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Duke University president defends the liberal arts

| Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Duke University president Richard Brodhead called for “an energetic and aggressive defense of liberal arts education” in a lecture Tuesday that discussed Notre Dame’s recent curriculum review.

Brodhead is the third speaker to address Notre Dame students and faculty as part of the University’s annual Notre Dame Forum. Because of the recent focus on curriculum change, this year’s Forum has examined the question ‘What do Notre Dame Graduates Need to Know?’.

Brodhead has experience with changes in curriculum — he was involved in a curriculum overhaul when he served as dean of Yale College, the undergraduate component of Yale University. This experience taught him that a powerful vision of what students should learn is most crucial when reviewing core requirements, Brodhead said.

“As you perform this self-assessment, if I could offer a word of wisdom, it would be this: do be idealistic, but don’t imagine that perfection is just around the corner,” he said. “It’s the fate of every curriculum to slip from aspirational intentions into operational routines.”

Brodhead said losing this broad vision and focusing too closely on requirements harms the university and its students.

“We have all had the experience of asking students what they want to study that term and having them rattle off the requirements they planned to meet, as if checking the boxes were the aim of education,” he said. “If a school doesn’t have a culture of active inquiry and intellectual engagement supporting its curriculum, if going to College X doesn’t mean entering into a force field that boosts each student’s will to learn, grow and discover, then the best rules in the world can only guarantee conformability of transcripts.”

Students’ desire to fulfill requirements can stifle their pursuit of true knowledge, Brodhead said.

“I went to a college that had eight requirements you had to meet, all of which could be met with AP courses,” Brodhead, a Yale graduate, said. “[…] And actually, in retrospect, I think that is horrifying. What it means is that I was free at age 17 to decide that I never wanted to learn anything further about vast domains of knowledge. But the trouble is your freedom can condemn you to a life of ignorance.”

Brodhead said many today see the liberal arts as a luxury instead of a field that leads to employment. But this field is crucial for each student’s education, he said.

“It’s easy to see why people might get anxious about something whose payoff is not immediate and the path to whose payoff is so oblique,” Brodhead said. “But the fruits of such education can only be reckoned over long time-horizons, as they enable people to rise to challenges and seize opportunities they could not foresee at first.”

Notre Dame should focus on creating a well-rounded education for each student, one that especially stresses the importance of critical thought and the humanities, Brodhead said.

“This is the time for reasserting the why and wherefore of the liberal arts,” he said. “Not just re-formatting requirements, but reasserting the qualities of mind we aim to promote deep down.”

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