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Essay suggests liberal arts training relates to skills

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 Times column, 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.

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ACT Finds Poor Alignment Between Student Abilities and Intended Majors

A new analysis by ACT has found that only 36 percent of those who take the ACT and indicate a planned choice of college major are selecting a subject that is a good fit with their stated academic interests. Generally, those students scoring higher on the ACT were found to be more likely to have major choices that were a good fit.

 

Psy draws a crowd in the classroom

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More students are enrolling in Korean studies or language courses, spurred by interest in pop culture.

 

Profiles of Students in Competency-Based Programs

A new report from the Center for American Progress profiles 13 students who are enrolled in a range of competency-based degree programs at seven different institutions. Lawmakers are showing interest in competency-based education of late. In an effort to help shape policies that might emerge, the report tries to uncover commonalities between the students' experiences. It also features several policy recommendations, such as a call for standards of quality and experimentation with financial aid rules.

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The Pulse guide to DIY podcasting

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This month's edition of our monthly technology podcast examines how to use podcasts to improve teaching and learning.

2 Reports on Medical Education

Two reports were issued Monday on medical education:

  • The Blue Ribbon Commission for the Advancement of Osteopathic Medical Education issued a report calling for a shift in osteopathic medical education and residencies away from assumptions based on years of study, to an approach based on measuring "readiness" for residency (in medical school) and "readiness for practice" during residency.
  • New York State received 20 percent of all of Medicare's graduate medical education (GME) funding while 29 states, including some with shortages of physicians, got less than 1 percent, according to a report published  by researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

 

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Study: Most First-Generation Students Not Prepared for College

While surveys show that most of those who would be first-generation college students want to attend college, a majority are not prepared to succeed in key courses, according to a report released Monday by ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). The study found that 52 percent of first-generation 2013 high school graduates who took the ACT met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. That compares to 31 percent of all ACT-tested graduates who met none of the benchmarks. Only 9 percent of the first generation students met all four benchmarks, while 26 percent of graduates overall did so. The benchmarks specify the minimum scores students must earn on each of ACT’s four subject tests (English, math, reading, and science) to have a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in the corresponding subject area.

Coursera to Improve Access Abroad With Physical 'Learning Hubs'

Massive open online course provider Coursera will provide physical spaces in which to use its digital content, the company announced on Thursday. Along with five partner organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Coursera will establish "Learning Hubs" at more than 20 locations around the world, including at campuses and U.S. embassies.

The hubs will provide free access to the Internet and Coursera's MOOCs, but the company is also promising a more traditional learning experience. Some courses will feature in-person sessions, which can range from tutoring to discussions, moderated by a "local facilitator who has familiarity with the subject."

Coursera's announcement is the latest in a trend of MOOC providers expanding abroad. In the past month alone, Coursera and edX have both targeted China to broaden the scope of their platforms.

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Using the World Series to teach students to "show, don't tell" (essay)

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. 

Show: Kettle Korn. BBQ sandwich. Reliable Souvenir Soda. Cheeseburger with fries. Pretzel rods. Peanuts. Italian sausage. Cotton candy. Pizza slice. Gluten-free pizza. Chicken tenders with fries. Cracker Jack. Double cheeseburger. Fenway franks. Monster dogs. Deli sandwich. Soft serve. Fried dough. Lemonade. Bottled water. Gluten-free beer.

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.

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Colleges start new academic programs

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