Organized education emerged in antiquity in the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. Drawing on a confluence of prior cultures, itinerant teachers in Greece claimed to teach the skills and capacities necessary for a successful, contributive public life in the city-states. Schools developed around the greatest of these teachers, and the precursors of modern colleges and universities flourished throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. One of these, founded by the Greek philosopher Plato, was called “the Academy,” a name we celebrate in every reference to the academic enterprise.
Though the classical tradition withered, the learning of the ancients was preserved by religious institutions and scholars. The world of Islam sustained and extended classical learning and transmitted it to the West. As European civilization grew in sophistication in the later Middle Ages, students and teachers in law, theology, medicine, and the liberal arts banded together into societies. At Bologna, later at Paris, and then at Oxford and Cambridge, these gained papal, imperial, or royal recognition as institutions of learning. Throughout Europe the foundation of education was the seven liberal arts: the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But uniquely in the English-speaking world, these institutions developed as colleges, residential societies of relatively small size in which teaching and learning scholars combined the advantages of community life with the pursuit of knowledge.
The collegiate ideal has flourished in America. Independent institutions representing a multitude of denominations and ethnic backgrounds established the characteristic diversity of higher learning in America. As in ancient Greece, higher education in this country has provided for individual human flourishing through encouraging a command of the sciences and the humanities while preparing young adults to take an active role in the public life of a participatory society.
We now live in a global community characterized by the interrelation and confluence of many previously insular peoples and cultures. The cultivation of global citizenship—understanding the relation of one’s own nationality, ethnicity, and heritage to a world of increasing diversity—is an appropriate element of liberal arts education. The college that aims to equip its students to cope and flourish in that context undertakes a natural contemporary extension of its tradition.
Implicit in the academic enterprise from its beginning is the conviction that neither individual well-being nor the just society emerges inevitably from human nature. Nor is our nature opposed to these accomplishments. Rather, the premise of the liberal arts college is the idea that only purposeful cultivation in a community of the right sort will result in the emergence of excellence. Such a community is a matter of discernment and design; it carries forward a tradition by understanding its past, broadly conceived, by incorporating and embodying what is worthy of its embrace, and by transforming itself continually in pursuit of the best.