The Forum | General Education

A Conversation with Jonathan Zimmerman: Evangelizing Liberal Education

August 8, 2019 by Erik Gross

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history of education at University of Pennsylvania, and a committed advocate of open inquiry and liberal education. With a little over a month until the publication of ACTA's annual What Will They Learn? report, Professor Zimmerman sat down with ACTA's Erik Gross to reflect on the importance of a robust liberal arts education. 

Erik: Why is it important for students to be exposed to a foundational liberal arts core curriculum?

Jon: There is a traditional answer, and then there is a more recent one. The traditional answer is that to be an educated person, one should be exposed to certain ideas or even certain texts that mark us as human or that reflect a certain shared history, a shared experience. And I am friendly to that, but I think that it has become a very hard sell. Although I do not discount or disagree with the classical defense of liberal education, there is another dissent that is now coming to floor that is more urgent, and ultimately more effective, which is that a good liberal arts education, underlining “good,” is actually going to yield a dollar and cents benefit.

There is plenty of evidence that what employers want are people who have had a good liberal arts education, meaning people who know how to express themselves verbally and in writing, know how to synthesize, and know how to analyze—these are actually the skills that a good liberal arts education engenders. I don’t think that these defenses of the liberal arts are mutually inconsistent or even intentioned, but they are different. We have to be really wary of establishing false tensions and dichotomies. It strikes me as perfectly consistent to say that we need liberal arts education in order to improve and enhance our democracy, and we need liberal arts education in order to get our kids jobs.

“There is plenty of evidence that what employers want are people who have had a good liberal arts education.”

Erik: How do you make the appeal for the liberal arts?

Jon: My view is “evolving” as a political stand on this. I used to be very unfriendly to these kinds of arguments because I thought that they would essentially prostrate the liberal arts to almighty Mammon. But given what happened in 2008 and what has happened since then, almighty Mammon is in charge. I won’t belabor all the statistics, but the most compelling one is that the student debt burden is bigger than the housing burden was before 2008. This is the playing field that we are on. Those of us in the humanities have to accept that and have to try to frame arguments and defenses within that.

There is nothing wrong with the growth of vocational majors in the abstract. But it is a challenge, because my fear is that in many of these programs, students are not getting the kinds of skills that we associate with a liberal arts degree. As the curriculum becomes much more vocational, it makes sense that the liberal arts are going to fall out of the picture very often.

Ironically, and perhaps contradictorily, I would argue that that’s all the more reason why those of us who worry about the liberal arts have to frame vocational cases for them. It is an elective system except for military academies. The students are voting with their feet. We have to persuade them using the most obvious commercial metaphors possible that we have something to sell that they want to buy.

Erik: You’ve written about growing polarization and how it’s becoming more difficult for conservatives and liberals to talk to one another. If you look at some of the old literature on general education programs, it talks about generating shared purpose. Do you see any potential there?

Jon: One purpose of a shared vocabulary was to give us a shared system for discussing and resolving our differences. That did not always work in practice, and, of course, everything we are talking about here is subject to the same caveat: I always say to my students, “A curriculum is to a class as a recipe is to a meal.” We all have seen a great recipe in a cookbook, and then we’ve cooked it and it doesn’t end up looking as good as it did in the cookbook.

But theoretically, one of the goals of a liberal education was to provide a shared mechanism for discussion across difference—the idea that none of us had a monopoly on truth and so the only way that we can discover it is through a discussion of different viewpoints. In our current moment, that idea has been deeply frayed, which helps to explain some of the skepticism about liberal arts education. In some places, the humanities have actually exacerbated our polarization and our inability to talk across difference, rather than remedied it.

“The students are voting with their feet. We have to persuade them that we have something to sell.”

Erik: Do you think that higher education is failing to break down students’ siloes and help them talk across difference?

Jon: I teach a freshman seminar called “Why College?” about the purpose and history of higher education. The most important point I try to get over in that course is that UPenn is not the modal college. There are 20 million students in America. There are 4,000 places to get a B.A., and the vast majority of them look much more like Montgomery Community College than the University of Pennsylvania. Half of our undergraduate community college students have a child and/or are 25 and older.

All of us have to be more attuned to the diverse types of institutions and student populations, including me. I spent four days in the archive at Cal State Dominguez Hills. It has 25,000 students, practically 90% of whom are students of color, and I did not even know this institution existed. Everyone, and especially people like me, who are both products of and employees of elite institutions, must be aware of this.

Here’s another example: Incoming freshmen get to choose their roommates on the internet. I think that this is the decline of Western Civilization. One of the stories that we have told since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke is that we are going to bring all kinds of different people together so that we can teach and learn from each other. There is an amazing line in that case which says, “Well, we know some people say that if you were screwed over, you should get a leg up.” That is not going to be constitutional, because we cannot actually measure the degree of suffering you’ve had, and we cannot design a constitutionally reasonable remedy. But we can bring different people together and create change that way. But you know what happens if you then let students choose their own freshman roommates on the internet?

“Anything you can do to fight the echo chamber is going to be a success for liberal education.” 

Erik: They find someone who went to the same prep school as them.

Jon: Yes, or someone with whom they have this many friends in common, or went to this summer camp that is very expensive. As a result of this nefarious “choose your own” roommate system, there is less learning. Someone at Dartmouth has found that if you have a freshman roommate of a different race or ethnicity, it changes your college experience. You are more likely to have other friends and indeed lovers of different races and ethnicities. You are more likely to express positive attitudes about races and ethnicities that are not your own. It works. Finding an echo chamber is the enemy of a liberal education. Anything you can do to fight the echo chamber is going to be a success for liberal education as we support its values.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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