Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Spring Teaching Forum Considers the Future
of a Liberal Arts Education

“The liberal arts college is a quintessential American institution,” Carol Christ (PhD 1970, English), president of Smith College, asserted at this year's Spring Teaching Forum. “This concept of a liberal arts education — the devotion of approximately half of a student’s undergraduate work to acquiring broad familiarity with different areas of knowledge — is a distinctively American phenomenon,” she added, and contrasted it to the European tradition, where “higher education ... is more specialized and pre-professional.”

Christ was keynote speaker at the forum, titled “Have We Lost the Liberal Arts? Exploring a Teaching Tradition,” which was organized by the Graduate Teaching Center and held on April 13. The event was coordinated by Claudia Calhoun (American Studies, Film Studies) and Marie Bragg (Psychology) with assistance from their committee: Jay Summach (Music), Emily Einstein (Neuroscience), Kristi Rudenga, GTC associate director, and Bill Rando, director. Rando opened the Forum by raising broad questions about the meaning and purpose of liberal arts institutions and the liberal arts curriculum. How do you define a liberal arts curriculum or college? Is there still value in teaching the liberal arts?

spring teaching forum composite

From top left, clockwise: Claudia Calhoun (American Studies, Film Studies), Forum co-organizer; Sara Protasi (Philosophy); Marie Bragg (Psychology), Forum co-organizer; Bill Rando, assistant dean and director, Graduate Teaching Center.

In her keynote talk, Christ addressed the economic and social pressures that promote “practical” learning and minimize the value of liberal arts studies. To counter that tendency, she encouraged graduate students as future faculty members to reach across the disciplines and connect classroom learning in all academic areas to real world opportunities and challenges. Don’t separate the liberal arts from the applied, she urged.

Christ contrasted her own experiences at UC Berkeley, where she was a professor and administrator, and at Smith, where she is president. The two institutions – one a large, public research university and the other a small, private liberal arts college – set their curricula to reflect different educational goals and look for different strengths when hiring faculty. Those differences would seem to lead to predictable outcomes, with research universities producing predominantly scientists and liberal arts schools producing humanists, but the actual outcomes are surprising, she said. As a general rule across the country, “graduates of liberal arts colleges are disproportionately represented in Ph.D. programs in the sciences and engineering, producing a higher percentage of graduates going on to the doctorate than many research universities.” Christ further observed that a “high percentage of scientific leaders – heads of major American scientific institutions like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute or the National Institutes of Health” have received bachelor’s degrees from liberal arts colleges. She suggested that “the humanities are important to the sciences not because they produce more cultured people, but because they produce better scientists” through a kind of mental cross-training. She spoke of the need for “intellectual cross-training” in both directions: scientists should study the humanities, and humanists should study the sciences.

Christ said that “most colleges and universities have defined a liberal arts education – or more precisely the broad knowledge that a liberal arts education aspires to provide – through a set of distribution requirements. Increasingly, however, a trend has been emerging that defines the objectives of a liberal arts education not in terms of subject areas but capacities of mind. This realization struck me repeatedly early in my presidency, in the course of numerous conversations with alumnae. I asked them to identify the most profound learning they had taken from their Smith education. Much to my surprise, they almost never named a particular course or even a field of study. I always fantasized as a teacher that my courses on Victorian literature had the power to change lives, but at least our alumnae, when asked to reflect on their educations, seldom cited particular courses (although they did sometimes mention particular professors). Rather they said, ‘the ability to think critically,’ ‘the ability to write well,’ ‘the ability to attack a new problem,’ ‘understanding cultures very different from my own.’”

Spring Teaching Forum group

At the Spring Teaching Forum, left to right, Michael Meadows (Italian), GTC staff; Emily Einstein (Neuroscience), GTC Coordinator; keynote speaker Carol Christ, president, Smith College; Claudia Calhoun (American Studies, Film Studies), Forum co-organizer; panelist Gregory Colon Semenza, associate professor, University of Connecticut.

To these intellectual strengths, Christ cited several sources that added “capacities of character — citizenship, personal and social responsibility, moral reasoning, intercultural understanding,” noting that these abilities “connect classroom learning to real world opportunities and challenges; they don’t separate liberal arts from the applied, the professional, and the practical.” She pointed out that “In the United States the idea of liberal arts education has been increasingly subject to criticism and attack because of the belief that it does not sufficiently prepare students for the work place. Paradoxically, however, countries outside the United States are trying to emulate the American model of liberal arts education,” she said. “In a world in which young people can expect to have not four or five different jobs but four or five different careers, the capacities that a liberal arts education develops are extremely valuable.”

Following the keynote address, three panelists gave their perspective on the liberal arts. Speakers were Gregory M. Colon Semenza, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut; Tanya Schneider (PhD 2001, Chemistry), assistant professor of chemistry at Connecticut College; and Pamela Schirmeister (PhD 1988, English), associate dean of the Graduate School and of Yale College and lecturer in English.

Schirmeister noted the historical roots of a liberal arts education, beginning with Plato’s Republic. Plato’s approach was adapted by thinkers in the Roman Republic to mark the qualities necessary to be a free citizen rather than a slave. She spoke of the continuing civic role of the liberal arts in a contemporary research university: “The liberal arts rely on freedom, but shape people who, through that education, become the protectors of certain kinds of freedom,” she said.

Over the last 125 years, the trend at graduate schools has been toward increasing hyper-specialization, Schirmeister said, and as a result, “faculty training is at odds with undergraduate education.” Graduate school trains for specialization, but teaching, especially in liberal arts colleges, requires breadth. To prepare students for the jobs they are likely to find after graduation, Yale is pursuing several routes: encouraging proposals for team-taught courses that cross disciplinary lines, considering funding a third year of study in a field other than a PhD student’s program, and increasing post-doctoral opportunities outside the student’s specific research topic, all aimed to broaden students' experiences.

Schneider reflected on how she adopts the values of the liberal arts in her teaching of chemistry. She tries to demystify science for non-majors, get her students talking to one another, and encourage chemistry majors to take non-science classes. Colon Semenza argued that “too often we see ourselves as necessarily passive victims.” Instead of emphasizing the “intrinsic value of a liberal arts education,” educators should justify the liberal arts on practical grounds. “Our students go on to business, law, education, and so on,” he said. “We should speak back to critics in a language they understand.”

The forum concluded with a video by Claudia Calhoun and Patrick Reagan (Film Studies) that solicited responses from Yale faculty and undergraduates to questions about the nature and purpose of the liberal arts. This prompted a wide-ranging discussion by forum attendees on the value of the liberal arts and how each person’s teaching reflects or should reflect these values. View the video here.

— with Tim Yenter (Philosophy)