“As you have no doubt noticed, many people in the U.S. have lost faith in liberal education. From governors to legislators, from pundits to parents, Americans increasingly view higher education as purely instrumental—as a ticket to a job, nothing less, nothing more. This vocational view sees college as a commodity: you purchase education the way you buy a car, and the return on investment is measured in strictly financial terms:
How much do graduates make?
How much do individual majors make?
What percentage of new graduates get jobs?
Why major in subjects that do not lead directly to high-paying jobs?
The Arts College does not see itself as a vocational school. Neither do our other colleges, which depend significantly upon the Arts College for many of their fundamental courses.
What is liberal education? I take “liberal” in its original Latin sense as an education for free people; that is, people who do not live in a dictatorship, but have an active role to play in the life of their society. Liberal education liberates students to think for themselves as individuals, to develop their creative capacities, and to contribute to public life, not just earn money as a cog in a machine.
A university’s curriculum says a lot about what that university purports to be. The Stanford faculty recently published a well-conceived report on the Stanford curriculum. Princeton is about to release its report on the same topic. In its turn, I would like to see Cornell give strong and clear answers to the following questions:
For tomorrow’s world, what should a well-educated person know?
What should she be able to do with her mind?
To contribute to her society?
These are tough questions. They are particularly pertinent now, given the state of this country, when our national discourse has descended to the language of the gutter. It is the responsibility of universities to do what they can to raise the level of discourse. Here are a few thoughts:
First, we need citizens who can read closely and critically; otherwise they will be easy prey for political and Internet nonsense.
Second, we need citizens who can reason intelligently and ethically; otherwise, we will continue to suffer from shallow arguments and dishonest leadership.
Third, we need citizens who can speak and write clearly and persuasively; otherwise, they will be incapable of convincing others of their views.
Fourth, we need citizens who can do independent research; otherwise, they will depend upon someone else to tell them what the facts are.
Fifth, we need citizens who can analyze quantitative arguments common to math and the sciences; otherwise, they will be unable to assess issues of critical importance.
Finally, we need individuals who have intellectual curiosity and a lifelong desire to keep learning; without those assets, they will not escape the vapid consumerism and celebrity culture that is all around us.
Those are general goals, as I see it, of a liberal education.”
– Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings, “State of the University”, October 28th 2016. Comments have been condensed and reformatted.