The Goal of a Liberal Arts Education – Steve Gerrard, Professor of Philosophy

The following is adapted from a faculty meeting last year. The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) is sponsoring a year-long initiative called “Why Liberal Arts?” Please check out their tumblr at williamswhyliberalarts.tumblr.com.

I believe that the goal of a liberal arts education is to prepare our students to be thriving citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Given that I believe in pluralistic democracy, I don’t believe that everyone will or should have the same goal. But I do hope that many of you will share this goal.

There are four chief ways our curriculum can serve to prepare our students to be such citizens:

First, to recognize and evaluate arguments. Recognizing arguments might seem trivial, but we live in a culture where the number of decibels is often confused with the strength of arguments. This also goes straight back to the birth of western philosophy. In the Apology, Socrates contrasts sophistry with philosophy, persuasion with truth and reason. Logic underlies all connections between conclusions and their supporting premises, but each field and subfield has their own specialized criteria of support. The kind of evidence needed to claim that one knows a squared plus b squared equals c squared is obviously different from the kind of evidence and support one needs to know that slavery was one of the causes of the American Civil War or that genetic mutation is a factor in natural selection. In the spirit of the season I’ll be giving grades, and here I’ll award us an A-.

Second, to help achieve an empathetic understanding of others. Why would someone go to the Williams College Museum of Art or the Clark and stand for hours in front of a medieval triptych? There are many reasons, but this is why I do it: to see if a 21st century Jew can gain some understanding of the world view of a 12th century Catholic. Nearly four decades of studying Wittgenstein has taught me that there is no a priori reason why this cannot or can be achieved, no a priori criteria for whether one has succeeded. William James, in a slightly different context, said no bells go off to announce our success. Nevertheless, not to try is both an epistemological and a moral failure.

An empathetic understanding requires two different capacities. It requires us to understand those in different times and places: Plato, Aquinas, George Eliot, Ralph Ellison. Here we do a pretty good job and deserve an A-. Developing an empathetic understanding also asks us to understand each other. Centuries of American history have embedded themselves in the structure of the present, making this an extraordinarily difficult task. Some of you have worked brilliantly to help our students understand each other, but because of the difficulty of the battle I can in good conscience only give us a C- here.

Third, to express themselves in both writing and speech (even though we are not an Athenian democracy). I teach writing-intensive courses, but the more difficult the philosophical problems become (in other words, the older I get) the less time I find myself teaching writing. I can only grade myself here, and I give myself a B-. (Some might think this is another example of grade inflation.)

With regard to speaking, when I’m lucky enough to be on one of those committees that gives mock interviews to Rhodes, Marshall and other candidates, I’m constantly impressed by the wonderful quality of our students’ speech. When I teach our senior seminar, many students’ presentations are eloquently wonderful, but there are always some that are horrific. The last time the College redid our curriculum, installing writing-intensive and quantitative and formal reasoning requirements, we failed to pass a public speaking requirement. To honor that failure, I award the College an F in public speaking.

Fourth, and finally, to appreciate beauty. Plato, who was no friend to democracy, recognized in his first utopia that a life without harmony is not worth living. A community without an appreciation of beauty threatens to quickly become a dystopian “brave new world.” When I teach logic, I tell my students that they have undoubtedly heard that studying logic will help them in all sorts of practical ways, such as doing better on the Law School Admission Test. I tell them that’s all true, but the real reason to study logic is because it is beautiful. I myself am sometimes moved to tears by the beauty of Tarski’s definition of the logical constants and by Russell’s paradox. I recognize, however, that tastes differ. Here, I think, led by the art, music and literature departments, the College does an excellent job and we deserve an A.

One thought on “The Goal of a Liberal Arts Education – Steve Gerrard, Professor of Philosophy

  1. Professor Gerrard,

    Thank you for your submission to the Williams Alternative. Your article was thoughtful and on point.

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