Harvard Professor Describes Liberal Arts Model

Louis Menand joined Hamilton students for lunch prior to his lecture.
Louis Menand joined Hamilton students for lunch prior to his lecture.

Louis Menand, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University, gave a lecture titled “What Every College Graduate Needs to Know” as part of Hamilton’s Fallcoming Weekend on Oct. 8 in the Chapel.


Menand began his lecture with an analogy. He compared colleges and universities to auto-body shops and argued that just as an auto-body shop should make a broken car run, so too should a college or university educate an uneducated mind. He acknowledged that this was not a new idea, but he argued that colleges and universities have often gone about the education process in the wrong way and he gave a detailed history of the liberal arts model to illustrate this point.


Menand explained that toward the latter half of the 19th century more and more students were going to vocational schools and completely ignoring the humanities and other traditional aspects of a college education. It was not until the president of Harvard University, Professor Charles Eliot, sensing the growing industrialization of society, proposed a radical new idea to combat vocational schools: make a bachelor’s degree a requirement for graduate and professional Schools. Numerous other universities adopted this requirement and colleges once again became bastions of the liberal arts.


It quickly became clear, though, that students wanted the chance to shape their college education. This desire led to the formation of electives and the adoption of an open curriculum at many schools. Professors were not happy about this new arrangement and insisted that students were incapable of choosing the courses that would truly enrich their knowledge and understanding of the world. This belief in student incompetence gave rise to general education requirements, which remain the pillars of a liberal arts education.


Menand asked the audience why liberal arts professors seemed to loath vocational instruction so much. He pointed out that students who receive top marks in a certain subject often go to graduate school in that subject. Additionally, a person could argue that virtually any class in any subject prepares a student for a vocation.


That, to Menand, is exactly the point. Teachers should not try to create classes that are solely for the love of learning and that avoid all possible instruction in vocational knowledge. He argued, “Garbage is garbage, but the study of garbage is a subject.” Similarly, Medicine is a vocation, but the study, history and philosophy of Medicine is something else altogether. He claimed that professors “must not be afraid of admitting that what they are teaching is useful.” Menand argued that if faculty spend their time teaching the methodology and history of their subject as well as the theoretical components of their subject, any class (even an accounting class) could fall under the liberal arts model.


Menand spent the remainder of the lecture defending the humanities, a collection of subjects that has long been attacked for its supposedly impractical nature. He said that the humanities seem to force people to “read books because they have been read.” In reality, though, they are the most empowering of subjects. Instruction in the humanities “gives students the opportunity to understand how people think.” This does not just apply to understanding the ways Cicero shaped the Roman Republic or how Shakespeare’s plays were a reflection of Elizabethan England; it also applies to a student’s willingness and ability to understand current events and society through a different lens. He argued that people could not hope to influence society without first understanding how society developed and why it developed. To Menand, the humanities play an integral part in understanding who we are and how we got here and that, he thinks, is every bit as vocational as attending law school.


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