Liberal Learning: Delbanco and Schwehn

The Michaelmas 2008 issue of The Cresset, a review of literature, arts, and public affairs published by Valparaiso University, includes a very interesting series of interviews with some of the country’s leading scholars of liberal learning. The interviews, most of them done by Valparaiso’s Mark Schwehn, a noted scholar on liberal learning himself, were conducted as part of a university-wide faculty seminar at Valparaiso entitled “Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century.”

These interviews are so rich that I thought I would try to commit some blog posts to them over the course of the next few days.

Schwehn’s first interview is with Andrew Delbanco, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and the man who was named by Time magazine in 2001 as “America’s Best Social Critic.”

You can read the entire interview here, but let me offer a few extended snippets:

Here is Delbanco and Schwehn on Cardinal John Henry’s Newman’s The Idea of a University:

Delbanco: …I guess another text one might bring into the discussion, which I’m sure most educators are familiar with, is Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman’s definition of liberal learning has to do with the notion that knowledge…is its own end–knowledge for its own sake. But Newman’s ideal–even though most institutions still pay lip service to it–occupies a smaller and smaller place, and is being crowded out by the putatively practical imperatives of modern society.

Schwehn: Absolutely. I think that it’s kind of a miracle that Newman’s book still remains so much alive and is still quoted favorably by educators, given its context and given that most of them wouldn’t recognize the kind of context that Newman presumed in order to articulate that vision. For instance, Newman fervently believed that the university should provide a kind of encyclopaideia or a “circle of learning” for all students that encompassed all of the various studies and disciplines as they complemented, corrected, and enlarged one another. And it always occurs to the reader, this is great that you’ve put together in one place and have jostling about all of these different approaches, but finally where does the fully orbed view take place? Just through osmosis? This is actually something like what Newman thought, because he was envisioning the collegiate system where you go back after a day of study to your college, and you have dinner with people in history, in English, in physics, in many fields of study. The job of integration really gets done over meals. I think people reading him don’t understand how vitally important that vision of the collegiate system (which Newman had in his bones) was to his argument. We have a whole different set of social formations here in this country, within which education is done in our remarkably variegated and plural system. We therefore have to think about these questions anew, connecting them up…to material conditions and the political and social priorities of universities and colleges.

I teach at a college (Messiah College) where over 90% of the students live on campus. We are the kind of residential college where Newman’s idea of liberal learning is still viable. It seems that the administration of the college and some of my colleagues are open to a twenty-first century version of Newman’s ideal. Our recently designed CORE curriculum for incoming freshman seems to do a good job of taking advantage of Messiah’s residential culture. I think we are a long way from students discussing great ideas in the dining hall, but the administrators of the CORE have made every effort to bring our residential life educators into the planning and delivery of this text-based course.

More on this, and the Valparaiso seminar, later.

ADDENDUM: For more on the residential nature of Newman’s vision–including a proposal for instituting it at Messiah College–see some of Dr. Robert O’Hara’s links in the comments section.

3 thoughts on “Liberal Learning: Delbanco and Schwehn

  1. “I think people reading him don’t understand how vitally important that vision of the collegiate system (which Newman had in his bones) was to his argument.”The revival of the residential college idea (also known as the “house plan”) is one of the most important trends in higher education today. The clearinghouse for this residential college movement is “The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life”:< HREF="" REL="nofollow"><>A residential college system provides an opportunity to “restore the interpersonal” (as Newman might say):< HREF="" REL="nofollow"><>It’s even been proposed for Messiah College by some of its dedicated alumni:< HREF="" REL="nofollow"><>


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