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Culture and Education

Re-thinking the Purpose of Undergraduate Education:Great Books, Responsible Citizens, and Reflective Human Beings

Andrew Domondon
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University


Over the past several years I have had the privilege of teaching university undergraduate students to the Great Books, writings by great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. I am sometimes asked to explain why I teach the Great Books to students, presumably because these books are not commonly taught to undergraduate students at Japanese universities today. Many students and parents speak mainly of the university as a way to secure a well-paying job. Many professors, university administrators, and government officials speak mainly of focusing the universities’ activities on research to raise their international standing. Though job preparation and research each have a place in higher education, my decision to teach the Great Books is rooted in what I understand to be the central purpose of undergraduate education. I argue that the purpose of undergraduate education is none other than to educate students to become responsible citizens and reflective human beings, and that the study of the Great Books is necessary to fulfill that purpose.

Is job preparation or research really the central purpose of undergraduate education?

Some may be surprised by the purpose of undergraduate education I have identified above, but it is difficult to maintain that job preparation or research is the central purpose of undergraduate education. Of course, universities should teach knowledge and skills that will help students obtain a job after graduation, but students do not simply want a job. They want to know their calling. Parents do not only hope that attending university leads their child to a job and financial independence but also that it will guide their son or daughter to grow into a mature adult, a reflective human being who is knowledgeable yet humble, firm yet compassionate, and sensitive yet resilient. Of course, universities should devote some resources to training students to become researchers who will make discoveries and engineer new technologies, but it should not be forgotten that most students will not become researchers when they graduate. Many will be company employees, some will be entrepreneurs, others will be public servants, but all will be expected and called to contribute to society as responsible citizens, citizens who think seriously and discuss what is in the best interests of their community. This is no less true of researchers, who are now increasingly called to give attention to issues involving fraud and data fabrication, but how many can discuss those matters in terms that go beyond simply warning about the penalties associated with committing such acts? How many can give a coherent defense of scientific honesty based on Kant’s ethics, much less explain the tensions between the ethical views of Kant and Aristotle? The typical undergraduate education in which the dominant concern is job preparation or research does not adequately prepare students to understand and address many of the difficult questions and challenges they will face as citizens and human beings.

Liberal arts education as misunderstood in Japan

What kind of education is concerned with educating students into responsible citizens and human beings? Such an education is known as a liberal arts education. In the United States, it is not only the educational philosophy of the small undergraduate residential colleges known as liberal arts colleges, but also of the main undergraduate division of many large research universities, a division which is often called the College of Arts and Sciences. This essay is not intended to be an exposition on comparative education, but since the idea of liberal education is commonly misunderstood in Japan, I want to correct a few common misconceptions surrounding it. Many mistakenly think that liberal arts education is a program that gives students complete freedom to choose whatever courses they want and that its leads to an education that is overly wide-ranging but shallow. In actuality, it is an education that aims to liberate students from ignorance and enable them to become responsible citizens and human beings through a program that balances depth and breadth. Moreover, many in Japan mistakenly consider some majors and their associated courses as liberal arts. For example, business and law, are not considered as liberal arts by many colleges and universities in the United States. This is because the main focus of business and law is teaching students how to make profit and the teaching students to practice law, respectively. Majors and courses that are primarily concerned with training a student to become a professional in a certain field, such as business, law, and medicine, are not liberal arts. Such fields are more commonly studied in professional graduate degrees programs, such as M.B.A, J.D., and M.D. degree programs, but most universities require that students obtain a thorough undergraduate education in the liberal arts prior to entering a professional degree program.

Great Books and the education of responsible citizens

Raphael's The School of Athens showing Plato and Aristotle, two of the great thinkers of the West

One of the aims of the liberal arts education is to educate students to become responsible citizens, but what does this mean? Without making any claim to comprehensiveness, I suggest that it involves understanding one’s own cultural and intellectual heritage as well as the foundational ideas that continue to define the fundamental questions and answers relating to citizenship. Among such questions are the following: What is the best form of government? What is justice? What are my responsibilities as a citizen? These questions and various answers to them are raised by the Great Books, and thus they cannot be grasped without a serious engagement with them. An engagement with these works is necessary not only to understand one’s origins but also one’s responsibilities as a citizen. For a large part of the twentieth century, most college and universities in the United States shared this understanding and required all its students to consider these questions and others through a required course often called “Western Civilization.” Meeting over a period of one year (i.e. two semesters), students studied the development of Western civilization from the ancient times to the present by reading works such as the Bible, Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Through engagement with such works, students were instilled with an understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, the theoretical foundations of democracy, the historical struggles associated with its realization, its fragility, and, most important, how its fate depends on its citizens.

For a moment, let us consider the case of Japan. Given that learning one’s own cultural and intellectual heritage is important in educating students to become citizens, is there not an argument to be made that students at Japanese universities should study Japanese civilization instead of the Great Books? I agree that students at Japanese universities should indeed study Japanese civilization, but I do not think that it can be a replacement for studying the Great Books. As I noted earlier, responsible citizenship requires an understanding of the foundational ideas important to citizenship today. For example, modern Japan defines itself as a democracy, but since democracy is an idea imported from the West, understanding the origins and the development of that idea requires one to engage with the Great Books. Similar arguments can be given for human rights, modern science, and the university itself. To the best of my knowledge, however, no Japanese university now requires all of its undergraduate students to study Japanese civilization, much less Western civilization.

Great Books and the education of reflective human beings

Books waiting for us to accept their invitation to engage them

In addition to educating students to become responsible citizens, liberal arts education aims to educate students to live as reflective human beings. In my view, there are few works that are better suited to this purpose than the Great Books. In my own classes, I explain that Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche are asking questions that are at the core of our existence as human beings. Some examples of such questions are the following: Are there limits to what reason can tell us? What am I? Is the good that I should pursue as a human being different from the good that I should pursue as a citizen? I suggest that the answers that these thinkers give to such questions are not so much philosophical doctrines as much as teachings on how to lead a life, and that they should be understood as invitations for students to engage with these thinkers. This is important because few students come to university aware of the challenges to their own positions, much less possess the knowledge or skills to address such challenges. In short, they do not even know what they do not know. Few have given sustained reflection to the types of questions posed by the Great Books or even attempted to answer them.

Engaging the Great Books is especially important for undergraduate students at Japanese universities because these books challenge them to re-think two views of the undergraduate education held by most Japanese universities, namely that the university is a place for students to acquire skills for a job and a place to indulge one’s interests. In fact, both of these views are perpetuated by the universities themselves. The former is manifest in the fact that many universities present themselves as places that provide students with skills, for example, English language skills or programming skills, and claim to empower them with skills to pursue whatever job they so desire. The latter view is manifest in that fact that most universities simply tell students to focus on whatever topic that interests them, typically a topic in their major, and have lax requirements for coursework outside of the major. A serious study of the Great Books challenges both ways in which the university presents itself and the message that it sends to its undergraduates. For example, Plato and Aristotle would criticize the former stance in that it suggests that the university is more concerned with students with acquiring skills rather than cultivating their ability to judge how those skills should be exercised. Similarly, Augustine would criticize the latter stance because it suggests that university is more interested in encouraging students to satisfy their interests rather than asking them to consider whether the satisfaction of interest is the highest good that they should pursue. Of course, not all the Great Books challenge the students in the same way. In fact, some of the Great Books may even be invoked to defend views that I have criticized, but it is precisely the character of the Great Books to inspire serious debate about the good that human beings should pursue that makes them deserving of our attention.

Conclusion and invitation

I wrote this essay to explain why I have been teaching the Great Books to undergraduate students. I explained that I do so because I believe that the central purpose of undergraduate education is to educate students to become responsible citizens and reflective human beings, and that this is best achieved through a serious study of the Great Books. I hope that my argument will encourage, if not persuade, some readers to engage with the Great Books themselves. For readers who remain unconvinced, I can do no better than remind you, as I do my students, that the authors of the Great Books are inviting you to engage with them. I hope that you will accept their invitation.

Andrew Domondon
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Andrew Domondon is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. He also serves as the Director of the International Center for Science and Engineering Programs (ICSEP). His academic interests are in history and philosophy of science.