How does one define a liberal arts education?

books-300x196The term “liberal arts” comes up a lot when discussing the various approaches to education found at American colleges and universities, but what exactly is a liberal arts education? Michael S. Roth’s new book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” tries to define it.

Roth argues that two distinct liberal arts traditions can be observed in the history of American tertiary education:

The first is a philosophical tradition emphasizing preparation for inquiry; its aim is freeing the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual. The second is a rhetorical tradition emphasizing initiation into a common culture through the study of canonical works; its aim is learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old. Roth characterizes the philosophical thread as “skeptical” and the rhetorical thread as “reverential.”

In most cases, universities or colleges define a liberal arts education as some combination of these two strands, emphasizing one or the other, in an effort at “serving the needs of the ‘whole person'”.

Roth’s discussion of a liberal arts education does not end here though. He goes on to critique the two-fold American liberal arts education and the idea that it must “higher education must generate useful knowledge that can benefit society, or can increase the student’s financial and social status, or can advance business and economic interests”, showing how influential Americans have helped to form the country’s educational system. Individuals discussed include Thomas Jefferson, who “admired knowledge for its own sake but insisted that it also be useful to human progress”; Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “education demanded cultivation of the self, resistance to the crowd and striving to transform society”; Booker T. Washington, who saw education as a means of “economic inclusion that might eventually lead to higher pursuits” for minorities such as the African-American community; W.E.B. Du Bois, who went further and asserted that education provided one with the ability to “help others attain their own freedom”; Jane Addams, who pursued education as a means to “cultivate empathy and cooperation”; and William James, who saw education in literature as a way to develop the imagination and “help overcome blindness to others’ points of view”.

Ultimately, Roth believes that education should go beyond the confines of university corridors towards the growth of the whole individual for the entirety of life. “Now more than ever, we need both reflective and pragmatic liberal education if we are to shape accelerating change rather than be shaped by it.”

The original article discussing Roth’s book can be found on The Washington Post. Another take on the same article can be found on The Daily Beast.

Professor David Swartz awarded History of Sociology Section Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award

swartzCongratulations to Professor David Swartz for winning the History of Sociology Section Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the American Sociological Association for his book Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Professor Swartz teaches in the Department of Sociology and the Core Curriculum Social Sciences. His book, which can be purchased from the University of Chicago Press, argues that power and politics are central to understanding Bourdieu’s sociology and that sociology is not only a science but a “crucial form of political engagement”.

Yet More Core Books


The Core recently did a survey of syllabi in programs at other schools offering courses that are like Core in method and structure: primary texts, organized chronologically, giving students a working knowledge of the foundational works and ideas of our shared cultural heritage. While many of the books we saw on those other syllabi were familiar to us — Gilgamesh! The Aeneid! The Confessions! Pride & Prejudice! — we were intrigued by the range of readings that aren’t studied in our own classes, but which we could imagine falling into place on our reading list if there were only room enough.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the major works students in other Core programs are reading. Some of them you’ll likely have heard of; others are less commonly encountered, inside the classroom or outside of it. In any case, we here in the Core office think a case could be made for including any or all of these books in a Core-type course.  But then, we here in the Core office also think a case could be made for establishing Core-type courses for students in the third year, and the fourth year, and, why not, as continuing education courses that alumni can take on campus or via some kind of online connection. Ὁ βίος βραχύς! If there is an emblem for our bookworm affliction, it would have to be poor tragic Henry Bemis from that old episode of The Twilight Zone….

Read More »

Dante’s Inferno… in LEGO!

The recent LEGO film shows that these popular construction toys are still thriving after more than half a century. Dante’s Divine Comedy has thrived for nearly seven centuries. Romanian LEGO artist Mihai Marius Mihu celebrates both by constructing scenes from each level of the Inferno. Here we share some of our favorites!

1327787694m_DISPLAY 1330016656m_DISPLAY 1336890917m_DISPLAY

The rest can be viewed here. Which ones are your favorites? Let us know in a comment below!

Thanks to this article for showing us these marvelous creations!

A Little Platonic Advertising

Summer’s in full swing, and we’ve all settled into our lazy summer habits, which include the constant struggle trying to keep warm for those of us staying in Boston. For those of you missing the Core office, don’t worry, we miss all of you too. To keep your spirits up, we found this wonderful comedic article from Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies. Who ever could have though Socrates’ logic could be applied to home cleaning products? Here’s an excerpt:

SOCRATES: Tell me, Glaucon, what does “clean” mean?

GLAUCON: Why, it means the opposite of dirty, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Surely it must mean something more than that.

GLAUCON: I don’t understand, Socrates.

SOCRATES: If “clean” means the opposite of “dirty,” then to clean is to rid a space of dirt or plague, yes?

GLAUCON: Yes, Socrates.

SOCRATES: So cleanliness is the complete obliteration of dirt, bacteria and unsightly stains. Am I right?

GLAUCON: Yes, Socrates.

SOCRATES: So to effectively clean, one must also sterilize, as a sterile surface is one that is also not dirty?

GLAUCON: Yes, Socrates.

The humor just keeps coming. Perhaps we, at Core, miss all the  reading that takes us through the year so gracefully(even though the summer course is in full swing for the first time ever); perhaps we just couldn’t get enough of The Republic. Regardless, enjoy this Wacky Wednesday post and don’t forget to send us your selfies reading Core books!

Should professors provide trigger warnings for literature?


According to a recent article published in the NYTimes, student governments at several major American universities are calling for trigger warnings for rape, violence and other sensitive material to be placed on syllabi, forewarning students who may be upset by such depictions in the literature and media read and discussed in class. And they aren’t talking about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Works proposed for trigger warnings include popular tenants of the western literary canon such as The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare and ancient Greek myths. The concept of trigger warnings, rooted in feminist thought, has gained traction on social media sites. Students in favor of adapting the idea for the classroom argue that it would provide “explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans”.

However, many professors find the movement ludicrous, arguing that trigger warnings “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace”. Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, even suggests that the idea is detrimental to academic freedom. Hajjar, who believes that the graphic depictions of torture she uses in her courses about war are essential, says, “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”

Let us know how you feel about the debate!

Taking Notes By Hand is More Effective Than By Laptop


A recent study conducted by UCLA researchers Daniel Oppenheimer and Pam Mueller found that traditional handwritten notes are far more effective than notes taken on a laptop or other electronic device. In their experiment, students took notes by hand or on a laptop while watching a video lecture. They were then quizzed, “either after 30 minutes of difficult problem solving or a week’s time”. The students who took notes by hand outperformed those who took notes on a laptop. The researchers believe that the desire to write down the lecture word-for-word without analyzing the content is what led laptop note takers astray.

To many people, a laptop is the clear choice of note-taking device because it allows them to take down more of what the speaker is saying. But according to UCLA researchers Oppenheimer and Mueller, the temptation to capture everything we’re listening to might actually be the biggest issue with typed notation.

“We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of lecture content verbatim,” Mueller tells The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. “The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.”

In other words: Transcribing on a laptop in real-time may lead to verbatim notes, but doing so means you spend less time processing the lecture, and more time focusing on typing.

Read the full article here and let us know if you agree or disagree.


A work in progress

A personal thought to those finishing the Core this semester: you are a work in progress.

by Miko Dimov

by Miko Dimov

We were recently chatting with Christopher McMullen, a Core alum and Academic Adviser, and the conversation winded down to how the Core Curriculum merely reveals the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg – an introductory course on life. Core students are being taught how to fish.

In the Baines Report, Core alum Peter La Fountain writes on empathy and leadership, and discusses Jimmy Carter’s comments on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act:

Difficult truths are hard to reconcile with the way we see our society. We want to be optimistic about ourselves, and we should be proud of the strides our country has made. We are an increasingly diverse and welcoming nation, one that has expanded opportunity and liberty, and we consciously strive to be an inspiration for the rest of the world. Yet even on our best days, we should see our nation as a work in progress. If we take a moment to remember the underserved, we may start to question our idling assumptions that the ship of state is doing all it can.

While the article focusses on the importance of retaining empathic priorities in policy-making, it also serves to remind those of us who feel we are passing a threshold, or leaving one period of our life to enter a new one… even on our best days, we are a work in progress.

Keep up the great work, and keep the fire blazing!

The Challenges of Coping with Chronic Illness while in Higher Education

College classes and living on one’s own for the first time is stressful. Imagine having to cope with a chronic illness at the same time.

In a recent article published in Cognoscenti, Laurie Edwards goes over the challenges that face college students suffering from chronic illness in today’s tertiary education system. While services for students with accommodations for students with visible disabilities are becoming increasingly available, chronic illnesses like Crohn’s Disease and Lupus are often invisible and little understood by the general public. Suffers of chronic illness, who are increasing, are often forced to miss long periods of class. Accommodating for this has been surprisingly difficult for many college campuses. The author writes:

How do we accommodate students who can’t make it to class for longer stretches, have frequent medical appointments or disruptive hospital stays, or whose medications may make them drowsy or fatigued even when they are present?

Read More »

Borges! Studied for the first time in CC202

For the first time, CC202 is studying Jorge Luis Borges, and his story The Immortal. Here is a short excerpt from the introduction of our edition, with an epigraph by Francis Bacon:

The immortalA recent article of interest discusses a stolen first edition of Borges’ first poems. It was supposedly returned to Argentina’s National Library, but there are suspicions that it may have been… the wrong copy. A mystery!