The liberal arts are dead, or — at best — dying. That's the theme of story after story in today’s news media.
Professional skills training is in. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are in. Practical, vocational higher education is in. The liberal arts are out, relics of a “traditional” way of thinking that has been overtaken by the pressing demands of our dizzyingly complex digital age.
As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These “conventional” disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.
Although this viewpoint is rapidly gaining the status of settled wisdom, it is tragically misguided. It is based on a false dichotomy, namely that the liberal arts and the more vocational, preprofessional, practical disciplines — like, say, computer science — are fundamentally different and opposed. But this misunderstands both the age we’re living in and the challenges we face, not to mention one of the most significant trends in higher education over the last few decades — the evolution of interdisciplinarity.
In essence, this whole debate comes down to skills. The liberal arts are often said by critics to provide little that is of “practical value” in the “real world.” In reality, though, liberal arts curriculums can and do give students skills that are just as professionally useful as those in more “relevant” occupationally specific fields of study.
At my university, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments — including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science — into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Majors are required to study abroad and to achieve fluency in at least one foreign language. By graduation, they will have demonstrated their research, analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills in a substantial, “capstone” research project. Our students will also do internships with companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.
Equally important, they will develop “global competence,” which employers in many professions have identified as one of the most desirable, but grossly lacking, sets of skills required of their new employees. Broadly defined, global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Its central elements include knowledge of world affairs — cultural, economic, and political; proficiency in communicating with people in and from other societies, both verbally and in writing; the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and respect cultural diversity; and the intellectual and psychological flexibility to adapt to unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances.
Developing the skills that we hope to instill in UMBC’s global studies majors is an inherently interdisciplinary mission. In a recent New York Timescolumn, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argues that the social sciences (a subset of the liberal arts) badly trail the natural sciences in generating innovative “institutional structures” that can produce the kind of cutting-edge science necessary for solving some of the world’s most intractable — often intrinsically interdisciplinary — problems. However, he also notes that this is beginning to change, for example, in the form of a new global affairs major at Yale.
Whether it’s global studies at UMBC or global affairs at Yale, these exciting new programs tangibly articulate why talking about liberal arts education versus practical training creates the false perception that these two enterprises are essentially at odds. At UMBC, it's the combination of interdisciplinary liberal arts education; substantial research, writing and analysis; rigorous foreign language training; study abroad; and experiential learning in the form of internships and other applied opportunities that will give students the skills they will need to thrive and “do good” in the 21st century.
The tragedy is that we might blow it. If we continue to present students with a false choice between the liberal arts and “real-world” vocational training, we will produce what social scientists like to call “suboptimal” outcomes. Too many talented, energetic, hard-working students will choose “safe” educational and career paths, and too many truly global problems will go unsolved.
Devin T. Hagerty is a professor of political science and director of global studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Fenway Park, Boston, 7:35 p.m. last Thursday, at the Gate B press credentials window, a full 30 minutes before the scheduled first pitch of Game Two of the 2013 World Series, the Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. I presented my Inside Higher Ed business card and my (valid, by the way) Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver’s license. “I've been assigned to cover the game tonight. May I get a press pass?” I told the man behind the bullet-proof-looking window.
Heck, the Boston Globe had reported that morning that the Red Sox had credentialed 1,800 journalists for Wednesday’s game, the night before (8-1 Red Sox). In this newspaper-closing, hard-news starved world, 1,800 journalists in total, on the whole planet? Then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell you.
Anyway, I was on a professional development mission. Not for me, for my students, all 13,000 (my last count) of them at Bunker Hill Community College. “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.” “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.”
That’s my daily plea to them these days, as we work through the first drafts of essays to transfer to four-year colleges. I’d read in articles and heard wise educators say that teachers should try their assigned assignments for themselves. So last Thursday, after my early evening transfer-essay session last night, I headed to Fenway, to see what I could show not tell, what details I could find, to write about a some old news everyone already knows -- Cardinals won, 4-2.
Let’s see what I can do for details. Only Bruins fans on the Orange Line, my first train from Community College to North Station. Red Sox hats and red jackets and red sweat shirts and red parkas when I switched over to the Green Line, to Kenmore, Fenway Park. Not a mob. Odd. On regular baseball-season nights, riders just going home must often let a Green Line or two go by before the cars have room for new passengers.
"Professor Sloane,” a young woman said at the Haymarket stop. A Bunker Hill Community College student from Senegal. “I missed you last week, when I brought my essay back,” she said. “Well, can I help you now?” I asked. She pulled the essay out of her bag. “Africa is suffering and crying for a cure,” the draft began. She needs little help from me. (She gave me permission to quote the essay here.) “What did you learn revising?” Big, big smile. “This is about me. Only I could have written this.”
The smile is the test. When the students smile, we’re on our way to turn the lead (“I want to go to a four-year college to….") into the thick-envelope-with-financial-aid gold for these Pell Grant students (“Africa is suffering and crying for a cure”).
This woman wants a Ph.D. in microbiology. She will build medical labs at home in Senegal. A ten-year-old cousin had died because Senegal has too few labs for simple blood tests. We talked until I switched trains at Copley for a Kenmore train.
Still no mob on the next train. (Research questions with credible sources.) “Where is everyone?” I asked a Boston Transit Police officer at Kenmore/Fenway Park stop, when I arrived at 7:05 p.m., an hour before the first pitch. For regular games I’ve been to, the mob just carries you out of Kenmore. “I’ve been here since about 5:00. It’s been about like this,” the officer told me. “Steady but not the usual mob. I think more people are taking their cars, not the T, to the game. Remember, at $1,000 a ticket for the World Series, these are not the regular fans here tonight.” (Detail: What did tickets cost? Find multiple sources.)
“How much?” I asked the first scalper I met on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of the station stairs. “I’ve got box seats in right field for $500 each,” he said. “What’s the least I could get in for?” I asked the man down the street holding the poster directing us to ticket-broker Ace tickets. “I’d say probably $400,” he said. Where? “The bleachers.”
Detail for comparison: That’s vs. $47 for a box seat, a dozen rows in from the field between first base and the foul pole, the Pesky Pole at Fenway. (Detail: Named for the late Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky. He hesitated on a throw to home. Enos Slaughter scored, and the Red Sox lost the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against … the St. Louis Cardinals.) That same seat was $100 for the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay.
Other Validation of Transit Police Officer hypothesis: Later, at Gate B, I saw an elderly couple, Brahmin (takes one to know one), come forth from a shiny black chauffered Town Car. The woman had a cane, and the man had over his arm a plaid lap blanket that I’d expect to see instead across the Charles River at a Harvard/Yale football game.
Turning to “Show, don’t tell.” Tell could be: Red Sox fans like to eat.
Tell: Many different programs were for sale. Show: “Get your official Red Sox here, with a free Red Sox pennant.” “Official World Series Program here, with Topps World Series Baseball Cards.” “American League Playoff program right here.”
Show, use time. I’d gone to walk around, outside the park, Wednesday night, too, before I hit on the press pass idea. Wandering the scene may be as close as I get to a World Series game. My closest call before had been another Thursday -- Thursday, October 12, 1967, the seventh game of the 1967 World Series, the Red Sox against … the Cardinals. Bob Gibson pitching for the Cardinals against Jim Lonborg for the Red Sox. (Details? Students, click here.) My father had ended up with two tickets; he took my brother. I still think my father should have torn the ticket and given us each half.
Show: Wednesday night, in Santander Bank, corner of Comm Ave. and the bridge across the Mass Pike to Fenway. Revise, details: corner of Comm Ave and Brookline Avenue, which crosses over the Mass Pike to Fenway Park. Trio out of tune, no tempo. Thursday night in the Santander alcove, a solo trombonist, playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I put a dollar into his hat.
Walking over the bridge, slowly, a crowd at last, I accepted all free placards. From the Globe: “There can B only one,” flipside: “Let’s Go Red Sox!” From WEEI 93.7 FM: “K,” flipside “Fear the Beards.” (Click here for chart of Red Sox beards by player.) From the Seventh Day Adventists, a card to mail in for a FREE Passion story, The Road to Redemption. Your name and address on one side, with flipside a photo of a baseball on fire, the mailing address for Seventh Day Adventists and a box “Place Your Stamp Here.”
Sausages? On Lansdowne Street – the Green Monster backs onto Lansdowne -- I declare a tie between Mike’s, in front of Gate C, and the Sausage Connection, a few yards from Gate E. Both use perfect 8-inch sub rolls from Piantedosi Bakery in Malden, Mass. I didn’t try, I admit, the Sausage King, the Original Che-Chi’s, the Sausage Guy, or Boston’s Best and Original Sausage.
A tap on my shoulder, on the Green Line Wednesday. The balding, middle-aged man beside me asked, “You going to the game?” Just to walk around, I’d said. To buy a Fenway sausage sandwich for my wife to eat watching the game at home.
“You getting sausage? You have to go to our stand. Sausage Connection. We’re the second one on Lansdowne Street. Don’t go to the first one. We’re a dollar cheaper, Best of Boston every year. Peppers and everything. We’ll wrap them up good so you can take it home. What do you like to drink? Coke? No? We got Sprite then. I’ll take care of you,” he promised.
The man, I didn’t get his name, had been shouting into his cell phone from the the Green Line seat. “I killed four guys, but they could only get me on extortion. Yeah, I’m a Made Man, but I stopped all that. They never gave me my money. My wife is on the other line. I gotta take it. What’s your name again?” The next conversation was about heroin, methadone, and cappuccino. That’s when he tapped me on the shoulder.
“I got two tickets, but I’m going to sell them,” he told me. “You never been to the Series? I missed the series in ’04 and ’07. I was in the federal penitentiary in Illinois,” he said. We were off the T and walking down Comm Ave. “I know the Sox are going to win. I’ve got $1,000 on it.” His cell phone rang. He showed me. “You know who that is, don’t you?” I couldn’t see the screen. “It’s A-Rod’s…” A siren screamed. “A-Rod’s agent,” I think he said. “Yeah, I’ll be there in two minutes,” he said into the phone. He turned to me, “You got it? Sausage Connection. Second one on Lansdowne, not the first one. I’ll take care of you.” He was gone.
In front of the Cask ‘n Flagon on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, a young couple – Red Sox jackets and hats – were trying to photograph themselves with a cell phone. I volunteered and took a few shots. Effusive (and sober) thanks. “Would you sell me one of your tickets for $20?” I asked. No.
I passed the first sausage cart on Lansdowne. At the second, my new friend was waving his arms declaring something I couldn’t hear to his friends at the stand. I was hungry. But my new friend gave me the two sandwiches and the sodas, for free? Did I want to owe a favor to a guy who’d just told me he had killed four guys? The stories were bluster. I think. Why take the risk?
I stuck to my plan to walk around the Park. Around the corner from Lansdowne, on Ipswich Street, the new Carl Yastrzemski statue, the Ted Williams statue, and the Teammates: Ted Williams, again, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio all had red beards attached. (Detail: True to life, the sculptor had given Dom (the Little Professor) wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Above my head as I kept walking were the retired numbers, 9, 4, 1, 8, 27, 6, 14, and, in blue, 42. (Students: Leave some mystery for the reader to wonder.) Fenway has loading docks along Van Ness. A fence kept us on the far side of the street. It was dark. The flashes of cell phone cameras were popping at one big door. I looked over. A gray-haired man in a white baseball jersey. He turned. Number “8.” “Is that Yaz?” I blurted. “Yes,” everyone said. Carl Yastrzemski. (Detail: You have look up the spelling.) Yaz had played in the ’67 game my brother went to. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct one of the uniform numbers that have been retired.)
Mike’s Sausage? Well, my new friend wasn’t at the Sausage Connection Thursday night. I bought a sandwich, and saw the Piantedosi bag. Excellent sausage; perfect roll. Wednesday, avoiding owing a favor my new friend, I’d fallen into step alongside a Boston police officer. (Detail: Never stop looking for primary sources.) “Where would you buy a sausage sandwich?” I asked. He stopped, turned to me. He had a circle of four of five stars on the collar of his white shirt. “I don’t eat sausage,” he said. I guess I looked disappointed. “But you could try Mike’s, in front of Gate C.” I thanked him. A tall man by the stand in front of Gate C -- Mike, I learned -- locked me into his gaze. “What can I get you?” No escape; I’m glad I already wanted a sausage. Two sausage sandwiches, wrapped so I could take them home. I paid and put a tip into the jar.
“I think it might have been the Boston chief of police who just told me I had to buy my sandwich here at Mike’s,” I said. “That’s superintendent chief. He was just here. Danny Linsky, Irish by the way. We’re friends. He sent you? Oh, now he’s going to want a piece of the action,” Mike said. “Never mind. Next time we have lunch, I’ll be sure he pays.”
Oh, at the Gate B press window. The man through the bulletproof window said to me through the microphone, “No, we can’t give you a press pass tonight.” “Isn’t there someone you could talk to?” “The deadline for press passes was October 2,” the man said.
As I tell the students applying for transfer: Don’t wait until the last minute.
Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.
Several decades ago – long before the level of technological sophistication we experience today -- I was part of a movement begun by the late Julian Stanley, a psychology professor, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) to save academically talented youth from boredom in the schools. The most controversial instrument to rescue them was a pedagogical practice called, rather prosaically, "Diagnostic Testing Followed by Prescriptive Instruction" or, shorthand, “DT>PI.” It was principally applied to the pre-collegiate mathematics curriculum and relied on just a few key assumptions and practices:
1. Students already know something about a subject before they formally study it.
2. Test students before a course begins and then just instruct them on what they don’t know.
3. Test students again when you as the instructor and they as learners believe they have competency in a subject.
4. Move immediately to the next level of instruction.
The DT>PI model was placed in a more generous context with the adaptation of Professor Hal Robertson’s (University of Washington) notion of the Optimal Match. Simply stated, pace and level of instruction should match optimally an individual student’s assessed abilities — with the caveat that those accessing that talent would always try to stretch a student beyond his comfort zone. The Optimal Match theoretically could apply to all students at any level of education.
When I used to speak publicly in a wide variety of settings — at colleges and universities, community colleges, schools, education association meetings, parent gatherings -- about what I thought to be the commonsensical notions of DT>PI and the Optimal Match, the reactions were pronounced and fiercely negative. My colleagues and I were accused of presenting educators with the dissolution of the structured classroom as we knew it then; forcing students unjustifiably to proceed educationally without sufficient instructional guidance; destroying the communal, cooperative imperative of an American education; and, producing social misfits because students would finish academic coursework before the schedule established (rather arbitrarily, I might add) by educational professionals for all students of one age at one time. Parents joined often with educators to decry such imagined alienation and damage to a child’s personality.
And then there was a change in 2013.
There are now two closely related pedagogies -- adaptive learning and competency-based learning -- that are embraced by a growing number in higher education as a viable component of educational reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding grants to 18 institutions to experiment with 10 different adaptive learning platforms, and President Obama has expressed support for these innovations and urged easing of regulations to make that possible.
In general, adaptive learning uses data-driven information to design coursework that permits students to proceed educationally at their appropriate pace and level. And competency–based learning allows students to be free of "seat time" and flexibly progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content.
These definitions, when combined, delineate precisely the key components of DT>PI and that of numerous other experiments in self-paced learning over the last few decades. But now, while the naysayers are still out there, an increasing number of for-profits and nonprofits are turning to adaptive and competency-based learning as a component of the next stage of reform in American education.
Why now? Something must have changed in society to accept self-paced, individualized learning when only decades ago it was roundly rejected on pedagogical, ethical and psychological grounds. Those concerns are clearly not as inviolate as they were only years ago. Answering this question might well provide education reformers with insight into what is now possible — even expected -- from students for the learning platforms of the future.
There are at least three reasons why self-paced learning might be more popular now than it was only a few years ago: technological advances, financial exigency and a new self-profile of the learner.
Advances in technology that rely on advances in data mining and data analytics -- predicting future learning behavior by an individual based upon analysis of thousands of earlier learners — permit now a high ability to track, direct, customize, evaluate and advise student learning at instantaneous speeds. What in previous decades seemed to be an impossible task for a teacher or professor to manage in a single course — diverse learning points among students — is at least now technically feasible.
Many institutions are rather intent to find new strategies that will at once reduce their cost of providing an education. Adaptive and competency-based learning are thought to be such "disruptive" opportunities, although how accompanying data-driven, all-knowing and anticipating, high-touch technologies will reduce dramatically both cost and price (tuition) remains elusive.
And, lastly, students have perhaps finally realized the expectation of the self-esteem movement that has dominated instruction in our nation’s schools for several decades. Students might well now believe that they are the center of all activity — to include education — and that they are both the sole focus and the drivers of learning. All instructional effort exists for the purpose of fulfilling their desires.
This "power shift" makes learners, individually — not teachers or professors -- aggregators of knowledge by and for themselves. Any approach to education that places them at the center of learning activity accommodates their perspective on education. Adaptive and competency-based learning accomplish this masterfully. Self-paced, individually adjusted instruction, enhanced by “big data” technologies that guide student progress “lockstep” in a course and beyond, eliminates distracting elements to the individual control of knowledge. Primary among those distractions for students are faculty with their pesky, seemingly inefficient and irrelevant questions.
And thus, in 2013, what was not acceptable several decades ago is now thought a solution to crisis in American education. A combination of new technologies, financial emergency and a shift in who is at the center and in control of learning has caused this to occur.
But all is not settled. The changing circumstances introduce concerns that did not exist decades ago when students were not the arbiters of their own learning, self-paced instruction was not thought to be a solution for all students in American education but only the academically talented and big data did not exist to mine and anticipate every move in student learning.
A defining element of DT>PI was that students must not just study what is the next logical step in a course, but they must through the exhortations of a teacher or professor attempt to go beyond what was thought statistically possible — they must stretch themselves intellectually at every point. Professor Stanley used to constantly quote the line of the poet Robert Browning that one’s reach must always exceed one’s grasp.
Questions remain whether in the absence of a live instructor exhorting a student who is not necessarily academically acute and motivated, students will extend their reach or settle for statistically generated achievement delivered by an electronic adviser (I am referring here to traditional-aged undergraduates, not working adults who are propelled by substantial motivational factors). Such absence of exhortation could be extremely damaging to the majority of American students who often do not naturally attempt to achieve to the levels of which they are capable without personal mentorship.
And one traces in those who are enthralled with "big data" and "data analytics" for solving the maladies of American education a disturbing belief. Student will achieve through data-enhanced technologies the perfectibility of education — perhaps life itself -- by eliminating all resistance, frustration, indecision, trial and error, chance and expenditure of time. For example, Harvard University social scientist and university professor Gary King is quoted in a May 20, 2013 New Yorker article entitled "Laptop U." as saying, “With enough data over a long period, you could crunch inputs and probabilities and tell students, with a high degree of accuracy, exactly which choices and turns to make to get where they wanted to go in life."
And yet, there is growing commentary that it is precisely the absence of frustration, resistance and associated imperfections in a so-called “Me Generation” and its aftermath that is compromising contemporary students' learning and preparation for a life. By educators blithely accepting students’ assertion of self-determination without legitimate maturing experiences (that will include failure and self-doubt) and by arranging learning electronically so that they will make no wrong decisions, they are granting them little ability to deal with inevitable disappointment and frustration in life.
Students are educated without gaining resilience and that is hardly an education of which a nation can be proud or secure, regardless of the utopian promises of the big data enthusiasts. All this reminds me of a call I received decades ago from an entrepreneur who wanted me to comment on his idea of developing a school basketball court that would have the hoop move electronically with the ball so that no student would ever miss a shot and thus, in his words, "suffer humiliation."
So while I am delighted that self-paced education in the form of adaptive and competency-based learning is finally a more generally discussed component of reform in American education, I urge that those advancing it think long and hard about some of the humanly-damaging consequences of learning platforms so perfected by technology that students are offered a Faustian bargain – the comfort of non-resistant and frustration-free learning in exchange for the ultimate loss of a resilience needed for a satisfying life after schooling.
William G. Durden is president emeritus and professor of liberal arts at Dickinson College, and operating partner at Sterling Partners, a private equity company.