Scholars discuss value of liberal arts at inaugural symposium

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Editor’s note: This is part of our wider coverage of the inauguration of Nicholas Dirks as UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor on Nov. 8, 2013. Click here to see our page documenting the day.

Just hours before the Friday inaugural ceremony of a chancellor who has championed the value of a liberal arts degree, a number of visiting scholars and campus professors came together in a panel discussion about the importance and challenges of creating a well-rounded undergraduate education.

The panel, which was open to all UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students, was one of three inaugural symposiums held at the International House’s Chevron Auditorium and preceded the inauguration of Nicholas Dirks as UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor.

UC Berkeley physics professor and Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, one of the panelists, discussed a course he taught earlier this year, “Sense and Sensibility and Science,” that brought together science and humanities majors. The class was one of the Big Ideas Courses started in spring 2013 through the College of Letters and Science to allow undergraduates to tackle important issues using an interdisciplinary approach.

“We live in a world with many problems to solve, and I think we have a good shot at doing it if we solve these problems collectively,” he said.

While some panelists addressed the “crisis” in undergraduate education and the tension between science and liberal arts as a challenge universities have faced for years, University of Chicago professor emerita of history Hanna Gray noted the ways higher education has transformed in the past several years.

Proponents of liberal education are on the defensive, as many colleges have morphed into universities, and many now question the value of this type of education, she said.

“(The questions) spring from the strong view that they lack practical benefit — that they fail to prepare the young for the so-called ‘real world,’ as if there were a world more real,” Gray said.

Critics of liberal education often see college as an opportunity to gain skills to help make the country more economically competitive, said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University.

“The critiques of higher education that we hear — and it’s probably no coincidence, most of it coming from Silicon Valley and Stanford — are really about trying to make education more a production of conformity than a spirit of experimentation,” he said. “The defenders of liberal education have been those who see education as a way of resisting conformity.”

Roth said one important function of universities today is assisting students in translating what they learn to different kinds of thinking and decision-making that will be valuable to them after graduation.

“There is surely no one future for liberal education, just as there is no one perfect curriculum,” Gray said. “The future will rest, as the past has done as well, on the ability of institutions to remain faithful to their educational missions.”

Contact Tahmina Achekzai at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.