Teaching Cronon's Essay on the Liberal Arts to First-Year Students

Introducing first-semester college students at Agnes Scott College to the idea of a liberal arts education and its connection to the SUMMIT program by reading and discussing historian William J. Cronon's essay "'Only Connect': The Goals of a Liberal Education"

  1. Last spring a group of Agnes Scott College faculty gathered to discuss some common approaches to teaching a required course for all incoming first-year students. This is "LDR 101," a seminar that introduces students to the ways in which a liberal arts education prepares them for fulfilling lives, careers, and leadership opportunities. One consensus that emerged from these meetings: to begin all sections of the course with a common text that all students would read, discuss, and write about. We ultimately decided on historian William J. Cronon's essay "'Only Connect': The Goals of a Liberal Education" (kudos to Professor Mary Cain for the suggestion). Cronon dispenses with the idea of a required curriculum of list or required books, focusing instead on the qualities of mind that characterize a liberally educated person. Following a presentation by Honi Migdol, Associate Dean of Students for Leadership & Engagement, we realized that we could also discuss Cronon's essay in relation to the StrengthsFinder survey that all incoming students would take before the semester began. This survey provides each student with a list of her top five talents/themes/strengths:
  2. Cronon's essay discusses the "personal qualities" he associates with liberally educated people:

    1. they listen and they hear;
    2. they read and understand;
    3. they can talk with anyone;
    4. they can write clearly and persuasively and movingly;
    5. they can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems;
    6. they respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth;
    7. they practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism;
    8. they understand how to get things done in the world;
    9. they nurture and empower the people around them;
    10. they see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.
  3. In order to extend our conversation about teaching Cronon's essay to our first-semester students, I suggested that those of us who use Twitter might write some tweets about it. I started the ball rolling by noting that Cronon is writing primarily for fellow academics, and suggested that we could have our students use the online Oxford English Dictionary, along with a shared Google document, to define and explain his use of abstract terms. For instance, Cronon's essay begins with these sentences: "What does it mean to be a liberally educated person? It seems such a simple question, especially given the frequency with which colleges and universities genuflect toward this well-worn phrase as the central icon of their institutional missions." Using the Google documents "comment" function, one of my students discovered that to "genuflect" means "to bend the knee; esp. in worship" (OED), and then explained that Cronon "uses the word 'genuflect' in this context to imply that colleges and universities use the phrase "a liberally educated person" so often that the phrase becomes an idol that they worship." This is just one example of how a simple assignment, one that introduces students to our many excellent online databases, can aid in their understanding of an essay like this. Soon other LDR faculty were tweeting with their own examples. Here is one generated by the first quality on Cronon's list:
  4. And here is one from an in-class discussion in which students supplemented Cronon's list in ways that reflect Agnes Scott's commitment to diversity:
  5. (This was subsequently tweeted out by @agnesscott):
  6. Students can also use Twitter to write brief, concise statements defining the liberal arts in their own terms. Here are a few examples:
  7. And of course professors teaching this essay alongside the students' StrengthsFinder survey results, the LDR learning outcomes, and the SUMMIT learning outcomes can develop a number of assignments (in class, out of class, short, long, writing-based, multi-media based) that help students think about the relationship of their liberal education to leadership, global citizenship, and their intended majors/careers.
  8. One example: I asked my LDR students to write a short blog entry thinking about how their StrengthsFinder survey results related to the 10 liberal education outcomes Cronon discusses in his essay. Here is one student's blog post in response to my assignment:
  9. We might even consider a "word cloud" assignment after students have read Cronon, read the learning outcomes for SUMMIT and the LDR seminars, and considered their strengths:
  10. And of course, we can share with our first-year students stories of Agnes Scott students and alumnae who are demonstrating how their liberal arts/SUMMIT educations have empowered them to "make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways":
  11. At her November 4 2015 address to the International Summit for Innovation, held in Qatar, Michelle Obama highlighted Varsha's creative interventions:
  12. We see the power of education in the story of Varsha Thebo, who’s also here through the Learners’ Voice Cohort. Varsha grew up in a rural area in Pakistan where the local schools were often abandoned. But she studied hard. She earned a scholarship to university. With that education, Varsha founded a study circle for girls in her village. She’s helping girls in Cambodia write their stories. She’s working on public health issues across the globe. And she’s planning to pursue a master’s degree in education policy.
Read next page