Liberal arts colleges

Stop Defending the Liberal Arts

As director of the new Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College, I recently hosted an inaugural symposium that brought in five important public intellectuals to talk about "Remapping the Liberal Arts for the 21st Century." My premise was that on my campus, at least, with a new humanities building in the works and a significant commitment to a new institute, we could proceed for one day as if the liberal arts were not in crisis, and turn the conversation instead to what we might say about liberal arts education, and how we might question and redefine it, if we didn’t have to spend all of our time hunkered down in foxholes of defense.

The talks were splendid and discussions were fruitful, but no one was able entirely to resist the impulse to assume a defensive posture. Liberal arts professors today seem incapable of talking about what they do without metaphorically assuming a "duck and cover" position.

Why is this? And is it in the best interests of the liberal arts that we are perpetually defending them?

Of course, the perpetual posture of defense is grounded in reality: Louis Menand, one of our speakers, has provided the data to prove it: "From 1955 to 1970, the proportion of liberal arts degrees among all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually had risen for the first time in this century; after 1970, it began going down again. Today, only one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States are in the liberal arts, and less than one-third of these are in humanities. The most common major by far, according to the American Council of Learned Societies, is business, with 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees are awarded in this field."

Although many private universities and colleges are, like Boston College, making new investments in the humanities and liberal arts, access to this kind of education is being eroded at public institutions, as evidenced by the recent decision of the State University of New York to end many language programs. And in these harsh economic times, many students feel that liberal arts education is a luxury they can’t afford.

I think, as well, that humanities professors, who are most often the advocates for the liberal arts, feel generally underappreciated, since our culture (and even university culture) sometimes seems not to value what we do. Speakers such as the Rev. John O’Malley of Georgetown and Alan Ryan of Princeton University both offered nuanced, cautious, and effective defenses of the power of liberal arts education to confer upon students a critical awareness of the world, and a kind of intellectual freedom through immersion in a discipline. But a nagging sense of marginalization can also sometimes lead liberal arts faculty to become defensive.

It can be dangerous for our cause when defense turns into defensiveness. Defensiveness is not necessarily a healthy attitude to inhabit for a long period of time. Defensive people are often not very persuasive, because they’re afraid to entertain any critique of what they’re defending. When defense becomes automatic, it may close off inquiry and innovation.

Professors who teach liberal arts subjects may not be their most convincing defenders, anyway. Although most of us had a liberal education, it was for us also a vocational education. I knew as a college sophomore that I wanted to be an English professor if I could manage it, and the courses I took in English, history, and Latin were, for me, a pre-professional education with a specific career goal in mind. Even people who came late to the decision to pursue a career in the academy ended up using their liberal arts education for professional purposes. So many liberal arts faculty don’t have direct experience of the kind of education that they are recommending that students pursue. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a university setting. I believe that liberal arts education confers skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking that will be useful for many non-academic careers, but I have not experienced this myself.

We are also not especially credible as the first line of defense, since our jobs depend on the perpetuation of liberal arts education. When Stanley Fish suggested in his New York Times column that “I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists,” many readers were horrified, but he was putting on the table what must undermine the most ardent professorial defense in many non-academic eyes.

I would make two suggestions. Of course, we do need to be able to defend ourselves, and to explain what we do in accessible terms. But I think that instead of always trying to defend liberal arts education by ourselves, we might work to marshal others who may bring kinds of credibility that we lack to contribute to the defense. Former students could attest to their experiences; managers could speak to the skills they want. It would be interesting to see if brain imaging could shed light on the effects of different kinds of higher education on the brain. Instead of always defending, we can show what the liberal arts can do. Catharine Stimpson, one of our speakers, gave a moving talk on liberal arts education and the problem of war at our symposium demonstrated how a range of liberal arts disciplines might illuminate some difficult aspect of the human condition. Liberal arts faculty at Boston College and elsewhere increasingly write for general as well as specialized audiences and these efforts let people outside the academy experience the benefits of our habits of thought. (Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

Second, I think we should try to leave off defending for long enough to see what we could say about liberal arts education if we let ourselves think about it more speculatively and less defensively. I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century. Many people treat "humanities" as a synonym for "liberal arts" or assume that the humanities are necessarily central to it, but are they now central in the same way that they used to be? As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences, the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.

Liberal arts can sometimes be conflated with a Western intellectual tradition, but in our era of globalization, its boundaries need to be broadened and reconfigured and the importance of language learning rearticulated in this context. Faculties of arts and sciences include the hard sciences, and they are part of a liberal arts education, but are usually not central to discussions of its importance. How would liberal arts education look if science played a more prominent role? Attention to the relationship between liberal arts education and professional education and building of bridges between the two might give students the confidence to pursue a liberal arts degree. Service learning initiatives like the PULSE program at Boston College,a service-learning program that combines mandatory weekly community service with an examination of classical and contemporary works of philosophy and theology, There are efforts around the country to do all of these things, and yet I’m afraid they are sometimes drowned out by the loud clamor of lament and defense.

I propose that all professors who are concerned about the future of the liberal arts try this thought experiment: pretend, for a moment, that we inhabit a utopian world where the value of liberal arts education is universally accepted. If you are freed from the burden of defense, what can you imagine? What can you create? The future of liberal arts education may well depend on our collective response.

Mary Crane
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Mary Crane is the Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English and the director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College.

The Question Being Ignored

In 1994, relying on 1988 data on liberal arts college degree completions, David Breneman optimistically concluded that “unlike many colleges and universities in recent decades,” liberal arts colleges “have refused to shift curricula toward more immediately marketable technological or vocational subjects. In fact one can almost view these colleges as standard bearers, holding out the promise and the reality of education for education’s sake.”

Indeed, in 1987, nearly 90 percent of the graduates of 225 private liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News had majored in liberal arts areas of study (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences). More than 95 percent of the graduates of the 50 highest-ranked colleges had majored in these traditional areas. Not surprisingly, the less highly ranked, less wealthy colleges had graduated more technological and vocational majors. Still, almost 85 percent of those college graduates majored in liberal arts areas.

By 2007-08, however, the picture had changed radically. The percentage of graduates at all 225 colleges who majored in vocational areas had nearly tripled. The growth was most notable at those outside the top tier. More than half of the graduates at the lowest ranked colleges were now vocational majors. But even at the top ranks, the percentage of vocational majors had more than doubled -- from 4.2 to 10.4 percent.

Sadly, liberal arts colleges are becoming less and less the standard bearers for the liberal arts.

My new book, Liberal Arts at the Brink, examines the dramatic growth in demand for vocational majors (such as accounting, business administration, computer programming, insurance, law enforcement, nursing, and parks and recreation) and the concomitant decline in demand for liberal arts. It explores why this massive demand shift is occurring, whether it is reversible, and if so, how.

While more and more students are willing to pay a cost-covering price for vocational education, colleges are being forced to discount their tuitions further and further below the cost-covering price to attract students to liberal arts. On the basis of public commentary, one would think the future viability of liberal arts colleges depends on endowment growth, not on reversing the precipitous drop in demand, despite the obvious facts that (1) an endowment, no matter how large, will not persuade students of the value of a liberal arts education, and (2) being able to cut financial aid discounts a few percentage points would strengthen a college far more than it could hope to achieve by yet another fund-raising campaign.

The question I would like to raise here is, why isn’t the reality that liberal arts education is becoming less and less wanted the number-one topic of discussion at and among liberal arts colleges? I have no ready answer. Certainly, it cannot be that liberal arts college administrators are unaware of the demand shift driving their colleges to become more vocational. Even if they did not know the same thing was happening at other colleges – which seems highly unlikely – the annual completions data relied on in Liberal Arts at the Brink are readily available from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Perhaps harried college presidents, endlessly pressured to raise more money, simply lack the time and energy to focus on what they are selling so long as students are buying it.

Perhaps college administrators know their alumni want to hear "our college is getting more applications than ever," not "most of our graduates have not taken a single history course and fewer and fewer of them are majoring in liberal arts disciplines." Then, too, as between "we saved the college but not liberal arts" and "we saved liberal arts but not the college," which would college officials opt for?

Could it be that, in their secret hearts, liberal arts college administrators believe liberal arts education is a luxury we can no longer afford, and simply don’t want to talk about it?

If college administrators don’t talk about the declining demand for liberal arts, it is unlikely anyone else will. The media has little interest in liberal arts education, and, it seems, neither does the federal government. A 55-page report on the future of higher education by a special commission headed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, published in 2006, discussed vocational education at length, but did not mention liberal arts or liberal arts education. Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often talks about higher education in the U.S. as though the only issue is a better technically-trained workforce.

The cases liberal arts colleges make to attract high school students focus on getting a good job and financial well-being after graduation, understandably so given that jobs and economic security are by far the major concerns of both students and their parents. In so doing, however, the colleges’ own words reinforce the demand for vocational education. Further, when College A advocates for liberal arts education, it makes the case for why a student should attend College A rather than College B, not why a student should attend College A or College B. In competing for students, colleges deplete their own meager resources while driving up each other’s costs. The tragedy of the commons is at work.

Declining demand for liberal arts is the elephant in the parlor of liberal arts colleges. The problem will not be solved without close cooperation among them. This will not happen so long as their leaders refrain from openly discussing the problem.

Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
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Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).

The Other Half

The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.

At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.

These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.

In his eye-opening 2008 book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.

Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?

Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.

However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.

But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.

Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.

We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.

I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.

In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?

Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.

Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.

Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.

My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.

What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.

We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.

Eugenia Gerdes
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Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.

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