Vassar and Liberal Arts Education: Then and Now

By Rachel Kitzinger, Dean of Planning and Academic Affairs and Professor of Classics

As many people know, the “liberal” in the phrase “liberal arts college” comes from the Latin word, liberalis, meaning “appropriate to a free person.” Certain kinds of education in antiquity were confined to men of a social and economic class that enjoyed leisure time to pursue knowledge that had no connection to a particular skill or professional training—an education suitable for a “free” person. A similar etymology explains the English word “school.” It comes from the Greek word, schole, leisure, a commodity only available to those who are free not to work.

This early understanding of “liberal” education as an activity which established a set of understandings and a body of knowledge for a particular socio-economic class has been transformed beyond recognition in liberal arts colleges today, although perhaps a few elements of it remain. Even today we nourish the illusion that we provide our students with leisure as a necessary precondition for learning and that what we learn and teach is not training for a particular profession. Indeed a liberal arts education still has some connection to a state of freedom—mental, intellectual freedom, the freedom to explore and express one’s own point of view and question others’ assumptions.

The history of liberal arts education stretches back to Plato, the founder of the first academy, and to his belief in a particular curriculum of study which would lead to the formation of a mind, body and soul capable of knowing and acting on an understanding of “the good.” The curriculum that defined liberal arts education went through many transformations through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and beyond, as human knowledge expanded. The subjects of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music do not, in the modern period, adequately encompass what the training of a mind requires. To understand better liberal arts education as it exists today at Vassar, we have to look to other sources than the history of curricular change, particularly because, with its open curriculum, Vassar does not define the education it offers as much by what students learn as how they learn it.

Two different kinds of education developed in the 5th century BCE in Athens may be more helpful in bringing the unique features of a liberal arts education into focus. One is the education Socrates offered those young men who engaged in conversation with him in various public spaces in Athens. We have no record of these conversations unmediated by Socrates’ student, Plato. But Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense when he was tried and eventually put to death for “corrupting” these very young men gives us some idea of Socrates’ “pedagogical philosophy.” The other is the education that the playwrights who wrote tragedies offered the citizens of Athens at the Festival of Dionysos, when the city gathered to watch three days of dramatic presentations, the first version of mass public education. These playwrights were called teachers, and the city viewed tragedy as a way of educating citizens to participate in shared governance of the city. In these two very different forms of education, I believe, we will find parallels to some of what is, and has been since its beginning, vital to a Vassar education.

At the heart of both of these ancient forms of education lies a common pedagogy: the art of asking questions. The questions asked in Socratic dialogues and Athenian tragedy may be different from the questions we ask today, but the art of asking questions was crucial to an education that develops and frees the mind then and is still so now. As Louis Menand has said of the job of the academic in the 21st C: “The academic’s job in a free society is to serve the public culture by asking questions the public does not want to ask, by investigating the subjects it cannot or will not investigate, by accommodating the voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.” 1 Platonic accounts of Socratic questioning and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides that have survived exemplify this kind of service to the public good. But when we are talking about teaching, it is not just asking questions the public does not want to ask that matters. It is the effect of questions on those who are questioned, as Socrates and the tragedians show us in different ways, that will illuminate the special nature of a liberal arts education. “Question” comes from the Latin verb quaero, which can mean to seek as well as to question. Questions that lead to a sense of how little we know, that lead students always to seek a deeper understanding, and that ultimately base action in the knowledge that no question has a single answer are vital to the way institutions like Vassar prepare students to be active participants in the world.

Athenian tragedy was performed for audiences of thousands at a festival attended, in theory at least, by all the citizens of Athens. The poet/teachers who composed the plays reinterpreted myths, stories known to Athenians for generations, that served as a shared cultural framework. The tragedian took some small part of the larger narratives about a mythical past and dramatized it in such a way that it posed questions of vital importance for the political, social, and religious lives of the citizen body in the present. He used these stories to question, for example, the relationship of those with power to those without, the nature of justice or divine will, or the possibility of finding a balance between reason and feeling in decisions about how to act. The plays raised questions that it was important for citizens to consider, if they were successfully to participate in a democracy, if they were to educate themselves to be actors in the political arena—a relatively new role for the “common man.” But what made tragedy a powerful form of education that resonates with liberal arts education in 21st C America is that tragedies refuse to resolve the questions they ask; they pose questions for which there aren’t answers. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they dramatize questions for which there are a number of equally compelling, conflicting and irreconcilable answers.

Take just one example: in the Antigone by Sophokles two brothers, sons of the dead king Oedipus, have killed each other in a battle to settle who has the right to succeed to the kingship, which they each lay claim to. One brother has allied himself with a neighboring city and has brought the army of that city to attack his own city and his brother, whom he believes has wrongfully claimed the kingship. The brothers kill each other in the battle. Creon, their uncle, becomes the king upon their death and must act to restore his city to calm after this civil war. His first symbolic act of creating order is to condemn the dead body of the brother who attacked the city to lie unburied, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, a traitor’s punishment. The other brother is to receive a state burial. Anyone who disobeys his edict is to be put to death. Antigone, sister to these two brothers, understands that she has a moral, religious, and emotional obligation, as a woman and as the closest surviving member of this family, to give both her brothers proper burial. Her sense of the proper order of things, and her sense of what it means to be a sister, requires her to act in this way. The play dramatizes the confrontation between these two characters, both of whom hold positions which can be viewed as “right.”

Here is the moment in the play where Creon and Antigone question each other and the audience understands that there is no single answer to the question whether Polyneices should be buried: 2

Kreon: Wasn’t he who died against him of the same blood?
Antigone: Of the same blood—the mother and the father, the same
Kreon: Why do you grace with irreverent honor that other one?
Antigone: Eteokles’ dead body won’t testify to that.
Kreon: It will, if you honor him the same as the irreverent one.
Antigone: It was no slave—it was my brother who died!
Kreon: Attacking this land? – the other stood against him, in defense.
Antigone: And yet it’s Hades who desires these laws.
Kreon: But the good should not get equal honor with the evil.
Angione: Who knows if down there that is not considered holy?
Kreon: An enemy even when he’s dead, is not a friend.
Antigone: My nature’s not to join in hate but to join in love.

The play raises questions about the nature of right action, about the relative merit of civic and religious law, about the power of a man and the power of a woman, about the will of a ruler vs. the will of his people, about action based in abstractions and actions based in feeling. And it raises these questions in a way that refuses a single answer. The audience sees and feels and understands that these are questions that must be asked and that they lead to contradictory ways of seeing and equally valid points of view. And yet the need to act will require that they choose one answer over another at one time or another. Understanding the validity of opposing points of view and yet acknowledging the necessity of taking action that gives a single answer are part of the way that tragedy educated Athenian citizens. It taught about the need to take action while knowing that the basis for your action can be questioned and those questions can reveal another way of understanding that would contradict the truth on which your action is based.

Psychologists have shown that one of the most important stages of cognitive development that takes place in 18-22 year olds is the ability to recognize the validity of opposing and contradictory statements, to deal intellectually with ambiguity. There are many ways that the questions teachers ask in the classroom help students develop in this way. The whole basis of one of the most salient characteristics of liberal arts education—the small, discussion-based class—is to allow students to be challenged by opposing points of view. Vassar’s present commitment to a diverse faculty and student body is, in part, a recognition of the essential role that understanding the validity of multiple perspectives plays in educating students. So also is the emphasis on learning different disciplinary approaches to the same subject matter. But this defining feature of liberal arts education—teaching students to ask questions that reveal conflicting truths—is only one part of the process. As Athenian tragedy shows, it is not enough to see the validity of these multiple and contradictory perspectives. One must also learn to act in the face of this knowledge.

Vassar has, over the years, developed a reputation for preparing its students to lead socially and politically active lives. It is in this combination of leading students to understand the validity of conflicting views and perspectives and urging students to be active in the world that Vassar’s education resembles the education Athenians received in the theater. The idea that a Vassar education develops the individual to participate not just in her immediate familial sphere but also in a national and global community took some time to develop. The founding mission that women should be educated at the collegiate level like men was tempered by the assurance that Vassar would not educate women to allow them to move beyond the “womanly sphere.” As Henry McCracken wrote of the early curriculum, “its claim to recognition in the world of education does not rest primarily upon uniqueness or originality.” 3 Vassar was not founded to educate women to defy the restrictions placed upon their participation in the world. After Vassar’s first decade President Raymond can say that the experiment of educating women at the university level is now taken for granted, but that new questions have evolved about “the scope of woman’s responsibility in church and state, and all looking to the probable enlargement of her sphere and the more perfect utilization of her energies; not only in the home and the social circle of which she has long been the acknowledged ornament and queen, but also in science and letters, in industrial and esthetic art, in the missionary field, in moral and philanthropic enterprise, and even in professional life.” 4 Yet he states that Vassar is “agnostic” about these questions: “….the aim of our training is not to inculcate a particular creed or system of belief, but to furnish the youthful mind with the well-established and undisputed results of past inquiry, to inform it clearly in respect to the great questions in philosophy and science which now divide the thinking world, and so to develop and discipline its faculties that it shall be able in due time to form its own opinions, and to understand and explain the grounds on which those opinions rest…The Mission of Vassar College was not to reform society but to educate women.” 5 We see this attitude reflected in the famous prohibition against students participating in the movement for women’s suffrage on campus, requiring those engaged in this struggle to meet in the cemetery adjacent to campus.

But by the 30’s this attitude had begun to change, and we can trace the intensification of the college’s outspoken commitment to the connection between a liberal arts education and active citizenship during the period of the 2nd World War. In 1936 the catalogue reads “in its range of information the curriculum seeks to provide for the needs of women as citizens of the larger world, and as members of a family.” 6

In the catalogue of 1943 the college announces a radical adjustment to its curriculum to allow women educated at Vassar to move more quickly into national service: “…as an emergency measure to train students more quickly for service to the nation in winning the war and carrying on the long-term activities of reconstruction, Vassar put into operation a 3-year course for the Bachelor of Arts degree…The course of study still lies wholly within the field of the liberal arts, for the college holds to its belief that these studies, when pursued with social purpose, provide the best preparation not only for further training for the professions, for whose survival and advancement the war gives women a special responsibility, but also for immediate usefulness in all occupations needing trained brains; for intelligent participation in community activities; and for satisfying personal and family life.” 7

The 1949 catalogue reads, “During the current period, president, trustees, faculty and students are cooperating in a reexamination of the educational and social plan of the college. They want to insure for each student the opportunity to fulfill her potentialities as an individual and as an intelligent and socially responsible citizen. Vassar’s tradition of public service is maintained by its faculty, and by its administrative officers. From their activities beyond the campus, with government, civic and professional groups, they bring back to the work of the classroom a broader perspective on the world at large, and a fresh approach to their teaching.” 8

This growing insistence on a connection between liberal arts education and action in the world is a special characteristic of a Vassar education and has manifested itself through specific courses in the curriculum, almost always as part of Vassar’s rich multidisciplinary tradition. Take as just one example, a course from the 1943/44 catalogue: “Problems and Principles of Reconstruction.” The objective of the course is “to increase understanding of the [post-war] reconstruction problem and America’s part in solving it; to prepare students for service in private agencies or government offices in the country which administers foreign relief; to provide a foundation for the advances technical study or the practical training required for participation in the work of relief and rehabilitation in Europe.” 9 The departments involved in teaching this course are French, German, Ancient Greek, Italian, Child Study, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Hygiene, Geography, Philosophy, Physiology, Psychology and Religion—a true liberal arts approach to a pressing global concern.

The multiple disciplinary approaches to an issue that this course endorsed in 1943 is mirrored in the training that students at Vassar today receive throughout the curriculum. They are asked to see a problem or a question from many different angles, to develop a complex vision of things, where there are many “right “ answers, but at the same time to commit themselves to a particular point of view. In the evolution of a Vassar education over the last 150 years, we can see the college moving more and more firmly to this combination of training minds to deal with ambiguous, conflicting, and multiple answers to questions, while at the same time preparing students for committed action in the world. This kind of courage, to remain intellectually open to multiple perspectives while recognizing the necessity to base an action at any given moment on a commitment to a particular point of view, is, I would argue, a quality uniquely nurtured at a place like Vassar. In this way the evolution of Vassar education has been in the direction of that early form of education Athenians experienced in the theater of Dionysos in Athens.

The other form of questioning from antiquity I want to link to the particular nature of a Vassar liberal arts education is Socratic questioning. In the Platonic dialogues, which have recorded conversations between Socrates and a number of interlocutors, it is hard to know whether we are hearing Plato or Socrates asking questions. But scholars agree that the Apology is probably an accurate report of Plato’s understanding of what Socrates’ own defense was, when his commitment to a life of questioning was under attack. In it we learn that Socrates viewed his habit of questioning others as a way of exploring the limits of their understanding. He was especially interested in questioning men who claimed to know things, to explore the statement made by the god at Delphi, which he found incredible, that his knowledge was greater than anyone’s. He discovers through his questioning that the truth of this statement lies in the fact that he knows that he doesn’t know. So he questions others so that they can discover their own ignorance, on the assumption that it is only when one dismantles the assumption of knowing, based on unquestioned cultural assumptions, that one is actually open to real learning. That moment of having one’s understanding dismantled the Greeks called “aporia.”

In the Meno, a dialogue that poses the question “What is virtue?,” Meno is questioned by Socrates on his understanding of the meaning of virtue and describes the resulting state of aporia:

“Socrates, I used to be told, before I began to meet you, that yours was just a case of being in doubt yourself and making others doubt also: and so now I find you are merely bewitching me with your spells and incantations, which have reduced me to utter perplexity. And if I am indeed to have my jest, I consider that both in your appearance and in other respects you are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it, and something of the sort is what I find you have done to me now. For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed, and I am at a loss what answer to give you. And yet on countless occasions I have made abundant speeches on virtue to various people—and very good speeches they were, so I thought—but now I cannot say one word as to what it is.” 10

For Socrates, this kind of questioning proved to be a death sentence. So invested were a group of people in preserving the conventional wisdom of their culture that they could not tolerate the presence of one who was asking questions “that the public was not willing to ask.” This questioning, that leads the responder to confront his own ignorance so that he can then be open to seek a better way of understanding, is the goal of much that goes on in the classroom at Vassar today. And every Vassar student, at some point in the four years of college, knows the moment of aporia, the moment when he or she realizes, through the process of questioning, that the paths that he or she has followed in the past lead to a dead end, and he or she is stopped dead in his tracks, confronted by his or her own ignorance and suddenly open to possibilities for a different answer. Some of the most exciting moments in the classroom come when a student is confronted with his or her own limit and suddenly sees how much more there is to understand or how differently he could look at something from the way he has learned to look. Moments like these enable true intellectual humility, which is the prerequisite for the openness and curiosity that we hope our students bring to all that they do after they leave Vassar. What is inspiring to realize is that this process has been going on since Vassar was founded.

We have the diary of a member of the class of 1869, Christine Ladd Franklin. Without being able to trace the precise form her education took in her first 4 months at Vassar, we can tell something about the effect of that education on her through her diary. The first entry upon her arrival at Vassar in September states: “With great sorrow I at once confess that I am grievously disappointed in Vassar. Instead of the independent University my imagination pictured I find a fashionable boarding-school and instead of the tall, intelligent and enthusiastic young women in blue merino that I fancied I find a troupe of young girls who wear black chamois and are wholly given up to the tyranny of fashion.” Her early entries show us a girl confident in her own capabilities and very skeptical about the possibilities of learning much of value to her at Vassar. But on Dec. 17th she writes: “It can no longer be denied that I am the personification of stupidity in each and every class I enter.”

Among the things that have surprised her into a reassessment of the college and of her own capabilities in her first months at Vassar is the discovery of an interest in Geology, which she says she signed up to study only as a requirement for graduation. But she later reports that she is doing independent research in a laboratory and has discovered that she is fascinated by the subject. One can only imagine that her enthusiasm has come from the experience of learning by “going to the source,” as Lucy Maynard Salmon would later famously advocate. As with Socrates’ questions, “going to the source” strips away the intervention of received opinion and asks the student to discover what questions can be asked of the “thing itself,” be it a poem, an old laundry list, the stars, or a rock. The process of discovering what question it is appropriate or fruitful to ask and how to seek an answer, in this case in the laboratory, clearly led Christine not only to discover her own mind, to feel herself reach the boundaries of her understanding but also to become aware of the thing itself, independent of her own understanding, something out there, outside the self, worth trying to understand. Not understanding and competing with the opinions of others, not questioning simply to dismantle someone else’s interpretation but finding a way to engage with something which is always receding from your sight or moving beyond the limits your own understanding imposes. Perhaps it is the humility inspired in her by this kind of experience which leads her to the recognition of her own “stupidity.”

And it is perhaps no coincidence that, after the humility she has expressed at the end of her first semester, in the very next entry, on Jan. 7th after returning from Christmas vacation, she records an almost mystical experience of intellectual discovery. Her Socrates is her religion professor, Professor Sherman, who poses a shocking question to his religion class: “What is the efficacy of prayer?” In Christine’s words: “…he had the temerity to ridicule the efficacy of prayer…He placed it upon this ground. God is infinitely good; it is blasphemous to say that man can influence Him to be better, to do better. Prayer for the heathen, he would say, has no effect; prayer for our friends, if any, simply that of mind acting upon mind. Prayer for ourselves is placing ourselves under the influence of God’s spirit.” As Christine’s diary shows her to be someone of unquestioning piety, clearly this questioning of one of the basic tenets of her religion challenges her deeply. Instead of turning away from the question, though, she reports: “All day Sunday I studied the question and what time I had Monday. My thoughts were really deep and logical but I shall not attempt to carry out the train of argument here. I seem to have arrived at this solution. We speak of man’s exertion in the course of his being successful in business, but was it not the fore-ordination of God? Either God had decreed or he had not that that man should be successful. But if he had decreed it that man’s exertion could not have been the cause and if he had not decreed it do you mean to say that that man changed the immutable purpose of God?”

It would take time actually to relate this “answer” to the original question about the efficacy of prayer. But what I want to point out is, first, that Christine ends the account of her “answer” not with a statement but with another question. One can almost feel in the words she writes the growth of her disposition towards seeking, not closing off, a path. She does not declare the answer found but actually ends the summary of her thinking in the form of another question: “…do you mean to say that that man changes the immutable purpose of God?” Perhaps this is a “rhetorical” question but perhaps not. Even more moving than the account of her intellectual struggle is the account she gives of what happened on Monday night after her days of seeking an answer. She actually recounts a dream she has that night in which Professor Sherman offers her on a piece of paper the very answer she has arrived at, and she concludes the entry by wishing she could find out if he had, in fact, been thinking about her as she had been struggling to find the answer to his question. She is eager to ascribe the discovery she has made not to her own intellect but to the “vibes” her professor had been sending her.

The intimacy of the intellectual connection between teacher and student and the freedom they experience together to question the most established assumptions of their world were so threatening to Socrates’ fellow citizens that they put him to death. Those of us involved in this form of education today do not fear such a threat. But perhaps we experience an equally destructive and almost opposite challenge: the judgment that this form of education is useless. Today liberal arts education is beset by the skepticism of many who question its value. What, they ask, are students trained to do? How does it lead them to gainful employment? How could it possibly be worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to educate one student? As practitioners of the liberal arts we must acknowledge the value of these questions. We understand that there are many ways in which the economics of liberal arts education is not viable; that there are many for whom this kind of education is an impossibility; that other forms of education have great value and more obvious application to the needs of the world; that we often fail to agree upon and articulate clearly what we do and why it matters; that we don’t always live up to the demands the practice of this education puts on us. But even in the midst of unanswerable questions and divergent opinions, we must be willing to say that the kind of questioning a Vassar student, then and now, learns to do is indispensable for the future of a healthy democratic society, dependent as it is on the kind of citizen who rethinks assumptions and knows that he or she must act out of a complex understanding of the world. It is not that the world would be a poorer place without people who have been educated in this way; it is that we cannot envision a future we would want to live in without them.

  1. Louis Menand, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper no. 49, 2001, p.21
  2. Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal, Oxford 2003, ll. 563-74.
  3. Henry Noble McCracken, “What Vassar Means,”1939, p.6.
  4. John Howard Raymond, Life and Letters, ed. Harriet Raymond Lloyd, New York 1881, p. 597
  5. ibid. pp. 598,599
  6. Bulletin of Vassar College: Catalogue Issue, 1935/6, p.13
  7. Bulletin of Vassar College: Catalogue Issue, 1943/4, p. 11
  8. Bulletin of Vassar College: Catalogue Issue, 1948/9, p.9
  9. Bulletin of Vassar College: Catalogue Issue, 1943/4, p. 159
  10. Plato, Meno, trans. W.R.M Lamb, Cambridge and London 1967, section 79e-80a