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The challenges facing the liberal arts are well-known.  Humanities departments, in particular, struggle to attract students.  A loss of enrollments at the freshman level, as a result of Advanced Placement and dual degree-early college credits, has resulted in a decline in the number of majors and faculty positions and the marginalization of humanities departments within universities as a whole.

Worse yet is a retreat from the notion that a solid grounding in the liberal arts is essential if one is to attain what Aristotle called “eudaimonia” – the human flourishing that can only come from intensive exposure to the arts, culture, philosophy, theology, and history.  The notion that the humanities are essential to creating lives of purpose and meaning, appreciation of the fine arts, and understanding of diversity  – is a view that has increasingly lost traction.  The idea that the liberal arts have a special purchase on critical thinking, abstract reasoning, and effective communication is rejected by many.

Some attribute the problem to a boorish, unsophisticated culture, geared toward entertainment and distractions, or the “neoliberal” university, with its careerist focus, emphasis on funded research, and stress on measurable learning outcome, or a reaction against humanities courses supposedly corrupted by political correctness, postmodernist theory, ideological indoctrination, short-lived fads, and identity politics.

Still others cast blame on liberal arts faculty, whose supposedly overly specialized, disciplinary-bound courses fail to provide job-ready skills.  Fully a third of provosts surveyed by Inside Higher Ed agreed or strongly agreed that liberal arts faculty members are insufficiently “interested in the desire of parents and students for career preparation.” 

In fact, much of the challenge lies in a shift in student interests, as vocationally-minded undergraduates exhibit less and less interest in going to college to develop a philosophy of life.  Equally serious is a decline in attention spans, since focus, patience, and concentration are prerequisites for ‘the activities of reading, viewing, critical thinking, writing and intensive conversational exchange.”

What, then, can be done, apart from efforts to expand general education requirements or make it more difficult for students to fulfill liberal arts requirements off-campus by requiring students to meet various “flags” (for example, by requiring a specified amount of reading and writing or a certain portion of course content devoted to diversity).

Four strategies for saving the liberal arts stand out.

Strategy 1:  Reimagining the First Year Experience
Although honors colleges typically require freshmen to complete an interdisciplinary gateway course, typically focusing on the human condition through the lens of canonical literary, philosophic, political and religious texts, the vast majority of first year students meet distribution requirements through a broad range of discipline-based introductory courses.

A few institutions have experimented with a more thematic, interdisciplinary approach that illustrates the ways that the liberal arts contributes to a holistic understanding of a contemporary controversy or an enduring issue.  A pioneer was Portland State University, which established a sequence of freshman and sophomore inquiry courses that explore a topic or issues from a variety of disciplinary lenses.  UCLA’s freshman clusters are year-long, collaboratively taught interdisciplinary courses that focus on such timely topics as human aging, brain science, biotechnology, interracial dynamics, and evolution.

Strategy 2:  Emphasizing Professional Identity Development
A well-rounded professional needs much more than specialized technical training.  A professional must also be fluent in ethical principles, develop advanced communication skills, exhibit empathetic behavior, and possess historical perspective.  To achieve these goals, a multi-disciplinary team must rethink an entire curricular pathway.  At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the Biomedical Science curriculum reimagined freshman composition, art history, philosophy, world literature, and history through the lens of the medical humanities, medical ethics, and the history of medicine and public health.  Thus, the course in world literature focuses on narratives of pain and illness, and a course in the philosophy of art emphasizes representations of the human body.

Strategy 3:  Combining Liberal Arts and STEM or Business Majors
Exemplifying this new model are Stanford’s CS+ joint majors that integrate the humanities with Computer Science and require students to complete a capstone project that fuses technology and the humanities. These capstone projects range from digital editions of literary works and digital representations of historic sites or literary venues to natural language processing applied to literary analysis.

Strategy 4:  Establishing a 21st Century Skills Ledger
This pragmatic approach seeks to identify the skills essential for success in 21st century workplaces.  These are not simply vocational skills, but, rather such future skills as Cross-Cultural Competency, Social Intelligence, Novel, Adaptive and Design Thinking, Sense-Making, New Media Literacy, Transdisciplinarity, and Computational Thinking.

Achievement of these 21st century literacies is recorded on a skills ledger or Comprehensive Student Record.  A skills ledger is a new currency of achievement and accomplishment that seeks to supplement (or replace) the credit hour.  Unlike the current emphasis on seat time, a skills ledger is a dynamic record of a person’s skills and competencies, which can be obtained from a variety of providers, academic and non-academic, acquired in classrooms or through other kinds of experiences.  A 21st century skills ledger seeks to ensure that students acquire critical “soft skills,” most of which are firmly grounded in the liberal arts.

The obstacles to adopting and implementing any of these strategies are obvious.  These strategies require cross-departmental collaboration, cooperation, and consensus-building – virtues generally at odds with the academy’s emphasis on faculty and departmental autonomy.  Yet if we are to reinvigorate the humanistic ideal of colleges and universities educating the whole person, we must be willing to think outside our disciplinary boxes and imagine ways to explicitly link liberal arts content to broader conversations and to more explicitly focus on the kinds of skills –21st century or otherwise -- that the liberal arts can instill.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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