A cross-discipline panel of professors explore the history of education in the Western Tradition


Professors Martin Bloomer, Walter Nicgorski, and Thomas Noble discussed the meaning of a liberal education, tracing the history of education to its foundation.  All three speakers sought to address the pressing question, “What is the purpose of education?”  The panel discussion was sponsored by Students for Child-Oriented Policy and the Tocqueville Program in Religion and American Public Life.

Tiernan Kane, President of Students for Child Oriented Policy, gave a few opening remarks and introductions.  He asserted that a current debate in education policy exists over test-taking, and more specifically education that must satisfy a certain set of metrics.  Kane posited that this debate is a mere component of a larger discussion deeply concerned with the goal of education itself.

Bloomer, Professor of Classics; Nicgorski, Professor Emeritus of Liberal Studies and Political Science; and Noble, Professor of History each provided insightful remarks about the evolution of education from antiquity to the present.

Bloomer began in an attempt to define the meaning of a liberal education.  He asserted that two competing definitions exist, the first, that liberal education is an education fit for a free person, and the second, that a liberal education makes us free.

“A liberal education provides us with the dispositions and skills to better understand the world and the self,” Bloomer affirmed.

The study of certain texts, Bloomer commented, has historically instantiated a culture’s highest values.  He discussed education’s advent in Sumeria, Babylon, and Syria, mentioning that it primarily existed to educate a scribal class which would preserve knowledge through writing for future generations.  With the development of the city-state, however, schooling soon became deeply intertwined with the definition of citizenship.

The Roman city-state in particular profoundly influenced education, as it advocated learning in two languages: Greek and Latin.  Thus, Bloomer stated that Romans felt they had some mastery over the Greek cultural heritage.  Most importantly, Roman education centered upon the development of speaking and thinking skills.  As the Roman political state burgeoned, it had a great need for governors and political officials skilled in rhetoric.

Nicgorski continued the discourse by noting that, at this point in Roman history, philosophy entered, and ushered in what is now an “enduring Socratic focus in liberal education.”  He quoted Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, which reads, “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens, to set it in the cities and even to bring it into the household; he compelled it to inquire into life and character and issues of good and evil.”

Nicgorski stated that the Socratic focus “keeps ethical and moral up front in education while we speculate.”  He believes that a liberal education helps the development of our reasoning and communication skills so that we can live truly human lives.  “Questions of the just and the good are always present,” Nicgorski stated, “and we must recognize that morality is central to our development.”

Noble took a slightly different, more historical approach than the other two panelists.  Posing the question, “What does it mean to be an educated person?”, Noble traced the historical developments, and differing answers, about whom education is for, of what it should consist, and what its purpose should be.

He agreed with Bloomer’s discussion of the ancient Greek and Roman context and asserted that education was originally available only for elite males.  He noted that the push for compulsory education for all genders, races, and ethnicities is a product of the post-WWII era.

Noble said that the composition of education for the ancients consisted of the 7 liberal arts, subdivided into the trivium and quadrivium.  The trivium consists of the three components of language: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium encompasses arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  Music originally had an integral role in education, as the ancients considered it to be closely correlated to philosophy.

Noble called Notre Dame’s current core curriculum a “good faith effort to preserve this integration of science with the humanities.”

Yet Noble claimed that the Enlightenment era introduced more practical and mechanical foci into education, whereas for the ancients, the point of education was to form communities of virtuous citizens.  He mentioned that in the “utterly secularized world in which we live, relativism has made moral education difficult,” as it would be difficult to agree on the definition of a virtuous person.

When responding to questions, all three professors affirmed the distinction between education and training.  They asserted that education today, especially higher education, has a clear inclination toward training in specific skills that are oriented toward specific trades.  The specification of education has contributed to an inability to educate the whole person.

Nicgorski concluded that “education in its completeness requires friendship and agreement.”  He noted that the bigger picture can appear overwhelming, but said that change is possible through small groups of people committed to education in its truest form.

Several students recently began such an effort following William Deresiewicz’s lecture “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Elaine Schmidt, the group’s founder, told the Rover that, “After attending Deresiewicz’s talk, a group of students from various disciplines gathered together to discuss what we want from our education and how we can achieve that ideal.  During our discussion, we agreed that despite Notre Dame’s academic reputation, many students find their lives lacking stimulating conversations that extend beyond the classroom.  Before arriving on campus, many of us imagined that the sharing of experiences, challenging of beliefs, and engagement in discussion would be commonplace at Notre Dame.  We believed that at Notre Dame, interesting conversations would occur at any moment, whether during a dining hall dinner or a break in a spike-ball game.  But upon arrival, we found the campus climate to be quite different.

“So many Notre Dame students are hungry for a meaningful education, one where they feel comfortable ‘being in progress,’ where they can question, contemplate, and discuss issues of moral, intellectual, and personal relevance that are ‘central to our development.’  The question is: How do we achieve this?  Just as Professor Nicgorski said, I believe that ‘change is possible through small groups of people committed to education in its truest form.’  Our group is just that. We plan to meet every Friday to discuss a specific weekly topic, and by engaging in academic, moral, and ethical discussions, we hope to foster a culture of conversation on campus that extends beyond our group and into the entire Notre Dame community,” Schmidt concluded.

If you are interested in joining this discussion group please email Elaine Schmidt at eschmid5@nd.edu.

Kate Hardiman is a PLS major and PPE minor living in Breen-Phillips Hall.  Contact her at khardima@nd.edu if you want to talk education policy.