the lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne
--Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parliament of Fowls”
Let’s begin with the Ivy League-educated Barack Obama: “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” Apparently what was good enough for him is no longer good enough for factory workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where he delivered that speech — though, to be fair, he did go on to apologize for the remarks).
And, of course, President Obama is not the only public figure who has the liberal arts in their sights. Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina made it clear that if he had his way the State of North Carolina would fund only the sort of education he deemed practical: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." His Republican colleague in Florida, Rick Scott, was equally blunt: "If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so." (All quotations are from Inside Higher Ed.)
The liberal arts are taking it on the chin and, since they were on their knees anyway, they have been an easy target. Over and over the voices raised against the liberal arts (and the humanities wing of them in particular) complain that they leave their students ill-prepared for gainful employment; that focusing on the liberal arts prevents students from studying the subjects they and the nation truly need developed; that they are for the idle wealthy (a particularly sharp-edged version of these arguments is available at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, “Harvard, We Have a Problem: Too Many Liberal Arts Majors”).
Apparently, people have been listening. The evidence has been clear for some years that the liberal arts and especially the humanities side of them are fading from the cultural scene of 21st-century America. One study found that, since 1990, 39 percent of colleges identified as liberal arts colleges have vanished. Another study found that humanities majors now constitute fewer than 10 percent of all college majors in the U.S.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, so why should the liberal arts? “All things must pass,” George Harrison sang all those years ago, and even Shakespeare, that centerpiece of many a liberal arts curriculum, in one of the sonnets that seemed to claim immortality for poetry, recognized that his art is term-limited, concluding his wonderful Sonnet 18 with this couplet qualifying the shelf life of art: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, / so long lives this and this gives life to thee.” There will come a time, that couplet acknowledges, when no men breathe and there will be no eyes to see. To everything there is a season and perhaps the season of the liberal arts has turned.
So if the liberal arts are sinking into enervated senescence, are passing the way of all the generations, I would like to linger for a few moments looking back over my life to muse on why I have spent the last four decades deep in the liberal arts, that is, on why the liberal arts mattered. Not that my life has been all that interesting (or, at least, not that my life would be interesting to anyone else), but the liberal arts are all that interesting and I would like to gesture toward that interest by way of my experience, as a way to suggest what we may all too soon be missing.
It all really did begin for me in a lecture hall in the old Main Building at New York University, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Dingy, drafty, somewhat grimy, windows smeared with the grease of years of students within and exhaust and smoke without. Wooden seats scarred and discolored and often cracked. The course was “Primitive Oral Heroic Poetry,” and the professor was the late Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. The reading list included Gilgamesh, Homer, The Book of Dede Korkut, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Bantu warrior poetry and Beowulf. It was the Anglo-Saxon poem that prompted the performance that determined my life. Professor Bessinger had been describing the poetics of the Anglo-Saxon verse and especially the power of the alliteration that is a central feature of that verse, when he paused in his lecture to dwell on the strength of the linked words, to suggest to us that alliteration could still be a powerful tool in the hands of a master poet. And he proceeded to recite, to intone really, from memory a section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that concludes with a particularly thrilling use of alliteration:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasped no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Bessinger had a magnificent deep baritone and he spoke those lines as if they were coming from the center of his being — modulating and pausing and letting the emotional sense of the words linger out the vowels across the metronomic pressure of the metric pulse, coming to those last consonants with a devastating finality that rendered perfectly the desolation Tennyson’s words evoke.
At that moment I determined that I wanted that experience, that I wanted to live in words so deeply that they would become so a part of me that I could summon them immediately and without premeditation. I wanted to know a poem so well that it would be with me whenever I wanted or needed it. And it was precisely because those words of Tennyson’s in the voice of Bessinger so feelingly captured the experience of grief — the world going on outside the grieving consciousness of the bereft does seem “ghastly” — those words so beautifully rendered the individual experience and thereby provided a kind of general access that any and all could share, that those words did that much was what I intuited, what I felt in my marrow, at that moment in the silence of the stunned classroom (at least in my memory all of us sitting in that faded lecture hall shared the sense of awe in the presence of a poem coming to life in the air). Although I had not yet experienced the sort of grief out of which Tennyson’s poem grew, I knew then that it had a shape and a sound and that when that sort of grief did descend on me I would recognize it.
I had been infatuated with certain poems before, mostly poetry I had seen mentioned by my heroes (the Beatles and Bob Dylan particularly): Ginsberg, Whitman, Blake were the main ones. And late in Richard Nixon’s first term I came across “The Hollow Men” and thought it spoke directly to the world being mangled in plain view. But Bessinger’s summoning of the spirit of Tennyson’s poem in the mingled air of that Main Building lecture hall determined for me the course of my life, determined that for the next 40 years (and, no doubt, for the years remaining to me and my memory and mind), poetry, stories, plays — Literature (with the upper-case to designate my reverence for "the best words in the best order") would be the central obsession of my consciousness.
So what has this obsession given me? I am not wealthy, though my family and I live far better than most of the people with whom we share the planet. But wealth was never my object. All the bromides that are generally marshaled on behalf of the liberal arts clamor for attention here. Critical thinking; tolerance; flexibility of mind; problem-solving; and the rest of them that sound so vacuous up against the voices we heard at the beginning of this essay. Yes, I suppose, I do think more critically than I would have had I never taken English and philosophy and political science and psychology … all those classes that constituted my undergraduate liberal arts education. I am certainly more aware and tolerant of differing views. I am certainly more aware of different cultures and different times and places and peoples from the people, places and times among which I have lived. And it must be admitted that whatever critical thinking and tolerance and recognition I have been able to practice have been practiced, have been honed, have become habitual to my way of being and those habits were planted in those long-ago classrooms on the edge of Washington Square Park.
But those habits aren’t why I have remained immersed in the world of words and ideas. And those habits, thankful as I am to have them, are not what kept me in those classrooms in the first place and are not what have kept me in their long, long stretching, encompassing aura since. The real reason is pleasure. The pleasure of having my mind tickled into action by the vibrations of words sprung into patterns “where more is meant than meets the ear.” The pleasure of having within my reach congeries of words that render a life, that render living, more completely and more profoundly and more compassionately than hours of my groping for my own formulations could ever hope to achieve. I can’t tell you how often, confronted by a student, a colleague, an adult acquaintance whose ways of being in the world have clearly been marred by something in the past, how often in such moments Larkin’s supremely packed line has come to mind: "an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never." I’m not sure how English speakers have managed for all the centuries of our language without that line.
Unaware of what President Obama would discourage years later, I did take an art history class once. After four decades I’m not sure how much I remember beyond a detail here and there. Our textbook was Gardner’s — or was it Hansen? It was red and large (as large as the Riverside Shakespeare that I also had to haul around that semester — that I do remember). Did I learn critical thinking in that class? Among the defenses mounted on behalf of art history in response to Obama’s dismissal was the usual: Art history teaches critical thinking. Among the details I do remember from that course is that I learned how to look at paintings from the 15th century, one painting in particular. That course taught me really to see Bellini’s "San Francisco nel deserto." And I was fortunate that I lived in the city where the Frick sits and so Bellini’s painting was available in all its magnificence whenever I could make my way to the Upper West Side (with a student ID, the suggested entrance fee was minimal if not waived).
I learned that beyond the shimmering magic of the light and shade and nuances of light and shade Bellini deploys across the canvas, and beyond the minute detail of the natural world surrounding the enraptured saint, beyond or really within all of that splendor the painting speaks in a series of languages that course taught me to hear, as it were. The rabbit poking its head out of the lower corner of the canvas, the donkey standing patiently, the long-legged shore bird, the cracked rock, all of these perfectly captured natural objects carry meaning in a register beyond the surface register of accurate detail. And that course taught me to look for those kinds of meaning. That course deepened my experience of that painting and, as a consequence, of all painting.
This is, I suppose, critical thinking. Once you begin to see linear and atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro and all the technical arsenal whose names I’ve forgotten but whose presence I’ll never forget … once you learn to see you can look and see a great deal more than what immediately meets the eye. If that is what the art historians mean by critical thinking, they should declare it. Because it is valuable precisely because it deepens one’s pleasure in the world we share. And that is what the liberal arts do. They are life-affirming, life-enriching, indeed, life-enabling forms of human engagement with the world (in addition, of course, to their indispensable value as preparation for any number of successful career tracks). Especially at this time in the history of our culture, we must champion the liberal arts as modes of being, really, in the world that have the power to transform those who are fortunate enough to experience them into more articulate, more thoughtful, more comprehensively human citizens. The liberal arts provide an education for life.
I don’t think I’m just being idiosyncratically pessimistic to worry about the future of the liberal arts in our culture. And I find myself, as this worry settles itself in my mind, looking back. I have spent what I consider to be many profitable hours reading over the lectures and notes of Thomas Frederick Crane (first professor of romance languages and first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, where I work), particularly those thoughts of his he committed to paper concerning the college he helped found. And among the aspects of Crane’s reflections I would hope to carry forward into the uncertain future spreading before us are those virtues, values, habits of mind … whatever we call them … those qualities of a liberal arts education I think have been at the core. Perhaps others would name them differently, but here is what I name them: curiosity, generosity, diligence, care, patience — above all, patience. Patience is what Crane meant when he said that a liberal arts education is “a process that for better or for worse will continue as long as our lives, and any scheme of collegiate education will be a dismal failure which does not implant the seeds of later fruitage.”
As I was working on this, I finished rereading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Rereading it constitutes one of the great reading experiences of my life. Beyond its own nearly unfathomable wonder, reading it in the context of writing this and of what this essay gestures toward in the world around us has given the novel an added poignancy for me. It is a novel whose central actions, if actions they can be called, are two: some 390 pages into the novel, a woman, the lady of the title, notices another woman and man in a room, not doing anything, just in the room and the composition the man and the woman make in how they sit and stand carries a profound meaning for the observing woman. Later that woman, goaded into thought by her observation of the other woman and man, will spend an entire night and James will spend an entire chapter describing her night and all she does through that night is to sit in a room thinking while the candles gutter toward dawn, “she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation."
That is from the third sentence of the chapter and she does not move from that chair for another 13 pages. Would any novelist, any writer, any film-maker or television producer, would any artist now venture to devote a substantial portion of her or his work to a woman sitting still and thinking? Would any such artist have that prolonged session of sweet, silent thought count as the central action of her work? For that matter, would any of us actually sit in a room in stillness and silence and darkness for hours on end given up to the wandering meditation of our minds? James is thought of as a novelist who adheres to reality, but is such a reality possible for us?
The qualities of the liberally educated that T. F. Crane believed in and that the education he helped create here at Cornell inculcate were, above all, qualities of curiosity and patience, circumspection and attention, what I gather some now call mindfulness, a useful word in my taking of it to mean: having your mind at full play in its engagement with the world. No form of education yet devised is better at bringing the mind to the fullness of its capacities than the education offered in the liberal arts. Without the patience instilled by immersing oneself in the mind-stretching range of the liberal arts, we are reduced to jittering appendages to the plastic devices in our hands, dried leaves scattering to the whims of market and fashion, addicts to money and status and consumption. Without the liberal arts how will we ever in our information saturated and buzzing stimulated overloaded reality actually sit still long enough to hear our own minds at work?
David N. DeVries is associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.
Some will immediately say this is nothing more than a semantics debate. No different than if we were discussing the contrasting meanings of, say, “soda” and “pop.”
When we use the word “pedagogy” as a catchall for all teaching methods, of course, no one is talking about little children, but we rarely stop and specifically consider what this word means and its relationship with other words.
Pedagogy: the methods and practice of teaching children.
Andragogy: the methods and practice of teaching adults.
So the question becomes: at what point is a student no longer a child, but an adult? There is no hard-and-fast rule, but for our purposes here, any college student is an adult.
Andragogy, a concept dating to the 1960s and Malcolm Knowles, is important because it recognizes that adult learners are different and that these differences are extremely important. And its importance, as a body of knowledge and approach in and of itself, is profound and vastly under-recognized.
Andragogy -- adult learning theory -- stresses that adults:
Are more independent than children when it comes to learning.
Are capable of critical thinking (unlike some children) but are still interested in the “correct answer."
Learn more slowly but just as effectively because they have more life experience and deeply ingrained stereotypes and ideas.
Must be given respect as adults and for their life experience or lack of experience.
Need classrooms that embrace active learning, including hands-on activities.
Learn material that is relevant for their needs.
Are driven less by grades (performance goal orientation) and more by understanding (mastery goal orientation).
Going back to the question of when students become adults, in some ways it does not matter per se. All learners learn best when many of the core elements of andragogy are followed. All students — whether 5, 15 or 55 — deserve respect, need room for their prior experiences, and need lessons to be relevant. That said, the idea of andragogy exists on a sliding spectrum of sorts. Whether a student is 18 or 85, he/she will enter the classroom with experience, for example, but this experience will vary based on age, interests, background, etc.
This is also where some understanding of basic human growth and development theories (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development) can help professors build classrooms that are comfortable across the board. Students in their 30s will tend to have very different biologically driven needs, hopes, and fears than students in their 60s.
When students are not allowed opportunities for their feelings, especially about particularly sensitive topics or topics to which they have been vastly miseducated or undereducated, learning stops. (Please see my comments about the trigger warning or objectionable material warning and student feelings here.) Additionally, we know that for learners of any age it is very hard, even physiologically impossible without extreme dedication, to “unlearn” what have been “core truths,” whether the topic is basic physics or the causes of the Civil War.
This said, pedagogy is still important because children do learn differently and have different needs. Most notably, children need some more guidance. Likewise, children — depending on their age and experience (back to the sliding spectrum) — are physiologically not always capable of performing advanced math or demonstrating critical thinking. This is not at all to sanction the “banking method” — where teachers only lecture, metaphorically dumping information into students’ brains and then students regurgitate that information verbatim on assessments — of education that has sometimes been all too common: Active learning and student-centered learning is always best.
One note on learning styles, too: adults do tend to think they have a learning style — visual, kinesthetic, auditory — that enables them to learn more effectively. While I have read much more about andragogy than learning styles, there is some research that suggests learning styles are actually a myth. They have relevance because we give them relevance, but actually it is roughly equally possible for learning to happen visually or kinesthetically, for example, and furthermore, that ALL learners learn best when all learning styles are used. Going back to Bloom’s Taxonomy: learning that involves interactive thinking, hearing, reading, writing, touching, and creating results in the most effective learning, and naturally, much of this will requires independent learning and initiative by an adult student.
Even if we recognize that adults learn differently from children, by using the umbrella term “pedagogy” for both, we unconsciously tend to view adult learners as “children” who need to be taught by the “expert,” and we miss an entire body of knowledge and research about effectively teaching. I know some professors do not like the idea of being taught how to teach — they say it sounds too much like the training required to teach K-12. I too was somewhat like this when I first started teaching college in 2007.
But, as professors in the classroom, our ultimate goal should be for our adult students to learn, and for learning to occur, we should always be aware of how to teach effectively and stay reasonably up-to-date on findings as they develop.
For further information on andragogy check out this website; Malcolm S. Knowles’s The Adult Learner (now in its seventh edition); and Sharan B. Merriam, et al.’s, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston, where he also teaches. He studies race, culture, human rights, and education. He regularly blogs here.
In order for colleges to function as inclusive communities of responsible and respected members, all of their adults must be treated as adults. Yet, many of my faculty colleagues habitually call their undergraduates “kids” by default. They should stop. In addition to usually being false, it is demeaning and it tacitly encourages the immature behaviors we all bemoan.
When undergraduates begin college they immediately receive warnings that high school is over and that they will now be held to adult standards of conduct. Meanwhile, hallways are filled with faculty and students talking about which of their classes have especially “good kids,” “quiet kids” or “lazy kids.” In our speech, undergraduates are demoted back to children — they are infantilized. The resulting mixed messages would confuse anyone. Undergraduates are held to high behavioral standards (“I have zero tolerance for accidental plagiarism. A college student should know better.”). At the same time, they are spoken of as children (“The kid who plagiarized in my class is asking for leniency.”).
In my state and most of the U.S., we formally recognize 18-year-olds’ right to make autonomous choices while also being held accountable for a full set of societal responsibilities. Eighteen-year-old men and women begin college having recently earned the right to sign contracts and take full responsibility for the consequences; those who are U.S. citizens have recently earned the right to vote and the duty to serve as jurors; most of the men have completed their mandatory registration for Selective Service in case a military draft is ever reinstated. These men and women who are undergraduates live with the adult consequences of their adult rights and responsibilities when they get tattoos, decide whether to seek mental health treatment, get married, sign up for credit cards and so on.
What about those still-developing young adult brains? In contrast to the rigid law, developmental psychology research paints a complex picture of how traits gradually develop over time, with features such as “psychosocial maturity” varying substantially from person to person within an age group. Appealing to the developmental psychology literature will not justify the decision to walk into a lecture hall filled with young adults one scarcely knows, each at variable stages of development for a wide array of psychological and behavioral traits, and say, “Quiet down, kids!”
By publicly referring to undergraduates as “kids,” faculty members unwittingly invite childish behaviors. Kids ask their parents to call the instructor about a bad grade. Kids whine that they were not reminded about the homework that was due. Kids giggle when a peer shares an embarrassing personal story during class. Kids make inappropriate jokes to get a laugh from the room. These behaviors then become perceived justifications for continuing to see undergraduates as kids. The vicious cycle perpetuates the behaviors that faculty members wish to prevent. You’ll have to take my word for it, but my undergraduate students do none those childish behaviors. They act like the adults they are. I contend that the key to achieving this is the radically intuitive strategy of treating them like adults.
If there is one thing I have learned from teaching controversial philosophical subjects (e.g., the ethics of health care policy) to undergraduates, it is that a good classroom environment is the product of an explicit and consistently applied ethos. On the first day of class I tell my students that I will treat everyone in the room as adults whose contributions are valued, and that I expect them to do the same. They are not allowed to use the words “kid,” “idiot,” “bleeding heart,” or any other disparaging language to describe each other, as this is incompatible with a classroom that is inclusive of its diverse members. In a recent course evaluation from a senior seminar, a student expressed gratitude that I did not treat the class members as “inferiors.” It upsets me that such a thing bears mentioning. A roughly 22-year-old man or woman was so accustomed to being treated as a child or a second-class citizen that he or she felt obliged to mention it when treated otherwise.
Thinking of and speaking of undergraduates as “kids” can manifest in class policies ill-suited for adults. Perhaps the clearest examples of this are some of the faculty responses to poor undergraduate behavior. There is undeniable appeal in some of my colleagues’ approaches, such as publicly shaming students caught looking at Facebook in class or confiscating any cell phones used for texting during a lecture. However tempting it might be, this is not appropriate behavior between two adults. This is how an adult treats a kid.
If a dean did such things to faculty members during meetings then he or she would rightly be called a tyrant (and would likely have a large collection of cell phones). Strategies responding to an adult’s childish behavior must work within a framework of adult-adult interaction. If students use their cell phones in class then the instructor can easily initiate a brief classwide conversation about the classroom policies and penalties, as well as the reasons for them. An instructor can also speak candidly and politely with an individual student after class ends about any violated policies.
Every adult has moments of childish behavior. It is one thing to criticize an individual adult for a specific childish behavior, but quite another thing to indiscriminately call a whole group of adults “kids.” There are indeed cases where it might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “kid” or “child,” much like it occasionally might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “jerk.” Faculty members need to privately grumble and blow off steam just like anyone else — call it the Happy Hour Exemption. This does not make it acceptable to use “kid” (or “jerk”) as one’s default term for undergraduates. Even when used as a term of endearment, “kid” still devalues undergraduates as autonomous agents. It is no more appropriate than saying “good boy” to a graduate student who wrote a strong paper, or describing a junior faculty member as a “nice girl.”
Whether they grew up listening to the Everly Brothers or the Jonas Brothers, adults deserve to be spoken of and treated as respected and accountable human beings. Many undergraduates are new adults, and unsurprisingly most are not yet very good at acting like adults. This does not excuse faculty members who casually refer to these men and women as “kids.” In anything, the infantilizing language sends the misleading message that undergraduates are permitted to act like children. Unfortunately, the undergraduate-as-kid mindset is deeply ingrained in campus culture, making change difficult. We even have the audacity to reserve the term “adult learners” for undergraduates over the age of 25. This status quo is unacceptable. The adult men and women in our undergraduate courses deserve better.
Sean A. Valles is assistant professor in the Lyman Briggs College and department of philosophy at Michigan State University.