Looking back at the value of a true liberal arts education.
John Sexton: I was educated by the Jesuits. I value my education immensely. For me, I couldn’t imagine a better education. The Jesuits demanded of us many more courses for graduation than universities demand of their students today and they gave us far less choice other than the choice of a major. At Fordham where I went to college, we had one elective. Essentially, it came down to a choice between whether you wanted to take
history of art or history of music. Most of us took one for credit and audited the other. But this was a world where you had to be able to read Latin and Greek to get a bachelor’s degree. I’m a great believer in the kind of foundation that provided. On the other hand, it strikes me that it’s very hard to dictate what’s right for others. As my daughter said, we walked off the Swarthmore campus as our Katie and we went around looking at colleges. Her Southern schools, to show you what a New Yorker cartoon she was, were Princeton, Penn, and Swarthmore. That was about as far South as she could imagine going. We walked off the Swarthmore campus and she jumped out about four feet in front of me, put her hands up and said, “Stop. I get it. You don’t even have to say a word. This is the perfect college for you. But for me, it’s too claustrophobic.” I have to say, “I don’t think there is any right answer about the perfect core curriculum. I’m very ecumenical about student choice. Now I rail against the fact that even dealing with the elite of the elite. For example, during my time as dean of NYU law school, where I was dealing with some of the brightest and best educated young men and women in the country, there were huge gaps, it seemed to me, in their knowledge. It’s unimaginable to me that I run into deeply intelligent people who are unfamiliar with some of what I think of as the classics. But they probably are familiar with many things with which I’m not familiar. I
hope that the things that occupy their mind are not simply who has won American Idol and who the most handsome person is on the Iron Chef. I hope there’s a little more enduring content to what they know that I don’t know. I’m certainly humbled all the time by the knowledge of my students. I’d be very reluctant to prescribe a single core curriculum. There are elements of an education that are critical. So rigor, critical thinking, and insistence that ideas be defendable and defended and that we not collapse into a kind of intellectual relativism were everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. People are not entitled to think that the world is flat. Therefore, the capacity to engage in an iterative conversation in which the conversation extends so there’s a proposition and an answer, but then an answer to the answer, not just a repeat of the proposition. Then an answer to the answer to the answer. There’s a fundamental way of thinking that deepens in an iterative way, in a dialogic process the thought of each party to the conversation and the assumption of the conversation is that truth is not bipolar, that’s it’s not a simple yes or no on some nakedly stated proposition, but there’s a real appetite for nuance and complexity and frankly the kind of thing you try to
foster on this show.
Recorded on 5/19/08