Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer. The closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.
To be sure, Sweet Briar is not closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.
Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.
Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.
In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.
Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.
Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.
Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.
To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts." While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.
Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 "Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered," David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.
These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions. Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.
While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments -- Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others -- will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.
The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?
Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, is completing a dissertation on liberal education.
Apart from cases such as Oral Roberts U.'s smartwatch pilot, experiments with the "internet of things" are still years away at most colleges and universities -- but questions about privacy and cheating remain.
During a late and tense scene in Hitchcock (2012) -- the biopic with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, centering on the troubled making of Psycho -- we see the director’s agent suggest one way to avert the disaster of being stuck with a film that neither the studio nor the censor will approve: edit it to run as a two-part episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," his successful and lucrative television series.
The director brushes off the proposal irritably, and that’s that. I find no reference to the incident in Stephen Rebello’s comprehensive Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho', so it is likely to be a screenwriter’s liberty for dramatic effect. The very idea of butchering one of the director’s most carefully constructed works for TV is as horrifying as any of his own stories involving mutilation or cannibalism.
But the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, writing for Esquire in 1960, considered the film and the program all too similar: “Psycho is merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours by adding pointless subplots and realistic detail…. All in all, a nasty little film.” That judgment seems to have been typical of Hitchcock’s critical reputation at the time, at least in the United States. His talent, while indisputable, was in decline, and if his silly TV spots were not the cause, they certainly weren’t helping.
No such invidious comparisons occurred to the critics and filmmakers in France around the journal Cahiers du Cinema, which regarded Hitchcock as the consummate film artist, with Psycho as one more masterpiece. Questions of taste can never be settled definitively, but the opinions of cineastes and ordinary viewers alike have tended to skew overwhelmingly Cahiers-ward, with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" now seeming about as relevant to Psycho’s status in film history as the bear-baiting pit at the Globe Theatre does to interpreting Hamlet.
So there’s something offbeat about Jan Olsson’s Hitchcock à la Carte (Duke University Press), a study that disregards not just the differences between film and video but between the director’s creative work and his public persona. Olsson, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Stockholm, insists on examining Hitchcock’s body of work through -- or at least around -- his body proper.
What swims, whalelike, into view in Olsson’s study is Hitchcock’s massive cultural presence. And yes, those were fat jokes. Stupid ones, too, but par for the course, given that critic-speak abstractions regarding “the body” here give way to considerations of a real body that went from more than 300 pounds to under 200 in a single year, before bouncing back up and plunging back down, repeatedly. However extraneous the director’s girth may seem to his art, Olsson treats them as combining in the public eye to establish the composite phenomenon we know as Hitchcock.
Many viewers become aware of his body and his corpus at almost the same time, by keeping an eye out for the walk-on parts in his films, where the director appears as a figure glimpsed off to the side or in the background. His appearances can be taken as both an inside joke and a personal signature, but they also reinforce a tendency going back at least to 1937, when he arrived in New York for “gastronomic holiday” while en route to the meetings in Hollywood. Embarked on a new phase in his career, Hitchcock turned his heft into a kind of social capital, something to joke about. Eating became a major part of his self-branding, as it’s put nowadays.
Hitch (the nickname was part of the brand) gave interviews to reporters while eating a steak or two, followed by ice cream. He blunted the barbs about his weight by joking about it himself: “I’m not really a heavy eater, unless you mean that I’m heavy, and I eat.” Flaunting his gluttony in the face of American puritanism, he also served up quips about the entertainment value of murder. Audiences learned to connect the mordant tone of his films to a personality that was, in all respects, bigger than life.
By the time Hitchcock made the transition to television in the 1950s, his persona was well established and, quite literally, scripted, with the comedy writer James B. Allardice turning out scores of skits and monologues in which Hitch poked fun at the sponsors while introducing the week’s episode. The gags often turned on his girth or his appetite, while the stories themselves often incorporated food or meals as a macabre plot point: a dining club whose delicacies include meat dishes prepared from recently murdered members, for example, or a frozen leg of lamb used as a murder weapon, then cooked and served to the policemen investigating the crime.
That blend of morbidity and sly humor is a large part of what we mean in calling something “Hitchcockian,” although Olsson also regards it as Bakhtinian: the films and escapades being examples the “carnivalized discourse” that Mikhail Bakhtin analyzed in his study of Rabelais.
Olsson has turned up an extraordinary array of photographs, interviews and publicity events that ran parallel to Hitchcock's output as a director, including work in a long-forgotten genre called “photocrime,” in which a crime story was told using a series of staged photographs. (Created in England and popularized in the United States by Life magazine, it seems to have been a prototype of the Latin-American fotonovela.) He takes all of this highly miscellaneous material as instances of paratext -- the layers of material surrounding the author’s (in this case, director’s) work, through which the reader/viewer passes in gaining access.
The echoes and cross-references between paratext and the films are interesting if, in many cases, likely to be broadly familiar to the Hitchcock viewer. The director’s name, Olsson writes, “just like ‘Salvador Dali’ and ‘Andy Warhol,’ represents intangibles beyond the oeuvre; it is a convoluted bricolage of art, commerce, marketing and celebrity indicative of 20th-century media culture at large.”
The author’s approach more or less precludes judgments of quality or a devotee’s attention to the particulars of artistry. And that’s okay -- the book is eye-opening on its own terms. But there’s a reason why some of us will watch Psycho a hundred times before we die, and I suspect it has less to do with Hitchcock’s body, as such, than with one part of it: his eye.
The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.
No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.
The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.
STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.
Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.
We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.
I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.
Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.