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Opinion | Higher Education Needs More Socrates and Plato

The right attacks colleges and universities as leftist and woke. Progressives castigate them as perpetuating patriarchy and white privilege. The burdens of these culture war assaults are compounded by parents worried that the exorbitant costs of higher education aren’t worth it.

No wonder Americans’ faith in universities is at a low. Only 36 percent of Americans have confidence in higher education, according to a survey by Gallup last year, a significant drop from eight years ago. And this was before colleges and universities across the country were swept up in a wave of protests and counter-protests over the war in Gaza.

But the problems facing American higher education are not just the protests and culture war attacks on diversity, course content, speech and speakers. The problem is that higher education is fundamentally misunderstood. In response, colleges and universities must reassert the liberal arts ideals that have made them great but that have been slipping away.

By liberal arts, we mean a broad-based education that aspires to send out into society an educated citizenry prepared to make its way responsibly in an ever-more complex and divided world. We worry that at many schools, students can fulfill all or most of their general education requirements and take any number of electives without having had a single meaningful discussion that is relevant to one’s political life as a citizen.

Over the past century, what made American higher education the best in the world is not its superiority in career training, but educating students for democratic citizenship, cultivating critical thinking and contributing to the personal growth of its students through self-creation. To revive American higher education, we need to reinvigorate these roots.

In Europe and many countries elsewhere, colleges and universities have undergraduates specialize from Day 1, focusing on developing area-specific skills and knowledge. College students are trained to become doctors, lawyers or experts in international relations, English literature or computer science.

In the United States, European-style specialization for medical, legal, business or public policy careers is the purpose of post-collegiate professional schools. Traditionally, the American college has been about imparting a liberal arts education, emphasizing reasoning and problem solving. Those enduring skills are the critical ingredients for flourishing companies and countries.

Historically, students arriving on American college campuses spent a majority of their first two years taking classes outside their projected majors. This exposed them to a common curriculum that had them engage with thoughtful writings of the past to develop the skills and capacity to form sound, independent judgments.

Over the past half century, American colleges and universities have moved away from this ideal, becoming less confident in their ability to educate students for democratic citizenship. This has led to a decline in their commitment to the liberal arts, a trend underscored in the results last year of a survey of chief academic officers at American colleges and universities by Inside Higher Ed. Nearly two-thirds agreed that liberal arts education was in decline, and well over half felt that politicians, college presidents and university boards were increasingly unsympathetic to the liberal arts.

Today, there is almost no emphasis on shared courses among majors that explore and debate big questions about the meaning of equality, justice, patriotism, personal obligations, civic responsibility and the purpose of a human life. Majors that once required only eight or 10 courses now require 14 or more, and students are increasingly double majoring — all of which crowds out a liberal arts education. Ambitious students eager to land a prestigious consulting, finance or tech job will find it too easy to brush aside courses in the arts, humanities and social and natural sciences — the core of a liberal education.

The devaluing of the first two years of a shared liberal arts education has shortchanged our students and our nation. Educating young adults to be citizens is why the first two years of college still matter.

To that end, the so-called Great Books have long been the preferred way to foster citizenship. This approach is not, contrary to critics on the left and right, about sanctifying specific texts for veneration or a mechanism for heritage transmission.

Books by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman as well as Wollstonecraft, Austen, Woolf, Baldwin, Hurston and Orwell are worthy of introductory collegiate courses for students of all majors. These writers address the fundamental questions of human life. They explore the ideas of self-determination, friendship, virtue, equality, democracy and religious toleration and race that we have all been shaped by.

As students address those big questions, the Great Books authors provide a road map as they challenge and criticize one another and the conventional wisdom of the past. The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is the exemplar — asking about beliefs and then subjecting them to respectful but critical analysis and skepticism.

These books are best studied in small seminar discussions, which model and inculcate in students democratic behavior. This discourse is an antidote to the grandstanding in today’s media and social media.

The teacher is less an expert in specific writers and more a role model for intellectual curiosity, asking probing questions, offering critical analyses and seeking deeper understanding. In an idealized Socratic fashion, these discussions require listening at length and speaking briefly and, most important, being willing to go where the argument leads.

Parents who are paying for college might question the value of spending $80,000 a year so that their son or daughter can read Plato, Hobbes and Thoreau instead of studying molecular biology or machine learning. But discussing life’s big value questions in seminars gives students personal engagement with professors that can never be reproduced in large lecture halls. Discussions among students on their deepest thoughts cultivates curiosity and empathy, and forges bonds of friendship important for citizenship and fulfilling lives.

Although we like to set ourselves apart from the past by appeals to modernity, the fundamental questions that we find ourselves asking are not always modern, and the latest answer is not always right. But how would you know how to think beyond the readily presented check boxes if you haven’t done the work of laying things out and putting them back together for yourself?

War was no less a concern for Thucydides, Tacitus and Thoreau than it is today. Discussing Great Books allows students to gain distance from the daily noise and allows their reason to roam free among principles and foundations rather than becoming absorbed in contemporary events. Our biggest problems are often best addressed not by leaning in but by stepping away to reflect on enduring perspectives.

Liberal arts education is not value neutral. That is why it is indispensable today. Freedom of thought, critical reasoning, empathy for others and respectful disagreement are paramount for a flourishing democratic society. Without them, we get the unreasoned condemnations so pervasive in today’s malignant public discourse. With them, we have a hope of furthering the shared governance that is vital to America’s pluralistic society.

Ezekiel Emanuel and Harun Küçük are on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Emanuel is a professor and the vice provost for global initiatives and Dr. Küçük is an associate professor of the history and sociology of science.

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