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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2008

How Chicago Shaped Liberal Higher Education

By William Bruneau
Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America David Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; 256 pp; ISBN: 978-0-226-47553-0, cloth $39 US; ISBN: 978-0-226-47554-7, paper $19 US.
Former University of Chicago dean David Levine embodies a type of person — your favourite Senate Curriculum Committee chairperson.

After all, who else would remember when and why Natural Sciences I and II entered the curriculum? Who else would see the connection between junior and senior level courses in Western Civ. and notice instantly that your new course on “Pre-Industrial England” neglected that connection? A curriculum committee chair, that’s who. Levine strikes me as prototypical. For his book is as much about curricular precedents and precedence, as it is about “powers of the mind.”

Levine describes the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Chicago in the 20th century with enough background material to suggest U of C has “reinvented” liberal education. Levine’s attitude is that of a loyalist and a fan. He rarely mentions curricular happenings elsewhere. Perhaps it would be a distraction, or maybe it would suggest, well, disloyalty. His Chicago-centrism does not mean that he misstates the facts, only that he fails to explain them.

Levine thinks European universities, 19th and 20th century American theoreticians, and possibly a few institutions outside Illinois (Columbia and Harvard, especially), contributed to the Chicago “experience.”

He begins with Aristotle’s and others’ recommendation that we educate to make a new human being, free and capable of philosophically-informed pursuit of truth. (pp. 9-26) The classical-mediaeval foundations of trivium and quadrivium were clumsy devices intended to achieve that goal.

With the appearance of industrial civilization, two contrary forces put these older arrangements in doubt — the pressure to specialize, for industrial and social reasons, and the modern clamour for democracy in schooling and in life.

Condorcet and Diderot — grand Enlightenment figures that they were — saw classical education forms as hopelessly illiberal. They and their colleagues pressed instead for broadly accessible knowledge, la distribution des lumières. They wanted scepticism in every breast, specialism in the professions, and political democracy.

Although American educators mostly agreed, their universities (U of C included) saw liberal education as disciplined inquiry, carried out in breadth and in depth. (p. 39) That meant not everyone would attend. La distribution des lumières would not be universal. The Americans, and certainly the Chicagoans, chose the electives system as their central curricular device, a compromise between breadth and depth.

Levine shows how U of C combined breadth and depth on both the professorial and undergraduate sides. The university separated undergraduate and graduate instruction more completely than was, or is, typical. It faced up to the difficulty of higher education in a nation whose schools educated the masses, not just the elite, by raising admissions standards to the point where you had to “smell like a genius to get in.”

Once you were in, depending when you arrived in the 20th century, you might come under the influence of four figures in U of C’s intellectual heritage: John Dewey, Robert M. Hutchins, Richard McKeon, or Joseph Schwab. (pp. 75-144) These men were committed not only to high generalities (critical thought, the liberal character, the nature of the disciplines and so on), but also to solving educational problems on the ground.

Dewey ran an experimental elementary school on the Chicago campus. Hutchins fought to have his list of Great Books, and no other. McKeon insisted on logic when nobody much cared for it. Schwab taught biology as a branch of the liberal arts, asking students to read novels and the newspaper, not just lab reports, preferring intense discussion to monologic teaching whenever it made sense to do so.

Conversational Pedagogies

The overall purpose at the university was, and is, according to Levine, to cultivate powers of the mind. These include powers of prehension — audiovisual, kinaesthetic, verbal — and powers of expression — required in “forming a self,” inventing statements, problems, and actions, integrating knowledge and communicating. Levine describes suitable pedagogies (pp. 220-31) and concludes autobiographically on how he “taught the powers.” (pp. 232-56)

This last section includes a list of eight types of conversation, as Levine prefers that term to the more flaccid “discussion.” Type 7 (p. 251) is “Connecting internal, personal conversations,” a structured opportunity to process conversations in which they have some personal interest and to connect those with ongoing conversations beyond themselves. Type 8 is “Exploring conversations about what conversations exist.” The curious abstraction of these headings is, alas, typical of the whole book.

Levine suggests the University of Chicago spent most of its corporate time between 1900 and 2006 arguing about the matter and the manner of education, rather than about its social utility or economic value. The four ways, and the eight methods, and much else about the university, fill page after page in Powers. This is, to put it mildly, an unlikely story.

In the context of university politics, did Chicago not concern itself with salaries, admissions problems, the cost of libraries and labs, the question of women’s rights and matters of race and class? We know it did. To take just one counter-example, Stephen Diner’s 1980 book, A City and Its Universities: Public Policy in Chicago, 1892-1919 shows how utility, in all its forms, was deeply ingrained in the administrative and curricular practice of the university since its founding. The fight for civic probity, and the struggle to deal with poverty and disease in the city, were in part the business of the university.

It is an important question whether the liberal-general education proposed at U of C was either a reason or a cause for the early 20th century political activism of so many of its professors and students. That question is neither put nor answered in Powers.

Levine is not wrong to say that most American (and Canadian) universities avoid sustained debate about their educational purposes. Too often, they prefer to worry about money and power, professional connections and marketability. Institutional places for such debate, including academic senates, are too often moribund.

In this respect, the University of Chicago is indisputably extraordinary, and unrepresentative of American higher education. By the same token, one wonders how the Chicago example could be made to serve in other parts of the American system — where money is scarcer and where the traditions of high-flown educational debate are weaker. The U of C’s origins, its wealth, its independence and its many institutional riches — a great publishing house, well-funded laboratories, its huge buildings, and so on — mark it off.

But overall, the emphasis on Chicago-as-navel is terribly wearing. It makes Powers the sort of book alumni might want to read, but not necessarily anybody else.

Deep Roots

Levine gives almost no play to controversies over “liberal” reform at Oxbridge from the 1860s to the present, beginning with pedagogical struggles between Mark Pattison and Benjamin Jowett, down to the work of Lord Franks at Oxford in 1960, and the sea-change of the 1980s and 1990s with the election of Margaret Thatcher. What about the liberal ideas of John Stuart Mill in the 1860s (and John Henry Cardinal Newman, for that matter), and Herbert Spencer, Bertrand Russell or Alfred North Whitehead in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s?

Was U of C unaware of the “two cultures” controversy, associated mainly with C.P. Snow? Levine ably shows how liberal education at Chicago, particularly in the hands of Joseph Schwab, was carried on in Natural Sciences I and II. That is all well and good, but what of the larger controversies over science, the arts, industry, militarism, the state and the interrelations between them?

For another, Levine gives too little to new ideas about liberality and humanism in the university. Martha Nussbaum’s recent book on humane, liberal education gets a single paragraph in Powers. Richard Rorty’s writing on the same subject is absent. Levine would have benefited from reading Canadian works. Why not a word about Northrop Frye (well known in Chicago, after all)? Or a discussion of Paul Axelrod’s ideas (Values in Conflict, 2002)?

Canadian higher education has managed to combine literary culture and professional-scientific education, although not with consistent success. We knew what we were doing when we attempted the combination, and we had some idea why it was a good thing to attempt it in the first place. Was U of C entirely unaware of things happening just across Lake Michigan?

Quite by accident, the book I read just before tackling Levine was Alan Ryan’s Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998). It is short and sweet and excellent. It truly is a conversation with Plato, Mill, Matthew Arnold, Dewey, Whitehead and Russell. It is a sharp reminder that we university people spend too little time on broad questions and too much on short-term political strategy. I am going to reread Ryan.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a member of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.