 94–117.

4. Phyllis Keller, Getting at the Core: Curricular Reform at Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 164.

Frank F. Wong was, until his death in April 1995, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Redlands and chair of the National Panel of American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning, an initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. This article originally appeared in Rethinking Liberal Education, edited by Nicholas H. Farnham and Adam Yarmolinsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, USA.

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