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My post on study abroad generated some good discussion about the liberal arts, and its importance to a Middlebury education.  In order to gain some historical perspective on the College’s commitment to the liberal arts, let’s take a quick tour through the history of the Middlebury curriculum.   Anyone interested in learning more about these factoids can review the College’s course catalogs and David Stameshkin’s two-volume history of Middlebury College (as I did).

  • In 1818, freshmen studied the first books of Livy; Blair’s Lectures Abridged; English Grammar; Sallust; Cicero de Officiis, deSenectute, de Amicitia; Priestley’s Lectures; Collectanea Graeca Majora.  Sophomores, juniors, and seniors likewise took a set curriculum focused on classical subjects.
  • In 1883, the trustees voted to admit women, leading to the following language in the 1883-84 course catalog: “By recent action of the Trustees the College offers the same privileges to young ladies as to young gentlemen.”
  • In 1900, freshmen were still required to take a “classical course” (as were sophomores), but juniors and seniors could now supplement required classes with electives.
  • By 1940, the elective system was firmly entrenched, and Middlebury students were majoring in particular subject areas or disciplines.  Freshmen had the option of electing introductory courses in several subject areas, including Home Economics.
  • In 1955, Home Economics was still in the course catalog, and first-year students were required to take Physical Education.  First-year men also took basic R.O.T.C.   In 1975, R.O.T.C was an elective, and the program included a class in Military Science.
  • In the 1970s, the College expanded its schools abroad program to include undergrads (it had previously served graduate students alone), and by the mid 1980s roughly 40% of the junior class chose to study abroad, making Middlebury a leader in this area.
  • Also during the 1970s and 80s, the College expanded the number of interdisciplinary programs to include classical studies, Jewish studies, the international major, and Northern studies (which no longer exists), a trend that continued through the 1990s and remains a distinguishing feature in our curriculum to this day.

How to describe this brief and incomplete history of curricular change?  What does it tell us about the evolution of the liberal arts at Middlebury?    Few would argue that military science, home economics, or a required classical course—the mainstay of nineteenth-century college education—should return to Middlebury’s curriculum.   But at certain points in the College’s history, these classes were indeed a part of our educational tradition.

In Cultivating Humanity (1997), University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum defines liberal education as the “cultivation of the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life generally.”  As Nussbaum and other scholars have shown, the idea of liberal learning, or the “examined life,” can be traced back to Greek and Roman philosophy.   However, the history suggests that how colleges and universities have gone about realizing this ideal has varied according the educational needs of the moment—and the future.

So, philosophically (which is to say pragmatically) speaking, how should the College evolve to meet the needs of the future?  Given the possibility of a stingier economy, what aspects of a Middlebury education should be preserved at all costs?  Where should we pull back?  How might we build on our historic strengths to prepare students to meet the realities of this century—globalization, environmental challenges, etc?

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