As Victor E. Ferrall Jr. offered a valediction for the liberal arts here, declaring them “over the brink,” colleagues at the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., were abuzz designing its future: #libedunbound.
During a session entitled “Liberal Education Unbound: The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment,” Rebecca Frost Davis of St. Edward’s University asked audience members to live tweet their reflections to the hashtag #libedunbound, to illustrate the productive potential of this networked back channel. The tweets posted during the session (including my own) were less than inspirational, perhaps because they were penned (thumbed?) on demand, in response to an assigned topic, “Where and from whom do you as a professional learn outside of the formal classroom or conference session?”
But the hashtag itself was inspired, as became evident during a later session, “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem,” led by Randy Bass of Georgetown University. Bass invited the panelists -- José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College; Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University; and J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College -- to move away from technology-driven questions about the future of higher education and instead pose a true design challenge: How would we reimagine and reconstruct the future (of) #libedunbound? As the speakers took on a series of probing questions about the possibilities as well as the threats “the new learning ecosystem” might represent, audience members’ -- and the panelists’! -- live tweets were projected onto a large screen. In this way, the panel’s official channel ran alongside its unofficial back channel.
The panel’s oral channel focused on a new vision of learning that will transform our conception of the liberal arts and higher education alike. Panelists spoke, for example, not just about students as content creators but about professors as “cognitive coaches.” They hypothesized that the role of faculty members might become to make their learning -- as process, not as an achieved state of being -- visible to students and to one another. How will we fulfill our responsibility to prepare students to “live fully in their time”? Are we preparing our graduate students to teach the future generations of networked learners?
As the panelists considered the conceptual parameters of the new learning ecosystem, the digital back-channel chatter -- a word that I find particularly suitable, as it captures the unscripted and unedited murmur of live tweeting -- both deepened and challenged the panel’s official argument.
Some tweets obliquely echoed the panelists, while others amounted to philosophical challenges and engaged fellow tweeters in a parallel conversation. One tweet asked, for example, if “it is possible to think deeply on [T]witter” (@noreen_o), while another (my own) mused that the concept of depth may have to shift in a networked environment. Particularly amusing was the banter about an imaginary gadget that a panelist described as the “academic [F]itbit,” which might provide future students and professors with a feedback loop on vital cognitive data. But even that jest quickly turned into a serious query: What questions would we ask about our learning and how would we measure it? How will we teach our students to read and monitor their own data?
We were, I admit, in a glorious echo chamber of like-minded liberal education enthusiasts, caught up in one of those electric moments of communal inquiry. We needed no convincing of the value of liberal education and we have not given up on its future. Ferrall is no doubt correct that we cherish liberal education because it helps students become “critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.” But what the hundreds of tweets to #libedunbound also demonstrated is that we may benefit from the exercise of thinking about the future of liberal education away from the historically accurate but no longer productive dichotomy that juxtaposes it with vocational training.
In the knowledge economy, critical thinking and what we typically call skills are much more closely bound and more difficult to disentangle than they were at the inception of the liberal arts centuries ago or even in the relatively recent course of their 200-year history in U.S. higher education. As Gardner Campbell observed from the panel table, the new learning ecosystem offers innovative symbolic possibilities that liberal education has yet to explore. Our conception of the liberal arts will evolve with the learning ecosystem that it inhabits.
That is the key point Ferrall missed: liberal education has never been static. An argument that presents it as such has already given up on its key component: learning as a never finished process, always renewed and always contextual. #Libedunbound may be one way to capture this idea: the chatter to this hashtag indeed emphasized active liberal learners of the future over and above the nominalized form of liberal “education.”
Any valediction for the liberal arts should, like John Donne’s, at the very least “forbid mourning”: our historical moment can certainly be read as a “breach” of the venerable tradition, but it must equally be read as presenting an opportunity for its “expansion.” As Nicola Pitchford of Dominican University of California observed in a tweet from the session, “Instructional technology is for augmentation of what we do, not automation.” Any tradition worth preserving must live and breathe with the times, and we are responsible for its augmentation in the future.
“Valete artes liberales.” Not yet. And hearty welcome to #libedunbound.
Eva Badowska is interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University.
Liberal Arts at the Brink was published three years ago. In it, I reported that student demand for liberal arts courses and majors -- the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences -- was rapidly declining and being replaced by demand for vocational, directly career related courses and majors. Liberal Arts at the Brink focused on liberal arts colleges, but the student-demand shift was also occurring at universities with both liberal arts and professional programs. As the book’s title suggested, I thought the future of liberal arts education was bleak, but not hopeless. Now, I believe I was too optimistic.
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The reasons 18-year-olds went to college used to be simple; it was what one did after finishing high school, what everyone in their class was doing, and besides, it would be fun. Students trusted their colleges in much the same way they trusted their doctors. The colleges told them that courses in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences were good for them, so they took them. The colleges -- at least, liberal arts colleges -- said they needed to choose a liberal arts major, so they did.
After World War II, following the arrival of returning veterans with GI Bill money, the doors to colleges and universities swung open for students previously excluded or restricted by quotas. Between 1955 and 1970, the number of undergraduates tripled, from 2.4 to 7.5 million. Many of the new students had a purposeful, focused reason for attending college -- to be trained for a career that would open up a better life than their parents had known. Majoring in a liberal arts subject did not make sense. Indeed, even taking liberal arts courses seemed a waste of time and money. Student demand for liberal arts began to decline and colleges and universities began adding more directly career-related courses and majors to their curriculums. A sea change in U.S. higher education was underway.
At first, many liberal arts colleges offered vocational courses grudgingly. Most of them, however, soon overcame their reluctance. Lacking large endowments, they were, in the words of Yale University’s financial guru, David Swensen, “forced to respond to the wishes and needs of the current student body to attract a sufficient number of students to maintain current operations.”
The facts that college students are graduating with greater and greater debt, and that many debt-ridden graduates are unable to find employment providing enough income to pay off their debt, accelerated the declining demand for liberal arts education. With the cost of attending college soaring, the question “is it worth it?” became even more central to deciding what kind of education to pursue.
As reported in Liberal Arts at the Brink, between 1987 and 2008, the percentage of graduates from the top 225 private liberal arts colleges with vocational -- not liberal arts -- majors tripled, from less than 10 percent to almost 30 percent. By 2008, at 51 of those colleges less than half of all graduates were liberal arts majors. A 2007 survey showed that 92 percent of college-bound high school seniors felt preparing for a career was very important, while only 8 percent believed the availability of liberal arts education was essential in choosing a college.
In 2012, the year after Liberal Arts at the Brink was published, U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide reported that colleges and universities were “responding to workplace demand” by creating new undergraduate majors in fields where the demand for workers had spiked, and featured nine “hot” new majors, all of which were vocational, including computer game design, health informatics, homeland security, new media, and cyber security. The next year, the Best Colleges guide added forensic science, business analytics, petroleum engineering, and robotics to its list of “hot majors that can lead to a great job.”
Today, liberal arts colleges are using their websites to proclaim that the education they offer will get their graduates better jobs and careers. Here are a few typical examples:
“Provides practical knowledge, professional skills, and powerful connections.”
“Gives you a big edge on jobs after graduation.”
“Prepares you for a wide range of careers and professional callings.”
“Gives you the confidence it takes to pursue rewarding careers.”
“Provides a competitive edge in the job market.”
“Prepares you not just for your first career but for all your careers.”
There is scarcely a liberal arts college whose promotional materials fail to claim “95 percent of our graduates will be employed or in graduate or professional school within one year of graduation” (although precisely what the employment is likely to be is not specified).
Claims that liberal arts majors provide direct preparation for careers have become an integral part of the promotional materials of even the most distinguished institutions. Here, for example, is how the University of Chicago now describes some of its undergraduate liberal arts major offerings:
Anthropology “can lead to careers in research and teaching in museum settings.”
Classical studies “provides excellent preparation for careers such as law and publishing.”
History “is excellent preparation for a wide field of endeavors from law, government, and public policy to the arts and business.”
Political science “can lead to a career in business, government, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.”
Sociology “is attractive for students considering careers in such professions as business, law, marketing, journalism, social work, politics, public administration, and urban planning.”
As the pool of potential liberal arts students has shrunk, competition to attract them has intensified. The wealthiest colleges and universities are intent on capturing the most desirable students (highest grades, highest ACT/SAT scores, most-wanted extracurricular activities, etc.). While less well-endowed institutions are fighting simply to enroll enough students to fill their classes, the strategies they pursue -- to the extent they can afford them -- are the same as those employed by their wealthier competitors.
One strategy is to lure students with fancier facilities. Even though lavish dorms, extensive sports and recreation spaces, and elaborate internet and electronic facilities may be well calculated to appeal to 18-year-olds, success with this strategy has proved problematic. If College A builds a luxurious new student center, its competitors are likely to respond by building their own, canceling out the competitive advantage College A sought to achieve. Colleges and universities often feel compelled to make substantial expenditures (and incur substantial debt) on new facilities they cannot afford -- not to achieve a competitive advantage, but rather to avoid falling behind.
Competition among liberal arts colleges is fiercest in financial aid discounting (the percentage off sticker price that students pay). Average discount rates of 50 percent or more are now commonplace. Most colleges seek to replace some of the tuition revenues lost through discounting by attempting to admit more students, exacerbating the adverse financial impact on the colleges of the shrinking pool of potential applicants. The tragedy of the commons is at work.
The net result of the competition to attract students is (1) to increase colleges’ operating costs and decrease their operating revenues, neither of which any but the few colleges with huge endowments can afford, and (2) to do nothing to address the core problem that gave rise to the competition, the fact that fewer and fewer high school seniors want a liberal arts education.
Even if liberal arts colleges were not engaged in self-destructing competition, the deck would still be stacked against them. Powerful national voices aggressively champion vocational education and barely mention, or deride, the liberal arts, voices such as Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, directed by Anthony Carnevale (“if higher education fails to focus on occupational training, it will damage the nation’s economic future ..., something we cannot afford”); President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan (“the challenge of producing the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride; it is an economic imperative”); and President Obama (“folks ... need higher education ... to make sure ... [they] are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy”).
America’s public high schools are also turning to career preparation and away from their historic liberal arts curriculums -- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics, and science -- curriculums, Jacques Barzun said, that were once “the envy of industrialized nations.” Now, in National Center for Education President Marc Tucker’s words, high school liberal arts courses seem “more and more of a self-indulgent luxury.” President Obama has announced plans to make major changes in “the American high school experience” to make it “more relevant” by strengthening “career and technical education programs.”
In Liberal Arts at the Brink, I sought to make the case for liberal arts education and will not repeat it here. Suffice it to note that, for more than 200 years, the liberal arts have provided the platform from which U.S. students developed reasoning and analytic skills that led them to become critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.
Of course a trained, skilled workforce is in the public interest. But the welfare of our nation (indeed, of the world) is ever more dependent on thoughtful citizens who can hold leaders accountable. This is what democracy by and for the people requires. And, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in a recent speech, “It is in the national interest for our STEM scientists to have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences before they get out of college. They need those habits on the mind.”
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The facts I have recited are well known in academe. When I wrote Liberal Arts at the Brink, I hoped educational leaders would come forward and join together to lead a campaign to restore the demand for liberal arts by educating all Americans about its extraordinary value. In particular, I hoped the leaders of liberal arts colleges, the institutions most directly impacted by the declining demand for the liberal arts, would set aside counterproductive competition and take the lead in such a cooperative undertaking before it was too late. None of this has happened.
One can speculate about the reasons for liberal arts college leaders’ inaction. Perhaps they are unwilling to publicly admit that fewer and fewer students want the kind of education their institutions offer. They may also fear appearing disingenuous championing the liberal arts at the same time their colleges are replacing liberal arts courses and majors with vocational training. College presidents, in particular, scramble so hard to raise money they may lack the time or the energy to pause and reflect. One fact, however, stands out. The overarching commitment of all college leaders is to maintain the viability of their institutions. If this requires abandoning liberal arts, so be it.
If liberal arts college leaders are unable or unwilling to undertake an organized campaign to educate all Americans -- not just high school seniors and their parents but also the high school counselors; business leaders; friends and neighbors; local, state, and national government officials; and countless others who now urge students to study something directly connected to getting a job and not waste their time on the liberal arts -- it seems highly likely no one will. There no longer is reason to believe the decline of liberal arts education will be stayed or reversed.
Liberal arts are over the brink. Some liberal arts colleges will fail or be forced to sell out to for-profit institutions; some already have. Many will quietly morph into vocational trainers. A handful of the wealthiest colleges, probably fewer than 50, educating less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. college students, may survive. They will, however, no longer play a central role in educating Americans. Rather, they will become elite boutiques, romantic remnants of the past, like British roadsters and vinyl phonograph records.
Valete, artes liberales.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).
1. Thou shalt have no other object of attention in the classroom. No devices — phones, gadgets, computers, guns — or distractions; I am a jealous and wrathful instructor.
2. Thou shalt honor thy fellow students. They are also struggling, growing, with opinions always changing, and with perspectives always in transition. Be kind and patient with them, and yourself. In discussion, be sensitive to the feelings of others, slow to be offended and quick to not offend, though do not censor yourself. Try to use “I” statements, speaking from your own experience, and speak your mind knowing that all controversial arguments can be made with tact, humility, and sensitivity to others.
3. Thou shalt assume the best intentions of the instructor and fellow students. Take what is said in the classroom with interpretative charity — assuming all speak in earnest and in good faith — though treat what is said with a critical eye. We are all in this together and we all want to “do the right thing” by each other.
4. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s work. But feel free to consult with them on notes and materials, share feedback, look at each other’s drafts, and so forth. Attend to the customs and rules of proper citation. Put things in your own words, and if you use the words of others, honor them by citing them.
5. Honor the work of the authors. You do so by reading the assigned materials and appreciating their arguments, but also by raising objections, comments, and questions. On class days you shall participate; outside of class, you shall labor by reading.
6. Thou shalt ask questions for the benefit of the good and welfare of the class. Ask away about issues or substance of the class — no question is dumb. On procedural matters, consult the syllabus first and the professor when appropriate.
7. When all else fails, follow directions. Consult the syllabus, the assignment specifics, and other missives sent by the instructor. See Commandment #6.
8. If thou speaks too much, step back. If thou speaks too little, step up! Be mindful of your own contribution balanced with the needs of your fellow students. Don’t dominate the conversation, but don’t hesitate to contribute. Assume that if you have a question on the material, others are thinking of it as well, so do them a favor and ask!
9. Thou shalt figure out a goodly system to take notes. The classroom is not a passive arena — all discussions, videos, lectures, and chalkboard notes are important grist for the mill of our common learning. If you want, record the lectures and take notes. After each session, ask yourself what you learned.
10. Thou shalt be an active agent in your own learning. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. Be resourceful — if the classroom experience is difficult or not useful, or if the experience is not working for you, consult with the instructor who wants to help (see Commandment #3). Approach the instructor with your concerns, issues, and questions sooner than later.
What commandment would you add?
Elliot Ratzman is assistant professor of religion at Temple University.