Excerpt from:  “Core Programs, Liberal Education, and Ethical Teaching,” Perspectives  XXVII.1 (Spring 1997):  25-53.


There are three main educational traditions current in modern universities. Two of these traditions have roots that go back to the late medieval and Renaissance universities.  The first tradition is that of the research university. As early as the thirteenth century, universities in Europe were developing disciplinary specialties, especially in law and languages, but the modern form of the research university derives from the nineteenth-century German university, which was the first to organize itself into departments for greater research efficiency. The German research university was the culmination of a historical development that took at least 500 years, and was copied in this country first at Johns Hopkins University in 1886 and then six years later at the University of Chicago in 1892.


The second tradition is that of the British school system, which also goes back many centuries. The British school system cared little for disciplinary sophistication or research.  Its goal was to train the sons of the wealthy how to become “the right kind of men.” Character building and civic service were the two main purposes of education in this system. Men were not expected to learn much academic content from books or from their daily, endless translations of Cicero and Virgil. The real benefit of these exercises was thought to be the discipline they instilled in the student’s character. Those who learned information and knowledge by showing a natural aptitude for academics went on to the university for serious study. Those who did not learn information and knowledge also went on the university, where they continued to develop contacts and connections for later years of leadership, largely untroubled by academic requirements or ambitions. In the British schools, games were important as additional toners of character. The idea was to turn out an educated person who could lead other men, who had the courage of his convictions, who would be truthful and forthright, and who would instinctively know a “rotter” from a “decent chap” when he ran into one. Civic and personal virtues, not intellectual virtues, were the main objects of education in the British school system.


The third tradition is that of credentialing for the contemporary job market. This tradition in its modern form goes little farther back than the 1880s, when Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley were debating whether science should replace literature as the main staple of educational curriculum. Huxley advanced the position in this debate that science was as efficacious for turning out well-educated persons as literature. In addition, he made a corollary argument even more important for the history of developments in the modern university—that universities should train scientists because modern social conditions were desperate for scientific skills. This argument opened the door for similar arguments that education should meet practical social needs of many kinds, including the need for specific careers such as pharmacists, accountants, advertisers, journalists, therapists, business managers, economists, engineers of all sorts, and so on.


Even though this third tradition of credentialing is only about 130 years old, compared to the 600 or 700 years-old traditions of disciplinary development and character building, it has become as powerful a determiner of university enterprises as the disciplinary tradition. Students (and, significantly, their parents) expect the contemporary university to provide them with credentials that will lead directly to a job currently in demand. Many faculty members also take this view. At an institution where I formerly taught, a professor who was annoyed at my arguments in favor of liberal education programs said exasperatedly, “Look, students come here to get jobs. If they want an education, let them go somewhere else.”

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