CARLSON: The Value of Liberal Arts In New-Age Academia
Published: Friday, February 14, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 14, 2014 00:02
On Jan. 20, Georgetown played host to former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield (MED ’79) for the second installment of the “Designing the Future(s) of the University” series that President DeGioia launched in November 2013. The two administrators discussed their views of Georgetown’s role in society, various challenges to the modern university and how they use their positions to effect change.
One of the most notable digressions during the discussion revolved around the role that research plays in the modern university. The university, Hockfield asserted, was a place for research and the collection of information. In other words, the university should position itself to be the bastion of knowledge for the community. This is an important aspect of the university. With some of the largest concentrations of experts, academics and researchers, universities have an undeniable obligation to pursue new information through experiments and studies. This work not only gives our society new technologies and medicines, but also gives us tools for understanding human nature and beyond.
Yet, the things that differentiate universities are the public goods that they choose to provide. State universities in the Midwest were founded to bring education to more people in order to develop local agricultural economies. Seminaries were to train religious leaders. One of MIT’s primary public goods is stellar research that builds new machines that enable mankind to reach new heights and be more efficient.
But what is Georgetown’s public good?
Georgetown provides the public with “soul craft.” Programs like ESCAPE, Agape and the Spirit of Georgetown seminars provide students of all faith backgrounds with the tools and environment for introspection. Georgetown asks questions about God, faith and morality — topics from which many other universities shy away. So many people take the stance that we are all rational creatures who have our own views on religion and politics and thus those issues should not be touched. Georgetown breaks these down with philosophy and theology classes and a litany of resources, most notably the Jesuits, which help students engage these questions.
This is certainly a public good. The market does not explicitly demand that people study ethics or think about the definition of social justice. It demands critical thinking and analytical and quantitative skills.
This unique character formation — soul craft— is our comparative advantage as a university. Some argue that our priorities need to shift. Universities must be able to progress and adapt to new environments by funding different forms of study. While this is all well and good in the theoretical, a university that is strapped for cash must make choices. Even in subtle ways, Georgetown is asking itself, “Should this funding go to our traditional strengths — government, theology and international relations — or should it go to build new programs like the hard sciences, thus allowing us to compete with other research universities?”
What is the cost of moving forward? This is the question that we must all address. Will Georgetown have to leave some of its traditions behind in order to make room for new opportunities and programs?
While market forces are certainly dictating the types of research that are valuable and the types that are worthless, the university has an obligation to fight back. Institutions like Georgetown, with centuries of experience in teaching the liberal arts, understand the value that these pursuits have on a person’s soul. They make us better citizens. While other universities may feel comfortable shedding the old in favor of the new, Georgetown should seriously consider what it has to lose if it is not careful.
We must understand that there is a balance between developing new specialties and keeping our old disciplines strong. Georgetown must resist promoting one without emphasizing the need for the other.
Kent Carlson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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