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Harvard prof Louis Menand speaks on the origins and practicality of liberal education

<rvard professor of English and American literature and language delivered a talk titled “Why the Case for Liberal Education is Hard to Make.” In establishing the American cultural view that all those who are qualified should go to college, Menand asked of the process:  “How much is selection and how much is treatment?”

He pointed out that institutions such as Carleton select students who already have many of the traits that they propose to nurture and provide.  In highlighting the declining expansion of liberal arts education in the past century – contrasting to the huge growth of U.S. higher education in general – Menand emphasized that we have regarded the liberal arts with distinction as “an elite mode of education.” He pointed to the interesting paradox that a liberal education teaches things that are usually unrelated to one’s future career or field.

Menand described the historical factors that influenced this result, mostly in the huge changes in higher education beginning in the late nineteenth century, in the fifty years between the Civil War and the First World War. Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard University at the time, introduced a huge reform: a bachelor’s degree was a pre-requisite for professional school. Before Eliot, Menand explained that people chose either college or professional school, and the latter had extremely lax admissions and completion requirements. This separation of college and the vocational established that the former taught knowledge for its own sake, whereas the latter emphasized utility. With this new reform, or ‘Eliot’s Bargain,” students could learn for the love of learning, and then enter professional training later on. Menand argued that the latter established a division of labor – a mechanism for producing specialized experts for a narrow field. In his view, “professions are transmissible, not transferrable,” highlighting that doctors do not decide legal cases in court rooms. This non-transferable nature “is a balance, a check on the elitism,” ensuring that those with the top education do not have too much power. In this system that produces specialists, Menand emphasized that it also “rewards specialization. We compare ourselves with those in our field.”

For him, the case for the liberal arts becomes hard to make because the goals of the students and professors are very different: the former are at college to learn, while professors are there “to reproduce themselves.” Menand highlighted the two roles of a university to be research and dissemination of knowledge. For the liberal arts, there are three types of knowledge that are taught: the protocol of inquiry, which entails turning data into information; the historical; and finally the theoretical, which involves critical thinking and questioning established structures. He then argued that professional schools actually initiate a “deliberalization” because they teach how one should think in the channel, cannon, and profession. Hence, the argument is made that liberal education is a corrective to the commercialism and materialism of the marketplace. Many associate liberal arts with humanities, but Menand points out that it is a tricky card to play, considering that many scientific fields deal with what it is to be human and are not necessarily “dehumanizing.” 

In conclusion, Menand emphasized the myth that the practical is an enemy of knowledge. From the historical origins of separating college and professional school, there has been the association of liberal education as unrelated to one’s future field.  He argued that there is certainly utility in the college education, because it “trains people to work in the world, with other people.” 

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