Skip to main content

Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Keynote Address at the 2009 International Symposium at College of Liberal Studies, Seoul National University - Oct. 8

Liberal Education for Leadership in a World of Change: Lessons from the American Experience

Thank you Dr. Sung Bok Kim. It is a privilege to be introduced here by someone who has accomplished much as an American historian and contributes so regularly to Korean education and to this institution. I am honored to be here today and to participate in this timely and important conference on active learning and independent study. I would like to offer my hearty congratulations to President Lee, Jang-Moo, Dean Suh, Kyung-Ho, Dean Kang, Myung-Koo, and the College of Liberal Studies staff for their roles in pioneering the innovative liberal studies program this year. My special thanks to Research Professor Junghwa Mah for all of her care in arranging for this.

It is always critical for those responsible for institutions of learning to stop and assess objectives and progress—and it is perhaps even more critical at this time of fundamental change in the world. We are educating those who will assume leadership and responsibility for the world of the 21st century. And needless to say the seriousness of our assignment is the greater because of the complexity of the assignment we are handing to our graduates.

Just two weeks ago at a very special inauguration ceremony I had the privilege of passing over the symbol of the Dartmouth presidency to Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a distinguished educator, physician, and humanitarian, who was born in Korea. It was an historic occasion enriched by the participation of the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association performing percussion music. We are all excited by his appointment. In his inaugural comments President Kim talked about his Korean parents who emigrated to the United States with their young family. They urged him always to keep his feet on the ground and to reach for the stars.

In many ways this apparent conflict in goals underlines what I believe constitutes the tension in higher education—a necessary and healthy tension. In a letter that was read at the inaugural ceremony, President Lee Myung-bak wrote of the “creative pragmatism” and values of “freedom, liberty and love for humanity” that is so much part of the legacy of the Korean people.

When I reflect on the purposes of education, I almost always think of the individual students for whom we have a responsibility. And their goals and purposes are basic ones that are individual and personal, aspirational as well as practical. Students look to education as enabling and fulfilling, as a process of expanding understanding and knowledge. They also look upon education as a very practical and necessary stage in their life goals, one that will provide them with a valued certification. Their diplomas will serve as tickets of admission to the careers they will pursue. But if this is all we provide to them, we fail them. Education, higher education, is not simply about fulfilling individual goals but it is as well about expanding dreams, instilling confidence, and affirming broader societal values and obligations.

As someone who has now watched his students graduate for forty years and go on to do remarkable things with their lives, I join all teachers in feeling a tremendous pride and satisfaction in the accomplishments of my students. But the prior question must be whether these personal goals are sufficient to justify a costly social investment. What broader returns do groups, institutions, and, increasingly, governments expect from their investment in education? In democracies, there is a well-established belief in the value—the necessity—of an educated and informed citizenry to protect and enhance not only the political system but also the economic system: as individuals prosper, so does the economy and the society.

Investments in students and in the research institutions that help to educate and certify them are justified by practical concepts such as global competitiveness and productivity. Indeed a commission on which I served last year, established by the College Board, issued a report arguing that the United States had to increase the educational accomplishments of American students because we are in danger of losing our leadership position to other nations who educate higher proportions of their young people. I fully support this recommendation and worry about my country failing to sustain the accomplishments that require an educated citizenry. Today my focus—and the focus of this symposium—is on higher education. But all of us realize that our work depends upon a strong system of elementary and secondary education.

While we would all agree that an international education race is a far more productive contest than an arms race, I do think that those of us in the academy still need to pause and ask about purpose. I am an American historian and I would like to reflect a bit on the evolution of higher education in the United States, with some observations about my own institution, in order to frame better the question that we face today.

Those American colleges and universities like Dartmouth that were chartered in the 17th or 18th centuries, before the American revolution, had a quite specific purpose: to transmit that which was known rather than to expand knowledge. Their focus was on the discipline of learning and reciting and the course of study was classical — narrowly so. The first American colleges were private and their mission was to pass along received traditions, to train ministers and thoughtful graduates. They aimed to transmit what was considered the essential knowledge to a small group of individuals who would then assume responsibility for transmitting it to others and to the next generation. Degrees were less important than education. There was little debate about the nature of the curriculum and even less about how to read and interpret the texts that were part of it.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the American classical curriculum had a heavy emphasis on Greek and Latin grammar and the development of mental discipline. Modern languages, history outside of Greek and Roman history, and science had no place in the curriculum of early American colleges. All students took the same courses at the same time. As the distinguished historian of American education Bruce Kimball described it, these schools were committed to “the fundamental assumption that truth can be known and expressed, a dogmatism underlying the belief that the task of liberal education is to transmit wisdom rather than to teach the student how to search for it. Being more pragmatic than speculative or analytic, the liberal arts master presented to his students a view of life and the world that was to be appropriated and repeated, not challenged.”

This curriculum and purpose dominated the world of American higher education into the mid nineteenth century. Any proposed revisions met with general resistance and skepticism. President Charles Hodge of the Princeton Theological Seminary proudly claimed that “a new idea never originated in this seminary.” When John Maclean became president of Princeton in 1854 he proudly declared, “we shall not aim at innovations … no chimerical experiments in education have ever had the least countenance here.”

Libraries provide a revealing example of how universities perceived their role as custodians of knowledge rather than as creators of knowledge. In the middle of the 19th century, the Dartmouth library was open between 1 and 2 pm on Monday and Tuesday afternoons only. Only 5 students could enter the library at any one time, and no one could take down a book from the shelf without the permission of the librarian. Indeed in 1859 Librarian Oliver Payson Hubbard decided to close the library altogether to students because he thought that little good came of letting undergraduates have free run of the library. They tended, he said, to wander around aimlessly and would then ask him what books they should read. At the end of the first term without the library, Mr. Hubbard recommended that the College continue to keep the library closed. He reported that “no inconvenience whatever had resulted” from the closing and indeed the uninterrupted peace provided him with the time in which to catalogue the books.

The university model of the United States was clearly not one that encouraged curiosity or innovation—and thus was increasingly irrelevant to the needs of a growing society in a changing world. College graduates did indeed assume positions of leadership and responsibility and it would be too easy to argue that this was in spite of their education! I think not—surely those who had learned and studied were advantaged—and their intellectual capacity served them and their society well. But their alma maters had little role in the real world with which they engaged.

Now it is the case that in addition to the undergraduate courses of study, a few universities also had medical and some few other graduate and professional schools. But even in these schools the emphasis was on rote learning, not discovery. They were places involved in professional training.

In the mid nineteenth century, two new university models began to emerge that would break down boundaries and barriers. The first was the development of the public university system as a viable alternative within a higher education community that was dominated by private institutions. Public universities were funded by the states and by the federal government following the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, the legislation that established land-grant universities.

The Morrill Act provided the first significant federal support for higher education in the United States. Its purposes were based on the ideas of Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party. During the height of the American Civil War, in 1862, the Republican congress passed historic legislation establishing the Homestead Act, providing free farms in the West, the transcontinental railroad act which enabled the building of the American national railroad system, and the Morrill Act. These were investments in the physical and intellectual infrastructure that would be essential to the development of the modern American industrial economy.

Vermont Senator Justin Morrill did not want simply to establish more of the same — universities and colleges that taught the classical curriculum. Instead, in keeping with his democratic ideals, he wanted a system of higher education that would serve the national welfare by disseminating the latest scientific research, particularly in the area of agriculture but also the industrial arts. The land grant universities would teach some traditional classical studies, but they would also teach more practical applied knowledge — “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.” This curriculum, unlike the classical curriculum, Morrill believed , would have a direct relevance to the lives of students and would serve the public who supported these institutions. Justin Morrill hoped that the new universities would be more accessible to a broader cross section of students. They were to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” — farmers, laborers, skilled artisans, and their children.

These universities provided a more practical education. Or as the President of the University of Illinois put it, “utilitarian education for the producing classes.” The “Wisconsin Idea” popularized the concept that the University of Wisconsin had responsibilities far beyond the classroom: indeed that university had a “moral responsibility” to share its experts and its expertise with all citizens. This was a far cry from the colonial model. Higher education moved from the margins of American life: the University system was a crucial engine in economic growth and in modern social programs.

Although the land grant institutions were state institutions, many private universities also opened more practical programs. Ezra Cornell combined a private academy with a land-grant college and proclaimed that he wanted to found a university “where any person can find instruction in any study.”

The second major influence on American universities in the mid to late nineteenth century was that of the German universities, which emphasized the idea of the university as a place to expand knowledge, focusing on basic research. This encouraged the founding of several universities in the United States with a primary purpose of research—Johns Hopkins 1876, Clark 1887, Chicago 1890, and Stanford 1891—and the invigoration of many older institutions with a focus on discovery, systematic research, and graduate education.

Together these influences — the more practical even utilitarian education provided by the land-grant colleges and the emphasis on the creation of new knowledge by the German and new research universities — challenged the traditional course of study offered at older colleges and universities. The presidents of these institutions — Charles Eliot at Harvard, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, and William Jewett Tucker at Dartmouth — responded by expanding their curriculums, encouraging their faculties to participate in research, and providing more electives. By the late nineteenth century, research was clearly accepted at the country’s major universities, with many of them now encouraging their faculty to study for advanced degrees.

Universities became less the transmitters of received knowledge and more places of inquiry. Specialization increased and new departments and disciplines emerged. Graduate education and the granting of the Ph.D. degree became critical responsibilities of the modern university. This development coincided with–and in the early 20th century came to have a synergistic relationship with–the development of the modern business corporation and its dependence upon specialization of function, expertise, and bureaucratic organization. Establishing goals and measuring progress toward those goals was critical. Universities were partners in developing and analyzing the effectiveness of business innovations and of government programs.

At my college, Dartmouth, President Tucker wrote that “A college stands in relation to the society at large,” and he set out to reform thoroughly the classical curriculum that still sat at the heart of a Dartmouth education. In his inaugural address he said "if by a liberal education we mean the introduction to the broader ranges of thought, we cannot leave out the study of nature (and) or man as a part of nature." He overhauled the curriculum and introduced new disciplines in the social sciences. He developed new professorships in history, sociology, and biology with later additions in French and German, economics, and astronomy and physics. He introduced the teaching of evolution and laboratory science. President Tucker established the first ever school of business with the Tuck School of Business Administration in 1900.

In the 1920s, Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins called for a general review of the educational requirements and he appointed Professor Leon Burr Richardson as head of the review committee. Richardson visited 19 other colleges and universities in the US and another 14 in Canada, England, and Scotland. His findings provide a good summary of the general evolution—indeed revolution—in the goals and purposes of American higher education in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Richardson wrote that the previous 70 years (those years since 1850) had seen a “deluge of new ideas, of new methods,” in higher education. He went on to note “if we examine the whole history of education it will not be easy to find a period so brief in which so complete a change of educational outlook and so sharp a modification of method has taken place as has been witnessed in the United States.” Richardson’s work embraced the new world of education—but it not so subtly also affirmed the centrality of the educated person as the goal of this process. And it was a different model from the transmission of canonical knowledge that marked the colonial origins. Richardson posited that the purpose of the university was “the stimulation and development of those gifts of intellect with which nature has endowed the students, so that he becomes, first, a better companion to himself through life, and, second, a more efficient force in his contacts with his fellow men.” Students needed to both understand the received knowledge of the time but also be able to think for themselves. Thus, the basic model of leading American universities during the first half of the twentieth century combined several strands: a faculty dedicated to research, a much expanded curriculum that combined both utilitarian and classical knowledge, and a desire to teach students to think critically. President Hopkins directly challenged the vocational training model when he said that education was not aimed at what men would do, but what they would be, meaning their broader sense of values and of purpose in life.

Critical thinking was of course the antithesis of the colonial ideal of education. But no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson had argued for change. The author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, Mr. Jefferson believed that an educated citizenry was critical for a democracy. He wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

The revolution in American education did not conclude with the development of the research university and with the enlarged public mission of developing a meritocracy of experts who could administer modern innovations and an informed citizenry with the capacity for independent thought. The Second World War intensified the partnership between the government and higher education in encouraging basic and applied research. The period following World War II saw another wave of fundamental change in colleges and university, one that would more directly shape our world today. The GI Bill, approved by the US Congress in 1944 and providing educational support for veterans, expanded significantly those who might aspire to higher education and enabled their enrollment. By 1947 nearly half of the students admitted to American colleges were veterans.

The enrollment of veterans and the great expansion of opportunity that marked the civil rights movement and the expansion of expectations that underlay the women’s rights movement, led to remarkable growth in students enrolled in colleges and universities over the next 25 years. It democratized an opportunity that had traditionally been enjoyed largely by the privileged. Today American higher education celebrates its heterogeneity and pluralism and has even defended them before the Supreme Court as essential to the educational experience of students.

Concomitant with the expansion of American higher education was a growing expectation that a college degree was essential. It was no longer the mark of gentility and culture; it was a practical and necessary step to a life of opportunity. As the American academy opened the doors to a more socio-economically diverse student body, the demand for a “practical” education increased. Unlike the early national period—or even the first half of the twentieth century––the degree as credential has come to be a leading factor in public expectations of higher education. The specific details of the course of study generally became less material. The degree validated the worth of the individual.

Also following the second world war, as a result of military exigencies from both the war itself and the Cold War, which the Korean War seemed to affirm as an enduring and apocalyptic contest, the US government accelerated its involvement in research and public health, initiating tremendous investments in university research programs—in infrastructure and in projects of individual faculty.

Today, universities have embraced a dual mission: the education of talented students through a combination of utilitarian programs and liberal arts, and the creation of new knowledge through extensive research programs. The received knowledge of our time, while richer and more complicated then ever, is also more tentative. Indeed, the nature of research and inquiry assume a healthy intellectual skepticism toward received knowledge.

It is a wonderful story in so many ways. And American higher education has largely earned the reputation it has as a model for the world. Yet it is an incomplete story if we focus only on an increase in the numbers and diversity of students served, on expansion of goals, of service to society, on new technologies and on partnership with economic innovation. These are all critical things. But are they sufficient for our century?

Let me complicate the process of answering this. I would remind everyone that an educated society may well be a productive one, but it is not by definition a good society. As Donald Randel, the President of the distinguished Andrew Mellon foundation, argued in a paper last year, “useful knowledge” does not assure a democracy. President Randel was concerned about an increasing focus upon what he described as an “instrumental” view of knowledge—and one focused upon economic competitiveness and national security needs. He surely did not oppose these things –but he wanted to make a case for including the humanities in our core knowledge and most importantly for the fundamental need for education in a democracy to further understanding and affirmation of human values. He used the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as examples of states that valued education for practical goals and did not encourage individual curiosity and imagination. As he observed, “useful knowledge can be employed in the commission of the most heinous crimes and in the maintenance of the most repressive governments.” Contrary to Mr. Jefferson’s model, education does not by definition make one free.

And I would simply add to President Randel’s thoughtful comments that, alas, a knowledge of the humanities, as necessary as these are to assure the richness of a society, may not be sufficient to assure a good society. As he argued, values are critical. Witness only the way in which highly educated Nazis became downright sentimental over Wagner, Beethoven, and Mozart. Many of these men were “cultured” and knowledgeable. And they lacked any fundamental sense of values, of what it means to be a human being. Knowledge is a wonderful thing, a necessary thing for a civil society and a productive world. It enables individuals to achieve and to succeed in their life goals. It opens barriers and enlarges boundaries. But it is not sufficient for a good world.

Education needs to be more than knowledge. It also needs to nurture and to encourage and to enable students so that for a lifetime they will have the ability to adapt—and more importantly the capacity to know, to know what they stand for and to know the world of which they are a part. An education that does not stand anchored in values that fundamentally respect human beings, their liberty and independence, and does not cherish open debate, finally fails to educate and only trains. One need only compare this society or my own with that of some of the world’s autocratic and inhumane societies whose citizens are also “educated”—educated to meet the needs of the regime.

Over the last 30 years I have chaired two curriculum review committees at Dartmouth. What I have learned from these experiences, what I have observed in 20 years in senior academic administration, and what I have determined as a student of history, is that we all need be careful in prescribing too carefully and specifically what it is an educated person should know. An educated person has to have the capacity to know—and to learn–over a lifetime of change. Who among us can predict what the world will require 30 or even 10 years from now? Witness the evolution of the digital world, of the world of finance, of the changes in communication, over the last decade. Consider expanding definitions of concepts such as “globalism,” “equality,” “women’s rights,” and “religious fundamentalism.” Just reflect for a moment the ways in which our world has been altered in this century by the new calculus of international politics and the use of terror attacks on innocent civilians.

All of this flashes a warning about humility to any of us confidently predicting what our students will need in terms of specific knowledge for the year 2020! It is understandable that we each may think we know what their needs will be. I would submit that the more specifically grounded in a field of knowledge this is, the more likely it will prove to be inadequate. Of course none of this intends to minimize the wisdom, knowledge, insights and experience of the faculty at our institutions. They are central to our mission and of course shape our course of study. But we need to remember, as the nineteenth century American historian and public intellectual Henry Adams noted, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

This eternal task requires that in addition to sharing with students our own knowledge and insights, we need to prepare them for a lifetime of learning—and its companion pieces of relearning and even of unlearning. The need to do these things will mark their lives. And those students who are not driven by curiosity, by the capacity to think and to think critically, and by the ability to work independently of teachers, mentors and authorities—and cooperatively with classmates and colleagues—will do less well in this world of change. It is appropriate to provide a concentration or a major as a building block for our students in their intellectual journey—just as it is necessary to enable them to transcend their disciplines. Life’s problems and their solutions are interdisciplinary!

My position is based upon my conviction that a critical goal of higher education is to educate the next generation of leaders—leaders for this, their century. This leadership is not going to follow any sort of traditional model sustained by authority, by command and control mechanisms. Effective leadership in consequential organizations will rest in the hands of those who know how to work with others who are equally intelligent, equally well educated, and equally ambitious—and to enlist them toward the accomplishment of common goals. Independent minds with shared objectives can shape this century. Here is where it comes back to the values that inform and shape those objectives. And here is where we come full circle to some of the egalitarian values that Jefferson defined and some of the capacity to assume responsibility that marked the Confucianism of traditional Korean education. Egalitarianism and responsibility are not outdated concepts. These values have a central place in any educational system.

Our role as educators is always to rethink our disciplines, fields, and degree requirements so that they are relevant to the needs of a changing world and so that they meet the ever-evolving needs of our students. But our role is not simply to determine changing trends and expanded knowledge and to adapt these things into our curriculum. Our responsibility is about more than determining the cutting edge and moving toward it. Our task is to educate students and to appoint faculty who will be always shaping the cutting edge of whatever field they study. As complicated as this is, however, even this is leaves our task incomplete.

In order truly to educate our students rather than simply credential them, we must encourage in them a sense of curiosity, a capacity for growth, an independence of thought, and an ambition that is not quite satisfied with answers, even from the finest minds. Learners must not be passive receptacles but active participants in the process of knowing more and of knowing better.

Finally even this strength of mind is inadequate if our students do not understand their values, the values of their society, and the basic human values that must anchor education. This is a necessary understanding that marks an educated man or woman, essential for those who would lead. Those who do not know what they stand for should not expect anyone to stand with them. As teachers we should always seek to provide our students with the capacity to lead, to shape their world in positive ways, to know what their values are, to be confident of themselves, and to respect the integrity and humanity of others. Only then is our work as educators complete. It is about our students—and it is about the world they will advance. That is why this conference is so timely. I am honored to be here.

Last Updated: 2/24/10