The Historical Perspective
April 11th, 2012
The enemy: specialization
Andrew Delbanco and Stanley Katz, who have both been awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama, advocated for higher education institutions to focus on undergraduate liberal arts education and resist narrow specialization.
Delbanco went back to America’s colonial roots to describe what distinguishes this country’s colleges and universities: the democratic expansion of higher education and the value of peer-to-peer education—the idea that students have something to teach one another. He explores these ideas in his most recent book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012)
He believes the peer-to-peer experience offered in college and university communities is still important. He shared the “relay race” idea of advancing knowledge, “pass the baton and they start where you finish.”
His comments drew from Herman Melville, Arthur Miller, Cotton Mather and Homer. In emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts and the humanities, he said, “There are very old ideas and old questions that are as pertinent to our existence to day as they were when they were written.”
What is missing at colleges and universities? “At many institutions, we are not providing time to reflect… time for contemplation.”
According to Katz, the current most urgent problem in higher education is specialization and getting faculty to commit to liberal arts education.
He highlighted the need for faculty to take a cue from his intellectual hero, John Dewey and focus on a liberal, integrated approach to knowledge to develop the “agility of mind” students need.
Katz said, “There is no reason we can’t address practical problems, but there is no reason we can’t do that in a humane fashion.” The current culture of research institutions may close out the kinds of teacher scholars who make a difference in the lives of students.
What can be done to show the value of a liberal arts education? “I think the best thing we can do is do our jobs really well,” Katz said. The best spokespeople are our own graduates.”
— Guest post by Cheryl Walker,
Wake Forest Communication and External Relations,
from the “Rethinking Success” conference