Duke University president proposes a renewal of the liberal arts


As a part of the 2014-2015 Notre Dame Forum, Duke University President Richard Brodhead delivered a talk entitled, “The Once and Future Liberal Arts,” on Tuesday, November 4.  A discussion led by John McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, followed the lecture.

As Dean of Yale College from 1993-2004, Brodhead led a similar core curriculum review and so offered advice to the Notre Dame committee: “Do be idealistic, but don’t imagine that perfection is just around the corner.”

Brodhead emphasized that curricular requirements “by virtue of their required nature … often inadvertently make the means take the place of the end.”  Simply fulfilling the requirements, Brodhead implied, is not equivalent to actually receiving the education that the requirements intend to instill.

Brodhead delineated the challenge of the rising cost of higher education and the resulting “growth of a default attitude that the liberal arts have become a dubious luxury, wonderful in one’s own time but not advisable for one’s college-bound children, whose main requirement is to emerge employed.”

Brodhead, however, disagreed with this cultural milieu, saying, “In face of the utilitarianism that has become the fashion even among well-educated folk … [w]ithout minimizing or ignoring economic realities, we need to say loud and clear what the value of such education actually consists of.”

He continued, offering his definition of a liberal arts education, which differs from the widely-held perspective:

“Liberal arts education isn’t just a matter of requiring students to pay quick visits to many unrelated fields on their way to a diploma … [it] aims to engage multiple forms of intelligence to create deep and enduring habits of mind, an active, versatile, integrative spirit that’s naturally disposed, when it comes upon a new fact or situation, to use existing knowledge to try to grasp it, while updating existing understandings in this new light.”

This preparatory learning that the liberal arts cultivates, Brodhead remarked, often lends itself to benefits later, as the “fruits of such education can only be reckoned over long time-horizons …  by drawing on their preparation in unexpected ways, [successful people are] able to do things they had not originally intended or imagined.”

He then offered four points about “the work of educational self-reflection,” such as the current review at Notre Dame.  The first two affirm tradition: to engage in an “energetic and aggressive defense of liberal arts education … to explain what it’s good for and how it works and … to preach this not just to one another but to the larger public that either doesn’t ‘get it’ or, just as commonly, actually does share this vision of human enablement but hasn’t been reminded of it and has fallen prey to the skeptical chatter of our day” and, secondly, “to ensure we are fully living up to this potential in our own institutional practice—making time for the interactions that transform lives.”

He continued with two “more revisionist or challenging” points, which center on exploring beyond the tradition to find successful means of education.  He commented that “while continuing to cultivate what is irreplaceable in traditional instruction … we could begin to be more imaginative about the different units and formats in which education could take place” and, finally, to “be more imaginative about what actually counts as education.”

“This is not the time to abandon the liberal arts,” Brodhead concluded.  “But lifting up the liberal arts need not only entail defending the exact state of current customs.  Why could this not be a time for renewal, a time for protecting and even improving what’s best in current practice and for imagining new ways this dream of human development could be realized among the new facts of our changing world?”

Brodhead did not comment on how to improve Notre Dame’s curriculum; however, the Rover asked Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies, to express his thoughts on the talk.

“[Brodhead] has a passion for and devotion to the liberal arts,” Philpott said.  “He believes that the liberal arts should be open-ended and requirements de-emphasized.  What do these themes imply for Notre Dame’s own liberal arts mission?  His passion is right on.

“A Catholic university ought to be passionate about the liberal arts; the Catholic university invented the liberal arts!  However, if a Catholic university wants to be Catholic, it must insist on more fixed content in a liberal arts education than President Brodhead does,” he continued.

Professor of Economics Kasey Buckles, the moderator of Tuesday’s discussion and a member of the University’s Decennial Core Curriculum Review Committee, commented to the Rover about the place of the liberal arts at Notre Dame and the work of the committee: “If you read the University’s Mission statement, you can see that the liberal arts are at the heart of what we do here.”

It is therefore essential that we maintain a strong commitment to the liberal arts,” Buckles continued.  “Our Core Curriculum Review Committee is thinking about how we can make that commitment more meaningful–for example, by thinking of ways that the separate components of the core might be better integrated, so that students see the connections between their classes.  Similarly, I liked that President Brodhead emphasized ways that a liberal arts education can take place outside the classroom, in service activities, study abroad, or with independent research, for example.  Our committee is considering ways that our core curriculum might be modified to recognize and encourage these types of experiences.”

Undoubtedly, the results of Notre Dame’s core curriculum review will be indicative of the university’s view of the place of the liberal arts in an education.  As the preeminent Catholic university in the country, however, Notre Dame is more than nominally different from other universities.

Philpott elaborated on this theme: “It would be highly detrimental to Notre Dame’s mission were it to abrogate the theology and philosophy requirements in the curriculum, for instance.  One of the oldest and most important ideas in the Catholic intellectual tradition is the unity of knowledge—a unity that spans across the disciplines.  This unity, of course, subsists in God … The truth manifested in every discipline links back to the truth that subsists in God.  And this can only be appreciated when theology and philosophy are kept at the center of things.

“What is more, it is through theology and philosophy that students most learn how to live a happy life.  They learn how to order the whole of their lives towards flourishing and towards finding their destiny in Christ.  If Notre Dame is to take seriously educating its students as whole persons, then, theology and philosophy are indispensable.”


Stephanie Reuter is a freshman living in Welsh Family Hall.  She thoroughly approves of any defense of the liberal arts, for it provides her with intellectual fodder to argue that her intended major of PLS may not, in fact, stand for “Probably Low Salary.”  Instead, she can claim, as President Brodhead put it, that she is gaining “equipment for living.”  So there.  Contact her at sreuter@nd.edu.