Ethan Schrum is a 2018-2019 CREV Faculty Fellow

Posted: October 24, 2018


Ethan Schrum (Dept. of History & Political Science), Cultural Heritage and Moral Formation in Liberal Arts Education After World War II


World War II prompted an intellectual crisis in American higher education. The threat of totalitarianism caused many educational and political leaders to rethink how universities, and particularly their programs of liberal education or general education, could best bolster liberal democracy and its freedoms. What kind of character should universities develop in their students to equip them as citizens of a free society? Some scholars suggest that universities often sought to inculcate open-mindedness or a scientific temperament that could be applied to social problems. Others have focused on universities’ attempts to make their curricula serve a “socializing” function, particularly by providing some kind of unity in an ever more diverse America. This project explores another vision for postwar liberal arts education: the belief that studying what promoters termed “our cultural heritage” would best form the character of democratic citizens. This approach drew on prewar precedents. As one scholar has argued, “the Great Books approach . . . flowered into a major cultural force in the 1930s,” invoking “the Western heritage as a source of ethical guidance” in a time of anxiety about valid sources of moral authority among thinkers who believed they could not embrace traditional Christianity but also rejected naturalistic understandings of the human person offered by social scientists.