The Liberal Arts and The University by Nicholas B. Dirks


As the University of California continues to face unprecedented challenges—from state disinvestment, to attempts by the legislature to wrest control of the university, to disruption brought on by new technology, to concerns, valid or otherwise, about the value of college—university leaders must return to fundamental questions about the purposes of higher education to guide us in our decision making. With this essay, I look back at how we arrived at contemporary understandings of undergraduate education in order to show that today’s dominant debates—regarding the purpose of higher education, its benefit to society, its benefit to individuals, its role in the economy, how curricula and the university itself should be structured, who should pursue a university education, and who should fund it—have in fact been meaningfully shaping institutions of higher education for centuries. I hope to show, too, that the system of public higher education that developed in the United States—and, particularly, in California—is exceptional, and worth not only preserving, but also enhancing and strengthening, given its unique contributions to economic growth, innovation, socioeconomic mobility, civic engagement, and cultural vitality, both for the state and for the world.

Nicholas B. Dirks
Publication date: 
June 1, 2015
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
THE LIBERAL ARTS AND THE UNIVERSITY: Tracing the Origins and Structure of Undergraduate Education In the US and at the University Of California by Nicholas B. Dirks CSHE 7.15 (June 2015)