James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Liberal Arts and Higher Education: Conversation with James O. Freedman, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa; 4/18/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Liberal Arts

You write that the value of a liberal arts education is that it shapes, refines, and deepens our sense of self and others. You emphasize the importance of building our private sense of self, but relating that to the building of a public self. What is the dynamic between those two and what is the requirement in building each of those things?

The public self that we all show to the world is, obviously, important. An engagement in public life, an engagement in one's profession and all those things are, obviously, important. But what I hope a liberal education does is to make you ask questions about yourself. A speech in Washington DCWhat is it that makes me happy? What makes me a good person? What would make me a better person? Why is it so difficult to come to grips with unhappiness and sadness? Why is life so unfair to some people? Those are the questions that a liberal arts education, that great literature, great essays, do help you ask yourself. And I think they make you a wiser person because of that.

What about the public side, building that commitment? Is it through the study of individuals like Thurgood Marshall?

That's one way. I think there are probably others, as well. I mean, I've been stuck living in small towns for much of my adulthood -- Iowa City, Iowa; Hanover, New Hampshire -- and the extent to which communities depend upon participation -- if people don't run for the school board or serve as a selectman, if people don't participate in PTAs, if people don't write letters to their legislators, things suffer. It's important that people have a public side to their life and that they do try to participate in events that shape us in a communal sense.

When you were president of the University of Iowa, you also taught a course on Conscience and Public Institutions.

I did. It was a course that a colleague and I taught together that was called Individuals and Institutions. We tried to read books and essays about what happens when individuals come in conflict with institutions. We read some of the Greek tragedies. We read Burke, we read de Tocqueville. We read some Erickson. Life is really about what happens when one's conscience is up against demands from the public sector that you behave differently.

So what in the end will enable/empower students to develop these virtues in the four years that they're an undergraduate? Is it the kind of courses that they have? The way that they're taught? Or is it also the people they meet in their own community of students?

I think all of the above. Certainly, who your fellow students are is as important as anything, and who your teachers are is important. But I think reading is too. My wife and I, a few weeks ago, saw Hedda Gabler. We've seen about half a dozen Ibsen plays in the last five years. Also The Enemy of the People. A simple fight between the doctor who knows the water is unsafe and a community that doesn't want to have to announce it. You have to decide. What do you do as a person of conscience? And it's not easy. If you become too rigid, you just become kind of uselessly moralistic. But if you become too lax, you may lose a sense of who you are as a person. I think literature helps students think about those questions -- doesn't give them the answer, but it helps them think.

Partly what you're trying to accomplish in this laboratory of the undergraduate education is making students understand that knowing that you don't know is important.

Oh, boy. Absolutely, yes. Any of us who have taught certainly know that there comes a moment when a student asks something and you don't know. I was told by a senior colleague my first year of teaching, "You had better say 'I don't know, but I'll find out,' because if you try to fake it, they're going to catch you." They're going to see that you're trying to do it. But that's right. We know so little. We know so little.

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