U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Engineering a Liberal Education

In his guest essay on this blog last Thursday, Fred Beuttler suggested that there is “another cultural battle in which most of us are still in the middle of,” a battle of “not so much Culture Wars, but rather C. P. Snow’s two cultures, the relation of the humanities to the sciences, in the education of free citizens in a democracy.” He argued that the current and prevalent rationale for requiring students to take humanities courses – “critical thinking skills” – is an inadequate defense of the humanities and “puts us humanists at a distinct disadvantage in the curricular and departmental ‘wars’ taking place in our universities.” He goes on to suggest that it might be time, or past time, for the humanities disciplines to define themselves as conveying some common and necessary content, and to contend for the value of that content and for its important place in the curriculum.stanford

I think Prof. Beuttler is right – “critical thinking skills” is poor ground on which to make a stand. I am trying to figure out a better stand to take. I suppose that’s the presentist concern undergirding my dissertation: the fight in higher education has gone from “what literature, what history, should we require students to study” to “why require the study of literature or history at all?” Of course, as Prof. Beuttler suggests, that latter question – why require these subjects at all? – is not a new one, though it does need a new answer.

In my research for the chapter I am writing now, I have come across various old answers to that question. And no answer was more jarring to me than the rationale provided by a group of Stanford engineering professors in 1925.

First, some quick background: from the year it opened its doors to its first crop of students in 1891, Stanford had always offered undergraduate degrees in engineering. But up until the 1920s, engineering was simply one department of study among other departments at the university. Also important: from its first year of instruction, up until 1919, Stanford had no university-wide general education requirements or distribution requirements for undergraduates, except for a freshman composition class for students who couldn’t test out of it.  In 1919 and 1920, Stanford rolled out a very limited program of distribution requirements, including the three-quarter “Problems of Citizenship” course required of all students.

Well, in 1924, Stanford’s president, Ray Lyman Wilbur, appointed a committee to study the reorganization of the engineering disciplines as a separate school within the university. In outlining issues the committee should consider, Wilbur noted, “With the development of the work of the Lower Division, requiring of all students more in the way of general courses, there has been some difficulty in completing the A.B. degree [in engineering] as a professional course in four years.”* Therefore, he wanted the special committee to consider this question (among others): “Should all engineering students be required to take economics, geography or geology, biology, chemistry, physics, history, and English?”**

The study committee came back with this reply: “it is the unanimous judgment of this Committee that all engineering students should be required to take some minimum not only of the studies named above but also of certain others.” Those additional subjects included law, psychology, and government.***

Now, in light of Andrew Jewett’s argument in Science, Democracy, and the American University, this provision makes perfect sense. Here is a university in the middle of a curricular reorganization at a time when education policy makers and American intellectuals increasingly viewed the study of the social sciences – if not instead of then certainly in addition to the liberal arts — as essential to the education of citizens in a liberal democracy. So here is a recommendation that, yes, engineering students should be required to take the distribution requirements outlined above, and more besides, because that’s the kind of knowledge that is needed to equip students to handle the challenges posed by our increasingly complex democratic society.

But that’s not why this special committee recommended keeping the general distribution requirements — nor is that why they also recommended reserving almost one-fourth of engineering students’ programs of study for electives of their choosing.

Here’s the explanation for these recommendations, in the committee’s own words:

Recently a prominent topic of discussion in the industrial world has been the scarcity, among engineers, of men capable of managing, directing, leading. This has given rise, among engineering teachers, to a widespread discussion of the question, How to train the engineering student for leadership….

It is the belief of the undersigned that

  1. Indispensable qualities for leadership are initiative and the ability to enjoy responsibility.
  2. These qualities are inherited, not acquired
  3. If the engineering school is to turn out leaders, it must first catch them; and having caught them should have a care that the course of instruction calls forth rather than represses the exercise of initiative and judgment on the part of the student
  4. The customary curriculum tends to repel, by its very rigidity and narrowness, the boys of strong initiative and urge to leadership, and has deterred many born leaders inclined toward engineering from entering upon the engineering curriculum or caused them to abandon it; and
  5. The proposed four-year liberal curriculum, with its electives amounting to nearly one-fourth of the whole, will attract rather than repel the born leader, permit the development of his innate capacity to lead, and thus enable the School of Engineering to send out its full quota of engineers who can answer the all-pervading call for leadership.****

Here’s my quick-and-dirty summary of the committee’s explanation: Leaders are born, not made. Stanford wants to attract students who are born to lead. Rigid and narrow curricular requirements are unattractive to born leaders. But a curriculum that makes provision for the liberal arts, that requires study in the social sciences, and that still leaves room for electives will attract the kind of students that will help Stanford raise the profile and prestige of its engineering program.

There is a lot to say about this text, and I’d be interested in your comments on it.  For now, I will simply point out the obvious: this was an unabashedly classist (and/or eugenicist) argument for higher education as a social sorting mechanism – but a sorting mechanism that worked both ways. Remember, at this moment in its history, Stanford’s place in the prestige economy of higher education was aspirational at best. “Stanford generally lacked prestige and influence in the early twentieth century,” Rebecca Lowen argues in Creating the Cold War University. “In fact, Stanford did not emerge as a prestigious academic institution until the 1960s, when it appeared on lists of the ‘top ten’ universities in America as well as on lists of the handful of universities receiving the most support from the federal government” (7). So, the argument went in 1925, retaining non-engineering subjects as a graduation requirement for engineering students while also allowing engineering students a significant number of elective hours would attract just the right sort who could raise the status of the school.

And that’s what Stanford did.  The University founded its school of engineering in 1925, and the engineering majors still had to take got to take English, and history, and Problems of Citizenship, and (later) Western Civ, and foreign languages.

But these breadth requirements that had started out as an attractive feature became a bothersome bug for the engineering disciplines.  One of the leitmotifs running through the history of Stanford’s curriculum in the 20th century — and thus through my chapter — is the ever-present concern of the engineering professors over how various proposed changes to undergraduate requirements would affect the engineering programs.  Thus, a parallel motif runs through the history I am sketching out in this chapter:  the struggle of the humanities professors to maintain their foothold in the curriculum as institutional support seemed to shift away from the disciplines that (had formerly?) signaled social status to the disciplines that commanded increasing prestige — prestige, and money.  And the logic that says “money = value” — that didn’t come from the engineering professors, at Stanford or anywhere else.

I’m not sure what any of this — my chapter, my dissertation, or even this blog post — does to help answer the question, “Why should a college education include the study of literature or history or art or music or foreign languages or diverse cultures?”  Is there some way to reverse engineer these disciplines back into favor, or at least to ensure their protection from the depredations of the bean-counters?  Can we do something to make sure that our poor beleaguered indebted students will continue to have a chance, even if only because they’re dutifully fulfilling a requirement, to read a poem or a novel or look at work of art and discuss it in a real classroom face-to-face with a professor and with their fellow students?  The closest I can come to an answer right now, based mostly on my profound indignation at the notion that such pursuits should be the domain of only those who are “born” to them or can “afford” them as one affords a luxury, is simply: “Why the hell not?”  And that’s no answer at all.

If anyone has a better answer, I’d be glad to hear it.  I’m beyond tired of my own idealism — it has brought me to nothing but grief and graduate school — but I don’t mind indulging somebody else’s.  Meanwhile, I have to finish this chapter.


*Annual Report of the President of Stanford University for the Thirty-Fourth Academic Year Ending August 31, 1925 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1926), p. 22.

**p. 23.

***p. 31.

****p. 33.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I hear you on many levels—tiredness, jadedness, wondering where its all going, etc. I have no firm idea, though I know what I believe in and what has worked for me.

    You ask: “Can we do something to make sure that our poor beleaguered indebted students will continue to have a chance, even if only because they’re dutifully fulfilling a requirement, to read a poem or a novel or look at work of art and discuss it in a real classroom face-to-face with a professor and with their fellow students?”

    I think we can do this if you *show* them that this is LIFE-CHANGING stuff beyond money—changing in ways that money can’t count. I think also people do get this importance eventually. This is why adult education courses abound across the nation. Sometimes people don’t get it until retirement, sadly.

    Adler’s answer to the “when can liberal edu” principles be instilled was to go EARLIER. Hence the Paideia Program in the 1980s. At that point he was long passed being sad at the decline of liberal education (let alone the great books idea) in higher education. I’m not sure this was the right move, and history tells us that it (i.e. Paideia) had a moment and then entered a long decline. And I don’t think liberal education will rise again for late teen and twenty-something undergraduates until their *parents* emphasize its importance and life-changing nature.

    Until that moment happens, I think that liberal education has irrevocably passed into adult education settings (which does include adults who re-enter or return to higher education for new life goals). Adler used to argue that kids don’t have enough life experience to appreciate what excellent literature, history, and philosophy have to offer. I agree to some extent. I’d say only about 10-20 percent really do have some level of appreciation for the liberal arts. – TL

    • I should add that I don’t believe that the debate should be about either “critical thinking” or “content.” And that I don’t think that ‘critical thinking’ or process skills have “won out” today. Liberal education is about both—and always has been. It’s about life-changing content, deep questions, and new ways of thinking.

  2. Yes, the argument that I really wanted to make — that I have made before, that I pretty much believe, because I’m a silly person who believes in things — is that studying these things can bring us something that money can’t buy. That might be true, but it’s hardly convincing — and very difficult to measure as an “outcome” on a course assessment plan. And of course if we can’t count it or quantify it or put a dollar value on it, then it isn’t real.

  3. Great stuff to think on here, LD; thanks!

    One of the most successful arguments I’ve seen liberal arts colleges (including my own) make IS a money argument: It’s a fact that many people will switch jobs and careers during their lifetime; those who are best able to make the transition are those who have been well-grounded in the foundational fields of knowledge, like philosophy and english, not in professional studies. Ironically, our introductory “Discovery of the Liberal Arts” course is directed by faculty in the education department.

  4. Aside from deeply trenchant, this is quite inspiring in its honesty, L.D. Thanks. As you and others are doing, It is time to historicize the present variations of critical thinking, as they circulate in higher ed institutions and in the mainstream media (or don’t!). To solely defend our work as instilling the practice of critical thinking will not get us anywhere no more; we have to come to terms with that. I sympathize with Tim’s vision, which points to an existential, if not transcendental impact through the education of “arts and letters,” but at the same time I wonder often to what extent these are also historical constructs that have fossilized with the turns and twists of time, specially under the weight of capital, as it continues to corrode the so-called ivory of our towers. If anything, we should be considering these issues by linking them to what has become of pre-college education, tracing the structural shifts which are affecting teachers and students at all levels.

  5. can’t quote exactly, nor do i remember the name of, i believe it was a university president who said it, but it goes something like, “to destroy our western civilization it is not necessary to burn all the books; it is sufficient to let them go unread for one generation.”

  6. Mark,

    I suppose if one has to make a money argument, that’s a good one, because it focuses not on “what employers want” in terms of “job skills” but on what students need in terms of inner resources to survive the brutal landscape that awaits them.

    I guess I should take the view of Paul: “by whatever means, in pretense or in truth,” the humanities are championed, I shall rejoice. If the money argument buys the time and the space in the undergraduate curriculum for students to experience education as something more than vocational preparation, then I guess it’s worth making.

    As I said yesterday on Twitter, the argument I am partial to is, “Spoil the Egyptians.” That is, why should the arts and literature and history, and the time to think about them, be an “amenity” available only to those who get into the right schools? But of course the cost of a public college education is so ridiculously high — and getting higher as families and students must take on more and more of the financial burden — and the job market so miserable, that students feel they cannot afford to do anything beyond what is necessary to get a degree. And this is why one must contend for robust funding for public education as a social obligation and a public good, and contend for the humanities as degree requirements, and contend for small class size, and contend for face-to-face instruction, and stop the adjunctification of higher education, and have the strongest teachers in the introductory courses. I know, I know — the idealism meter readings are off the charts.

    Kahlil, thanks for your comment. I didn’t realize this post was trenchant, but I guess I should have known. It’s my fault — I could have stuck with “Home, Sweet Home” as a dissertation topic, you know? Instead, I’m writing the history of a place I really love and am so grateful for. I was like a stowaway at Stanford — it was like being Dorothy in Oz. So I guess maybe in a way I am writing about finding home. But it is a difficult journey, and I’ve been taking the long way around. Anyway, I try to keep my feelings about Stanford or the humanities or the American university or the professoriate or the working class or whatever from getting in the way of my analysis. I try to keep that stuff off the page of my dissertation, and off the “page” here. That’s what my personal blog is for. But once in a while I gotta cut loose.

  7. L.D.,
    I have a quick point about the 1925 statement by the engineering professors. The first sentence you quote is: “Recently a prominent topic of discussion in the industrial world has been the scarcity, among engineers, of men capable of managing, directing, leading.” This suggests, at least to me, that their interest is not simply in catching born leaders and keeping them in the Stanford engineering program for the greater prestige of that program, but also that they are concerned about engineers being able to “lead” because the “industrial world” needs engineers w leadership and managerial skills. In other words, they are concerned, at least to some extent, with the perceived needs of American industry and the place of engineers within it, and I don’t think this point really comes through in your short summary of the statement.

    I wish I had something deep and/or insightful to say about the broader question raised in your post, but I don’t, not at the moment. (Btw there was a review in a recent New York Rev Bks of the documentary movie ‘Ivory Tower’ (a short piece, though even so I only read part of it) that might be of interest — you can prob. Google it up fairly quickly if interested.)

  8. Louis, thanks for that intervention. You’re right to see more complexity in the profs’ response than I gave them credit for in this blog post. In the chapter, I had a little more to say about this discussion in its larger institutional context, but I’ll go back and look at it again.

    And I should have been more clear in my post — when I said that the “value = money” argument wasn’t coming from engineers, I was thinking of Veblen. My sense of engineering and engineers (and not just circa 1890-1920) is that of a very practical profession interested in solving physical/material problems. So in a way the engineering profs of 1925 were doing what I think we should be doing now — insisting on the value of the “impractical” fields. They were couching the argument in terms of “intangible” skills employers are looking for, which might be their version of the “money argument.”

    Dang. I really need to re-examine this section of my argument. Thanks! (I mean that.)

  9. On my point above about bigger, life-changing experiences and the liberal arts TODAY (rather than historically at Stanford), here is a long excerpt of relevant passages from a piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Much of the cultural activity we celebrated in 2006 could be categorized as “iCreativity,” emphasizing personal expression, identity, individual customization, convenience, and choice. Too often that has turned into what I will call “me experiences.” Market researchers call this the era of IWWIWWIWI (I Want What I Want When I Want It). In both culture and education, what we need are more “bigger-than-me experiences.” Self-confidence is great, but not at the expense of considering others. …

    “Me experiences” are different from “bigger-than-me experiences.” Me experiences are about voice; they help students express themselves. The underlying question they begin with is, “What do I have to say?” BTM experiences are about insight; they start with, “What don’t I know?” Voice comes after reflection. Me experiences are about jumping into a project and making something—an idea, an artifact, a piece of media. BTM focuses on John Dewey’s notion of “undergoing”—making something happen in the world, which requires, first, a shift in our own subjectivity. We must anticipate problems, struggle with ideas, seek some resolution. It’s a process.

    Me experiences aim at maximizing pleasure, rewards, and positive affect. Getting an A on an exam; getting a dozen “likes” on a Facebook or Instagram post; being the center of attention. On the other hand, bigger-than-me experiences pursue positive relations with others, feeling a sense of purpose, helping solve a collective problem. They also promote an attribute central to creativity: imagination. In me experiences, the ego shapes imagination, providing us with material to envision who we are and what we might become. BTM experiences help us develop our empathic imagination—putting ourselves in another’s shoes, adopting a different perspective, and trying to identify with a different place, time, or people.

    Many of us believe deeply in fostering a sense of “bigger than me” in liberal-arts education. But it is easy to drift away from that—trying to meet students where they are; encouraging them to make stuff through new media (often without deep reflection); giving them choices so that they can find a topic that fits an existing interest; and filling our classes with “doing” rather than “undergoing” as we rush from assignment to assignment and grade to grade.

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