March 12, 2008, 06:21 PM ET
Liberal Education and the Major
I spent the day last Friday at an idyllic site in Washington, right across from Senator Clinton’s house, at the Center for Hellenic Studies. This is a cluster of small white buildings in a beautiful green area not far from Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown.
One of the buildings is a lovely and incredibly high-tech conference center (all four walls are translucent projection screens), and we were there for a meeting of grantees of the Teagle Foundation’s program on “The Scholarly Disciplines and Liberal Education Goals.” The idea is for a number of disciplines to think through how their undergraduate major contributes to the goals of liberal education. Teagle has funded several groups, through their national organizations, and last Friday we met with representatives from the fields of religion, biochemistry/molecular biology, and classics.
James Grossman, of the Newberry Library in Chicago, and I represented the National History Center (the affiliate of the American Historical Association that I wrote about recently). We co-chair an NHC task force that is looking into the history major. We have surveyed a number of undergraduate history departments to see how they structure their curricula and relate to the larger liberal-education efforts on their campuses. We will move on to write a Teagle White Paper with recommendations for departmental changes that might enhance the relationship of the major to liberal education. This is an exciting and potentially interesting project.
But it is complicated, since there are so many different sorts of liberal-education institutions and and so many different sorts of history departments. When we complete our report next summer, I will bring it to your attention again and give you a link to it. For the moment, the major question is the traditional one of how the depth and disciplinary focus of the major can relate to the much broader goals and strategy of liberal, or general, education. It was very helpful to Jim and me to observe the ways in which the other fields are thinking their way through this problem.
I want to call attention to this meeting in order to note my admiration for the distinguished classicist, Bob Connor, the president of the Teagle Foundation. The Teagle mission has for some years been the promotion of liberal education in the liberal-arts colleges. But in the several years since Bob has retired as the Director of the National Humanities Center and taken over the Foundation, it has dramatically expanded its energy and its reach. Its resources are in fact quite limited, but it is getting as much creative bang for its buck as any philanthropic foundation I know. And that, I think, is attributable to the remarkable intelligence and insight of Bob and his colleague, the literary scholar Donna Heiland.
Teagle has recently become an important national force in the liberal education movement. It is showing how focus, discretion, and relentless positive reinforcement of grantees can make philanthropy work. It is therefore a challenge and a pleasure to be a Teagle grantee.