A Liberal Education:
How it Can Work
By Geoffrey Blodgett '53
In May, Blodgett gave the Honors Day talk for seniors graduating with honors. His concluding remarks, here slightly amended, dwelt on ways of learning in Oberlin.
At the risk of juggling an old chestnut, I want to consider what a liberal education might be about. In most discussions of the educational process that I've read or heard, the stress lies on teaching and teaching methodology--team teaching, computerized teaching, lecture versus discussion, circling chairs, the sage on the stage giving way to guide on the side. (At Oberlin we don't have to worry about the hack in the back.)
I think that in searching for the essence of a first rate college education, we should pay more attention to how people learn rather than how they are taught. The tactics of the teacher may be less controlling than we sometimes like to think. Opinions vary as to whether our initial aim should be to shake up or to stroke the preconceptions that our students bring to class. Since I teach American history, a subject that American school children absorb repeatedly from about third grade on, I am inclined to believe that by the time they enter college most of then are ready to be shaken up. Year after year after year, they have, for example, watched victory in the American Revolution lead inexorably to flaws in the Articles of Confederation which send the Founding Fathers packing for Philadelphia to write the Federal Constitution. You can't change the chronology, but you can raise some fresh doubts about the reasons why.
What is crucial is to somehow ignite (or re-ignite) in a student's mind the passion of curiosity--to convey a belief in the integrity and urgency of your subject, whatever it may be, and try to inspire a hungry love for it that will never be completely satisfied.
After that, the best part of the learning process comes when you realize as a teacher that you are losing control. In the end a liberal education is an unplanned experience. It is what happens when a curious young mind gathers the messy flux of three or four rival subjects taught in rival classrooms each semester and begins to make connections, connections often unknown to any of the student's teachers. We remain unaware of these connections unless the student tells us about them, because the student has been there, listened to those other teachers, and we have not. We know these other teachers as friends and colleagues, but we really don't know what they teach because with rare exceptions we have never been there. For each of us it is a different configuration of colleagues, depending on our specialty. In my case, to offer an arbitrary short list, it might be Harlan Wilson in political theory, and Norm Care in philosophy, and Pat Mathews in art history, and Dewey Ganzel or Scott McMillin in American literature. Unknown to us all, our students are mixing our particular ideas with their own priorities and patching together new designs, designs which are, again, uncontrolled and unpredictable, because they are the student's personal creation. This is interdisciplinary learning at its most rewarding.
Every spring a number of students will tell me over the water cooler after class or in the Mudd stacks or during office hours that it's happening to them, and that it is a kick. Their personal paradigm is coming into focus. And it is a kick for me as well, because I can still remember when it first happened to me at Oberlin, and again in graduate school several years running. These were temporary paradigms, victories of momentary intellectual assurance about the way the world really worked, before the next flux, the next wave of learning poured in. But they were wonderful while they lasted. And since my professors had no idea what they were all about--we did not chat so much with them over water coolers in those days--pondering them brought a valuable sense of academic autonomy and personal control. I imagine that every student here today has been moved by this experience in form or another. It may be the best thing that can happen to you in this place.
A lot of you have just finished senior honors projects. I was recently the second reader on a thesis in American political history, in which the author--senior Jason Sokol--summed up the meaning of the honors experience this way:
"Admittedly, I am still very much drawn by visions, by ideals, by dreams of a better tomorrow... Most likely, my work will not be read by more than a handful of people. But it has importance for me as I begin my career, a journey that I am sure will be filled by more time in the academy. I see myself as no great altruist, but the way that I have written is very much linked with what I believe about the world, and where my place in it may be."
Each of you could write your own version of this statement. It is a very personal statement, but it also speaks for this college in its peculiar mix of driving scholarly ambition and stubborn moral idealism--testimony to the survival of the two Oberlins, the college of reformist activism and the college of academic excellence. As teachers we can admire this evidence and respectfully applaud it, sometimes wondering exactly what we had to do with it.
Geoffrey Blodgett is Oberlin's Danforth Professor of History.