The liberal art of judgment
by Barbara Couture | © Washington State University
Effective judgment asks us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our assumptions, and beyond the comfort of our traditions.
With little effort, we can now garner information about any part of the globe, society, legal system, health care remedy, religious belief, scientific discovery, business product, or service almost instantly. But having all this information does not guarantee that we’ll use it effectively or wisely. That requires judgment. And the responsibility for instilling judgment lies largely with the university.
Two basic ingredients assure that our universities develop and preserve judgment: faculty committed to and supported in their efforts to seek truth and discover new knowledge, and a curriculum that aims to teach students to exercise judgment, not merely transmit or use information.
The ultimate enticement to become a professor is the privilege and responsibility to seek truth and advance knowledge—an effort to which judgment is fundamental. To add to what we know, professors need freedom not only to access and make use of varied knowledge traditions, but also to break with tradition when their judgment calls for it.
Effective judgment asks us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our assumptions, and beyond the comfort of our traditions. True scholarship involves a personal commitment to advance knowledge that rings true and preserves the good for all.
In a recent issue of Academe, Stanford sociologist Robert Bellah argues that we should assume that the scientist scholar not only seeks truth, but also does good. These criteria for exercising effective judgment, Bellah claims, also have implications for how we design our university curriculum.
However, we may be in danger of losing the capacity to develop judgment in the students who enroll in our programs. The dismissal of judgment is reflected in the college and university curricula elected by many of our students. Professor Bellah cites statistics from the May-June 1998 issue of Harvard Magazine. Although the number of B.A. degrees conferred in the U.S. between 1970 and 1994 rose by 39 percent, the number of majors in English, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, and history all declined precipitously. At the same time, increases of three to 10 times were experienced in programs in “computer and information sciences, protective services, and transportation and material moving.”
More often than not, students are choosing courses and majors that emphasize the learning of methods for solving material or economic problems. The skills learned in these programs, while useful for attaining certain pathways to knowledge or for getting good-paying jobs, do not help students acquire judgment. Furthermore, the prevailing desire to attain or transmit knowledge in order to get such jobs threatens to dismiss our primary obligation to develop judgment—that is, to teach students to evaluate what we know as it preserves truth and justice. If we continue to support only those intellectual pursuits that allow our students and ourselves to profit from what is economically useful, we forfeit our obligation to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for its potential to improve the human condition.
At Washington State University, we have developed a firm foundation upon which to cultivate the exercise of judgment among students through exposure to diverse viewpoints held by many cultures and practiced in a variety of intellectual fields. Courses in the arts, the humanities and social sciences—in short courses offered by the College of Liberal Arts—account for 35 percent of all the courses enrolled in by WSU students. Two-thirds of the students in our College of Education are pursuing liberal arts majors, and many students in science and our professional schools are now choosing double majors and minors in English, women’s studies, comparative American cultures, American studies, history, fine arts, philosophy, and music. We have actively promoted a healthy balance of courses in which they might exercise intellectual judgment.
But inculcating judgment will take more than this dedication to exposure, especially given the current pressures on our universities to produce more programs that emphasize only skill-training.
I do not advocate a return to past curricular programs in our public universities that were blithely indifferent to the need for our students to be employed. But in designing programs that guarantee employment, we must also engage our students—and the faculty who teach them—in practicing good judgment as they learn. There lies great danger in designing curricula that cater overtly to the demands of business and industry and our students who, understandably, wish to succeed there. Jim Sleeper, a political scientist at Yale, reflects upon this danger in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Professor Sleeper worries that too many university students and faculty have directed their efforts to serve the interest of global capitalism and not nearly enough have worked to guide this great economic resource to empower and preserve the dignity of all our world populations. To do the latter sometimes requires making judgments that don’t always serve the bottom line, judgments that challenge conventional and scholarly tradition.
“At their best,” writes Sleeper, “the liberal arts don’t ‘win’ hearts and minds. They nourish and open them through dialog and debate. They deepen a democratic citizenship and leadership that can face the dark, tragic, sometimes heroic dimensions of humanity’s struggles toward justice, honor, and freedom of choice.” He warns that scholarship and curricula designed to support the hopeful prospects of corporate interests may “train and seduce talented undergraduates into ways of knowing the world that render whole populations invisible and whole dimensions of ourselves inaccessible. . . .”
Averting this fate will require a diligent dedication to preserving the human value of judgment. It may require supporting our faculty when the conclusions of their research do not support the hopes of industry, but do serve the public interest. And it may require us to challenge our students to make choices that not only serve them well, but also serve us well.
Barbara Couture is dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
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