Odilon Redon, “The Cyclops” (c. 1914) x Paul Cézanne, “The Basket of Apples” (1890–1894)
Deciding where to go for a liberal arts education can seem a bit like deciding where to go for dinner. There’s prix fixe restaurants: “great books” programs that restrict diners and students to the same food and the same texts. There are à la carte restaurants with tasting menus, which offer more choice, but point diners and students towards a limited list of carefully curated core courses.
Still, if it’s choice you’re after, there’s always the food court—upscale or at the mall—which resembles the distribution requirements system—by far the most popular method for delivering a liberal arts education at U.S. universities.
Here, diners and students alike can freely choose to combine food and classes from across their culinary and educational multiverses.
But this way of classifying liberal arts education only recognizes the importance of the individual and individual choice. It neglects an element at the heart of education (and, for that matter, dining): community.
Because students share more subjects and texts in “great books” and common core programs, community is baked into these programs and less of an issue. However, while the distribution requirements model offers greater freedom of choice, it often does so at the cost of connection.
In the distribution requirements system, university students often miss the purpose of General Education courses and therefore often miss taking any such classes. For many, this happens because they believe Gen Ed classes don’t have anything to do with their major.
I’d like here to give an example of a Gen Ed course that students might actually wake up to attend because it gives them opportunities to research and discuss their majors with teachers and other students. Which in turn creates stronger social bonds and the desire to support and feel supported by their colleagues.
First, a digression—with reference to a seriously great book.
As most college graduates used to know, the most famous episode in Homer’s Odyssey is Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclopes. The most famous feature of the Cyclopes is their one eye. But nowhere in the Odyssey does Homer mention their monovision. Which is weird. It’s as if I told you a story about Peter Pan and Captain Hook but failed to mention that Hook had a hook for a hand.
Instead, Homer begins the episode by describing the Cyclopes’ political system as a collection of discrete patriarchies: each father rules his family as he sees fit. There’s no central government and the Cyclopes do not take council in general assemblies.
But after outlining Cyclopean political organization in this way, Homer makes another odd storytelling choice. For some reason, he starts to describe an uninhabited island paradise that neighbors the Cyclopes’ island. He paints in lush detail this epic equivalent to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Wild goats practically milk themselves and offer you a cheese plate. The plough’s blade has never yet scarred its soil—rich, soft, deep, and dark. If alcohol doesn’t quite “come a-trickling down the rocks,” we can at least anticipate that grape harvests would never fail in its well-watered meadows and thus wine never cease flowing. And, finally, importantly, for the ocean-going Greeks, its sandy harbor slopes ever so gently into the sea that, without weighing anchor, you can sail right off the beach as soon as you sail in.
We commonly ascribe such discursive left-turns in Homer to his tendency to dilate in high-definition on anything he mentions, even in passing. But this left-turn also takes us somewhere. And halfway through his description of this island, Homer tips his hat in that direction: Cyclopes don’t sail. It might seem strange to fix on this fact. But without ship-building technology, the Cyclopes can’t leave their island. Which means they not only can’t put to good use the resources of the nearby Big Rock Candy Island, they also can’t visit any other Greek island to exchange goods and ideas with different cultures.
In short, Homer shifts the narrative away from the Cyclopes’ solitary eyes to their solitary lives. For the Greeks, this lack of communal spirit was anathema and would have been seen as a leading cause of this monster’s monstrosity.
As chair of liberal arts at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute, every autumn orientation I tell the incoming students this tale of Cyclopean narrow-mindedness in order to plant a memorable image in their minds of what to avoid. Because modern society tends to measure people by their occupations, the university prioritizes the majors that prepare them for these positions. This in turn pressures students to focus quite single-mindedly on these majors and, so to speak, remain on their islands. In the end, the modern university risks turning students into spiritual Cyclopes, as monocular of idea as those monsters are of eye.
Distribution requirements are intended to introduce students to different perspectives, expand their horizons, and counter the vertical push to delve into their major with a horizontal pull to broaden their minds. Through the addition of Gen Ed courses, educators aim to counter the vertical vector with a horizontal one powered by the liberal arts, and thus create what they call a more balanced, “T-shaped” student.
But when distribution requirements are merely heaped on top of a student’s already heavy burden of major requirements, with no more thought of how specific and general education go together than how to top an I with a dash to make a T, they tend to fail.
Two of the main reasons they fail are connected to connection. The T-shaped model is only concerned with individual success. Community is not part of the equation. This lack of connection is then repeated within the students themselves. There is no organic link between the T’s x- and y-axes. It’s just one stick balanced on top of another. But when students don’t see a connection between such programs and their major, they are more likely to disregard them as a distraction from the “real” reason they think they came to college in the first place: to major in something that will hopefully lead to a well-paid, fulfilling career.
As a more organic, socially minded (though somewhat hokier) model still based on this simple and elegant T, imagine the relationship between majors and liberal arts education as a tree. Below ground, the tree’s root system digs into the soil seeking nutrients. Above ground, its branches, nourished by what the roots send them, are encouraged to stretch upward and outward, by the sun and toward the branches of neighboring trees to create a forest. Similarly, as students delve into their fields of knowledge, they also reach out to one another and, guided by liberal arts educators, seek to share with others what they’ve learned in their majors and so create fellowship.
Such models and metaphors, monsters, T’s, and trees may help outline and explain, but they remain merely academic unless proven effective in the classroom. So, following this model, I’ve tried to create an exemplary Gen Ed course, which I’ve titled “What Can Music Do?”
This course invites students from across Johns Hopkins to relate their majors to the power of music: neuroscience majors might study how music benefits memory in Alzheimer’s patients, or political science majors how music furthers diplomacy. Students then research their topics and assign texts about them to the rest of the class as homework, including the teacher. They’re given broad freedom of choice for their source texts in content and form. Based on the fact that interesting conversations can be inspired by terrible or trivial sources, just as awful or insignificant situations can spark epiphany, the goal is not to create a “great books” class so much as a “great questions” class.
But no matter the text, since they are unlikely to be an expert in every topic the students choose, the professor must be comfortable with not professing. Instead, they have a different responsibility to their students. Because they have more experience in the classroom than everyone else, they should try to model for students how to be fearlessly ignorant but eager to learn. No longer professors, they shamelessly become what non-academics sometimes shame us for being: professional students.
Of course, it’s difficult to measure the success of any educational program. Teaching sometimes feels like standing next to the ocean, pitching stones into the water, waiting for them to float while watching them sink. Rather than trying for buoyant rocks, though, it’s more sensible to view teaching as the waves that ripple out from these rocks. There’s no telling how far the waves will travel and what shores they’ll reach. The success of the things we do might not appear until years later.
Recently, following a short, three-year wait, one wave of confirmation came rippling back to me. I ran into a student from the first time I taught “What Can Music Do,” in autumn 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all my classes were online. Unprompted, she volunteered, “You know everyone from our class? We’re all still in touch with each other.”
Rocks might not float on water, but, buoyed by this information, I was floating on air. It was an extremely diverse cohort of students: Black, white, Latinx, East Asian, South Asian, women and men, gay and straight students majoring in neuroscience, clarinet, biochemistry, voice, engineering, and musical composition for new media. Especially during a time when COVID-19 had marooned us all on our own private islands, it felt good to know that such a broad range of students could create this sense of belonging.
I began this essay comparing ways we dine to ways we learn, so I’ll end with another food analogy. Somewhat grandly, I like to think of the classes I teach as Hemingway thought of Paris: as moveable feasts. Over the course of their college careers and beyond, my students will no doubt forget more than they remember about the content of my classes. And especially with undergraduates, one never knows what they will become in the end and what knowledge will serve them and what won’t. For these reasons, I’m less invested in my students taking away ideas and information from my classes than habits and paradigms: how to write, how to read, how to talk, how to listen, how to ask questions, and how to answer them. Significantly, all of these actions involve interaction, and community becomes a by-product of learning.
But community is not like a precipitate that simply falls out of a chemical reaction and just sits there, inert. It is an evolving organism that influences and is influenced by its individual members. When classmates become colleagues they help, remind, challenge, and encourage one another. The group hug is also group pressure and with community comes accountability. Students start to depend on and show up for each other. And because it has the longest shelf life and will not only serve students academically but also, going forward, socially, politically, and professionally, community is the main course in the moveable feast that I want students to carry away from my classes.
Daniel H. Foster is Chair and Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.