Liberal Education

Confessions of a Well-Trained Mind

I sometimes hesitate when people ask what I teach. The shorter answers—“liberal arts” or “Great Books”—usually need explaining, even when the terms sound familiar. If I don’t mind sounding a bit arch, I might say “a little bit of everything,” another entrée to more detail than most polite inquirers were asking for.

Still, I’ve learned that in a world of experts, it helps for generalists like me to get a hearing now and then. So, the long version of what I teach goes something like this: a structured set of undergraduate seminars on classic and contemporary landmarks of natural science, social science, and humanities. In slightly more detail, my courses run from Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem to Richard Feynman’s Q.E.D., from Plato’s Republic to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and from the Hebrew Bible to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is what every student studies at Shimer College, the tiny liberal arts school in downtown Chicago where I’ve taught for thirteen years.

This might all suggest I teach a lot “outside my area.” But it’s really that I long ago gave up having an area. Rather, I—and my colleagues and our students—have a curriculum. Though it’s hard to point to professional qualifications for teaching this broad a set of subjects, in my fifth year at Shimer I did earn one claim to expertise when I was named “Master of the Shimer Curriculum.” This was a degree honoris causa my dean cooked up as a pat on the back for having taught all fifteen of the core courses we require for a bachelor of arts. I do also teach my own courses, though these have ranged just as widely, from theories of metaphor to the history of economics. And my colleagues teach just as widely; I’m one of only three who’ve taught the whole curriculum. None of us, however, has gotten through it all quite as fast as most of our students do.

Apart from doing a lot of heady reading, though, what does “mastering” such a broad, cross-disciplinary curriculum mean for me or my students? Not surprisingly, my students encounter the same kind of difficulties explaining what they study as I do describing my teaching. Officially, unless they decide to “concentrate” in the humanities or the social or natural sciences, our students earn a degree in the liberal arts; thus my official title: associate professor of liberal arts. But again, while the term “liberal arts” typically rings a bell, it’s helpful to be able to describe what it names in the way of knowledge and skills—especially in an age when politicians of a certain persuasion use it as a badge of scorn for the spoiled and feckless.

“A well-trained mind” is one phrase I’ve found helpful in describing the goal of a liberal arts education. I borrow it from the title of a popular guidebook for a “classical” education, not unlike what we offer at Shimer, but for elementary schoolers. By itself, the book is a heartening reminder of how deeply ingrained, albeit embattled, the liberal arts ideal is in the educational psyche of the United States, and at all levels. Its title captures the essence of that ideal, one I try to hold to as I “teach” works by figures as various as Sappho, Michelangelo, and Marie Curie, even without expert knowledge of their works or their worlds. The prime directive at Shimer is to make ourselves responsible for discovering the meaning and significance of the poems we read, the artworks we study, and the experiments we repeat. This means taking a cue from Plato’s Socrates and putting much less emphasis on claims to knowledge than on mutual inquiry guided by common reason, and reasonableness. In short, our students don’t master one or another academic discipline but something like academic discipline itself; in the briefest possible terms, we teach the art of learning.

Practically speaking, this means I ask my students lots of questions. On some questions, I am as confident as I can be of the answer. On others, I’m not sure there is an answer. The overall aim is to enliven and strengthen the basic attitudes anyone needs to learn anything: persistent curiosity and the kind of patient attention such curiosity takes to satisfy. With the right mix of questions (and at least some provisional answers), our discussions begin to shuttle between insight and wonder, setting up a self-perpetuating, dynamic equilibrium of inquiry.

The inquiry perpetuates itself because once students have experienced the exhilaration of this balancing act, they begin to teach themselves. They begin to formulate their own questions, the kind toward which the most interesting experts orient themselves as well: Why are Penelope and Odysseus so circumspect with each other on his return to Ithaca? Just how does sunlight become a rainbow through a prism? Why does Sojourner Truth’s question “Ain’t I a Woman?” of a century and a half ago ring with such relevance today? My students’ answers won’t certify them as classicists, physicists, or historians. But their ability to ask and answer such questions for themselves goes far in demonstrating the adage that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it, as they do for each other. What’s more, they begin to recognize the importance of speaking and writing well in offering their own views and addressing those of others, especially the authors we read. Our students cultivate the skills of verbal expression, as well as mathematical and logical reasoning, not as isolated goods but as means toward gaining further insight and opening new inquiries of the kind they practice in the classroom.

In sum, at Shimer, we teach each other how to “make our way” in the sense Ludwig Wittgenstein described in remarking that “a philosophical problem has the form ‘I don’t know my way about.’” So there’s no shame when I admit to a class that I’ve lost my way, which happens often enough discussing works I may have been through any number of times but that tend to shift, presenting new features of meaning on each reading, whether it’s Nikolai Lobachevski’s Imaginary Geometry or Dante’s Inferno. But my students and I do get better at figuring out how to get around, or deeper into, such shifting terrain as we make our ways through such works.

Lest I be taken for a hopeless dilettante, I should stress that I have the highest respect—and gratitude—for experts in all the myriad disciplines we touch on at Shimer. Something like Dante’s Virgil, I play the part of the experienced one, but I often have to turn for help from on high—i.e., the experts—in order to find a way through the thornier and more obscure parts of our curriculum. Indeed, I would be easily convinced that there is a net gain in the division of labor in the academy, as almost everywhere else, and that the process of specialization tends not to reverse itself, anyway. I’d even allow, for the sake of argument, that my difficulty naming what it is I teach might signal that I have only succeeded in confusing myself. I’d like to think, rather, that it means I am trying to keep a view of the whole in a world of accelerating interdependence. It is, after all, nice to think that any of us could still assert with Terence that (however distant it may seem) nothing human lies beyond our concern. But at the very least, we generalists can be relied on to keep people talking to each other, looking for nuanced answers that open more questions, rather than falling into rote replies that tend to end, rather than renew, the conversation.


Stuart Patterson is associate professor of liberal arts at Shimer College.

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