Unbounded Liberal Education

By Carol A. Twigg
About Campus, Vol. 3, No. 4, September/October, 1998

I recently received a letter from the president of my alma mater. The purpose of his letter was to reassure students, parents, and alumni that our institution has no intention of becoming "the kind of place you read about in the popular media." My alma mater, a residential liberal arts college of 3,000 when I attended, is now "the best small publicly assisted university in the nation," according to U.S. News and World Report. The place referred to in the letter is the University of Phoenix. In many higher education circles, Phoenix is viewed as a kind of bogeyman, what we will all become if unchecked market forces are allowed to influence the future direction of colleges and universities. Phoenix has become a kind of Rorschach test—your reaction to it indicates what you think about distance learning or customer-oriented education.

The letter goes on to enumerate the contrasts between our alma mater and that kind of place. "There are no homecomings because there is no place to come home to . . . . There is no debate about teaching and research because faculty are otherwise employed professionals who don’t do research." Basing his views on a recent New Yorker article by James Traub, the president concludes that there is no intellectual curiosity at Phoenix (1). (A visit to one class led Traub to assert that ideas only matter if they are applied.) He quotes the article as saying that customers are able to earn a degree "without ever mingling with other students or even meeting a professor." In sum, "It gives its customers nothing less than what they want—and sadly, nothing more."

Both the New Yorker article and the president of my alma mater do a great disservice to the University of Phoenix. These views, however, are not uncommon. I recently attended an international gathering of university presidents and rectors where a well-respected U.S. leader declared that the University of Phoenix has no "core values." Because Phoenix espouses values like customer service, linking theory and practice, flexibility, and so on--which may be different from the core values of most traditional institutions--the conclusion is that it has none. Not long ago, Change magazine listed John Sperling, president of this fully accredited, largest private university in the country, as an "external" influence on higher education (2).

The president takes issue with Traub’s implication that the traditional liberal arts college is out of touch with consumer needs and desires. "The traditional American university occupies a space that is both bounded and pastoral" says Traub, predicting that institutions like my alma mater will soon give way to those like the University of Phoenix. The president continues, "It is time to remind ourselves about why liberal arts education is important." Out comes the standard argument. Liberal arts education prepares students for work by teaching them problem solving and critical thinking. But more than that, higher education is a "passport to a better life" and life is not limited to work. Quoting Jefferson, Orwell and Vonnegut about the need to educate future citizens, he eloquently declares, "If we abdicate thought, relinquish reason, refuse to study anything that we cannot immediately consume, we risk our freedom."

These are fine, stirring sentiments with which few in higher education would disagree. But suddenly the president makes a large leap. He goes on to equate the values of liberal arts education with "bounded and pastoral spaces"—classrooms and the campus—and full-time faculty engaged in research. Many in higher education would agree. Institutions like Phoenix that teach online and employ part-time faculty, they believe, cannot possibly offer a well-rounded education. But I ask, does liberal arts education equal full-time faculty and the residential campus? Can liberal arts values only be taught in classrooms, only to full-time students?

I first became interested in online learning in the mid-1980’s when I was an academic administrator at SUNY Empire State College. In 1986, we began using CAUCUS, a computer-conferencing program that pre-dates the Web, to offer courses. Our first course was in American foreign policy and was quickly followed by courses in artificial intelligence, feminist theories of writing, constitutional law, and ethics. During the Spring 1998 semester, the descendant of those early conference-based courses, the SUNY Learning Network, is offering more than 100 courses online. Yes, there are professional courses in business and computing, but there are also courses in chemistry, biology, Developmental Psychology, Children’s Literature, The Learning Organization, Women’s and Family History in America, Death and Dying, Pluralism and Diversity in America and, even, The Films of Woody Allen. Many of these courses are taught by full-time faculty, but many more are also taught by part-time faculty.

Since its founding in 1919, The New School for Social Research has been dedicated to identifying and illuminating the larger social and political issues of the time. The first university-level courses in Black culture, the history of film and women’s studies were taught there. In 1994, The New School created its DIAL (Distance Learning for Adult Learning) program designed to offer people all over the world the opportunity to take New School courses at their own convenience via the World Wide Web (www.dialnsa.edu). Students interact with faculty and one another asynchronously from wherever they are.

More than 300 courses have been offered during the current academic year in humanities (The Gothic Novel, William Blake, The American Autobiography, African American Women Writers, Zen Theory and Practice); the social sciences (The New Feminism, American Exceptionalism, The 1950’s, Multiculturalism, American Indian Spirituality, Psychology and Maternity, Writing Therapy); and others in media studies, natural sciences, foreign languages, music appreciation, theatre arts, and so on. New School instructors, who teach in the classroom as well as online, complete a special in-depth training program to enable them to adapt their classroom teaching to the online environment. Virtually all of these courses are taught by part-time faculty.

The SUNY Learning Network and The New School are illustrative of the thousands of online courses being offered in the liberal arts at hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the country. These courses are characterized by intense interaction and communication as talented and dedicated faculty guide students through the classic processes that characterize liberal education. The University of Phoenix, who limits online course enrollment to a maximum of thirteen students, describes this process on its www site as follows: "Students are discussing issues, sharing ideas, testing theories—essentially enjoying all of the advantages of an on-campus program, with one exception. No commute!"

Like the president of my alma mater, those in higher education involved in online education care deeply about teaching and their students. They value liberal arts education as well as professional preparation for the same reasons as their residential colleagues do: to encourage students to challenge assumptions, to imagine and strive for a better future. What online educators have learned, however, is that neither a campus nor a full-time faculty is required to achieve this goal. Most of us in higher education are trying our best to do a good job educating our students, whether we are from a residential liberal arts college, a large research university, a community college or an online university. Demonizing those who appear to be different may prevent us from seeing new ways to respond creatively to diverse student needs. Like our students, liberal education is no longer confined to bounded and pastoral spaces.


  1. James Traub, "Drive-Thru U.: Higher Education for People Who Mean Business (The Next University)," The New Yorker, Oct 20, 1997, Vol. 73, No. 32, pp. 114-122.
  2. "Who’s Who--Higher Education’s Senior Leadership," Change, January/February 1998, Volume 30, Number 1, pp. 14-18

Return to Top of Article