The continuing saga over the closure of Antioch College (including a plan to revive it) heightened concern that many storied, but financially stressed, liberal arts colleges may be in danger of closing in a time of economic turmoil. Antioch educated prominent Americans like the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and the Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi. The threatened demise of any innovative and influential college that has nurtured generations of leaders, scholars, public servants and social critics would be a loss both to higher education and our nation.
But the focus by reporters and educational policy makers on the potential closure of some colleges may mask a more serious threat to liberal arts colleges: a slow abandonment of their traditional mission in favor of a more “professional” orientation.
This longer-term and more significant trend was first highlighted by the economist David Breneman nearly 20 years ago in a 1990 article that asked, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” At that time he concluded that many one-time liberal arts colleges were not closing, but gradually transforming into “professional colleges” as they added programs in vocational fields such as business, communications and allied health.
Recent research we have conducted using data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the trend Breneman identified has continued. The 212 liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified in 1990 have now decreased to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges are evolving, consciously or unconsciously, into more academically complex institutions offering numerous vocational as well as arts and science majors. In the process, they may have lost the focused mission and carefully integrated academic program that for generations made small liberal arts colleges a model of high quality undergraduate education. Most likely this trend will persist.
In a recent interview, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there will be even fewer institutions that look like traditional residential liberal arts colleges. Little by little, we may be losing an alternative model of undergraduate education that has challenged and inspired many other types of higher education institutions to take risks, experiment, and improve the quality of their educational programs.
The gradual, and almost invisible, transformation of many “liberal arts colleges” to more comprehensive institutions is similar to another gradual trend that has reshaped the composition and the work of the American academic profession. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track faculty positions with part-time and full-time term-contract positions -- a phenomenon Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein referred to as the “silent revolution” in their bookThe American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). This piecemeal process at most institutions was not the result of a careful review of academic staffing needs or a systematic effort to improve the quality of instruction and scholarship. Nor was it the outcome of a national debate on the nature of the academic profession in the 21st century.
Instead, as research on contingent faculty documents, most colleges and universities added part-time and term-contract faculty in response to immediate staffing needs or short-term budget constraints. The gradual but profound shift in the focus of many liberal arts colleges appears to follow a similar pragmatic but also very reactive pattern.
Change in higher education is inevitable and highly desirable. It is essential in order to craft a lean, efficient educational system capable of meeting the educational demands of an era defined by demographic diversity, economic uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a global market place. The evolution we see in liberal arts colleges is symptomatic of a much larger evolutionary process underway throughout higher education. We recognize that liberal arts colleges and all of higher education must adapt to the demands of the times.
Our concern is not with change itself. Our concern is with the way change unfolds in our complex and loosely coordinated higher education system. Should evolution in higher education follow a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” course or should we intervene to preserve and update valued types of educational institutions because of the important roles they play in serving our pluralistic society?
The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges
The current saga of the U.S. auto industry may contain some useful lessons for higher education. Although the final chapter on this story has yet to be written, the news media has chronicled a national dialogue on the fate of the American manufacturing sector. Rather than letting U.S. automobile manufacturers disappear in the midst of a dramatic economic recession, we have decided as a nation to preserve GM and Chrysler but also to require them to retool and streamline their operations. This decision was driven by the belief that losing the backbone of our manufacturing sector would ultimately be harmful to our country.
It may be time for a similar dialogue on the shape of the U.S. higher education system and the place of liberal arts colleges within that system. For generations, small liberal arts colleges have demonstrated their educational value. As Thomas Cech noted in his article “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education,” they produce scientists and scholars at a higher per capita rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, many leaders in business, politics, education, and other fields received their education at liberal arts colleges, as noted in the Annapolis Group’s report, “The Nation’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges.” In addition, liberal arts colleges have served as a valuable “test kitchen” for other more complex but less nimble higher education institutions.
According to the education historian Frederick Rudolph, numerous educational innovations, such as freshman seminars, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses emerged from liberal arts colleges before they spread to other types of colleges and universities. Likewise, many second and third-tier liberal arts colleges have demonstrated a special talent for serving first-generation college students. Essentially, these small colleges with nurturing environments have served as a portal to liberal education for many students whose families have never before participated in higher education.
In a 2005 report on the impact of liberal arts colleges, Ernest Pascarella and his co-authors observe that the liberal arts college is unique in its total dedication to undergraduate education. Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their comprehensive study of college outcomes concluded that the liberal arts college in its traditional form provides a supportive psychological environment that promotes institutional impact on students. Pascarella and his 2005 co-authors concluded the attributes that have made the liberal arts college a powerful learning environment include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty.”
Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, drawing upon extensive national research on higher education, reported that liberal arts college students expressed higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs than students from other types of postsecondary institutions. Similarly, Indiana University researchers Shouping Hu and George Kuh found that students in liberal arts colleges, in general, are more engaged in their college experience than their counterparts in research universities and comprehensive colleges.
Many liberal arts colleges today are working to update their academic programs and better connect them with the outside world and career opportunities. Writing in a 2009 Liberal Educationarticle, Richard Freeland notes that these changes are driven by recognition that “a traditional liberal education may not, by itself, be a sufficient preparation for the adult world.” Freeland further reports that colleges such as Bates and Wellesley have established programs to enhance civic engagement and develop skills needed for constructive citizenship.
Many liberal arts colleges are trying to make liberal education more relevant and practical by making internships, study abroad, service learning, and other forms of problem-based and experiential learning opportunities available to their students. The challenge for all liberal arts colleges is to adapt their educational programs in a turbulent environment without losing their educational souls and distinctive identity. Can they preserve their core values and mission that have made them particularly effective educational institutions throughout the history of American higher education while adapting to the challenging demands they confront in the early 21st century?
Given their powerful educational environments and important contributions to society, it would be unfortunate to see liberal arts colleges disappear or become so few in number that they lose their ability to influence and inspire other types of colleges and universities. Yet national data on liberal arts colleges suggest that their numbers are decreasing as many evolve into “professional colleges” or other types of higher education institutions.
Fundamentally, the future of the liberal arts college is uncertain. The traditional residential liberal arts college offering a coherent educational program based firmly in arts and science fields and offering a shared intellectual experience to all of its students may be dying out. Or the liberal arts college may gradually be evolving into a new, more up-to-date form. Are we witnessing a process of extinction of the traditional liberal arts college or a healthy process of adaptation and evolution? Whichever process is underway, it seems to be largely unplanned and incremental rather than strategic.
What to Do?
In a dynamic society, change is inevitable and, in most cases, desirable. However, how change occurs is important as well. Do we let change unfold without direction or do we guide change through a careful process of assessment, dialogue, and strategic initiative?
The American liberal arts college has reached an important crossroad. We believe that assertive and coordinated action is necessary to stem the gradual demise of the liberal arts college sector. For this reason, we urge private philanthropic foundations with a tradition of supporting liberal arts colleges (for example the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Teagle Foundation) to take the lead with two important steps:
1. Convene a series of meetings to discuss the future of the liberal arts college with the goal of recommending specific actions to update and strengthen these institutions. These meetings should include a diverse mix of liberal arts colleges, voluntary college consortia, other major education interest groups, and representatives of the public at large.
2. Establish a competitive funding program encouraging liberal arts colleges to design innovative and entrepreneurial educational programs that preserve the best aspects of the liberal arts college model while adapting the model to the demands of a rapidly changing world. This initiative should encourage creative proposals within the liberal arts college framework rather than the addition of new programs on the margins that dilute the mission and intellectual coherence of these colleges.
The future of a core component of the U.S. higher education system is at stake. It is time for bold action before the liberal arts college sector becomes too small to be relevant and influential. It would be shameful if we allow the liberal arts college model to dwindle to the scale of an educational boutique accessible only to the academic and socioeconomic elite. We do not advocate a GM-style bailout for liberal arts colleges. However, we hope that one or more private foundations that recognize the important contributions of liberal arts colleges will step up to the plate and assume the vital leadership role that is needed before many more of these esteemed colleges disappears.
Roger G. Baldwin and Vicki L. Baker
Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration and coordinator of the graduate program in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. Vicki L. Baker is an assistant professor of economics and management at Albion College.
There has been much discussion recently over the plight of liberal arts colleges in the new global century. The closure of some institutions, the deep financial challenges faced by others that are tuition-driven, and the fiscal constraints at liberal arts colleges with traditionally large but now battered endowments, all raise questions regarding the future of this sector of higher education. Perhaps more controversially, some observers have identified the addition of professional and vocational programs to the curriculum at liberal arts colleges as a long-term threat to the focused mission and intellectual well-being of these institutions.
But while economic challenges may pose a threat to the viability of some small to medium-sized liberal arts colleges, there is really nothing new about this phenomenon. As historians of higher education have pointed out, the mortality rate for small baccalaureate colleges has been high throughout the nation’s history. From tiny sectarian colleges on the frontier, to campuses where the curriculum was too small, to underfunded institutions that perished with their founders, the story is as varied as it is persistent.
The more troubling claim about the fate of liberal arts colleges, it seems to me, involves the argument that the addition of professional and applied fields including business, engineering, communications, or health and wellness, somehow dilutes the core values of a liberal arts education. This argument appears to center on the notion that the liberal arts experience is largely defined by academic majors, and that only by remaining pure to an arbitrary constellation of allied fields can the uniqueness of the liberal arts college experience be preserved.
I would like to suggest that a different paradigm may be in order, one that acknowledges the simple fact that residential liberal arts colleges have always been attuned to the imperatives of professional and vocational life. Europe’s earliest medieval universities were all about the practical, dare we say “vocational” needs of the universal Roman Catholic Church. When students at Bologna began the study of law in the late 12th century, one suspects they had a modicum of interest in getting on with their careers.
The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke graduated Christ Church College, Oxford in 1656. But he also took a medical degree and employed his training to save the life of his future patron, the political operative Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury. And it was under the employ of Shaftesbury that Locke wrote what would later be published as Two Treatises of Government, a text that proved to be of some value to leaders of the American Revolution like Thomas Jefferson. Locke found no incongruity between his liberal education and his more practical studies. Why do we?
The future of the liberal arts college, in my view, is secure so long as administrators, faculty leaders, and innovative boards continue to reject the antithesis between liberal arts and professional studies. One emerging sector in higher education is doing just that. The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) is a consortium of 26 state-supported institutions committed to a high quality, largely residential liberal arts education. One way these colleges are different from some more traditional private liberal arts colleges is that the publics, without reservation, offer majors in business and communications and other fields, while also taking pride in their majors in biology and classics and English.
Admittedly, most of us do not associate liberal arts education with public universities. Much more familiar is the former state teachers’ college, the large land-grants, the comprehensives, and the sprawling Research I campuses. COPLAC colleges and universities have chosen another path. For COPLAC, a quality liberal arts education is about small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life. Moreover, faculty members from professional programs at COPLAC institutions fully support and engage in this unified experience.
Some years ago, I was teaching in an interdisciplinary core humanities program at a COPLAC member institution. At their weekly meeting, the 12-person faculty team was discussing the upcoming common reading. The topic was the Industrial Revolution and the common reading was Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
As a historian, I went into the session thinking that I should lead the discussion. But as things turned out, the most perceptive insights into the text, and how to teach the text, came from a wonderful colleague in management and accountancy. In describing the shock horror that thinkers like Marx must have represented to the self-confident industrialist of the mid-19th century, it was a professor of management who brought the liberal arts experience into sharper focus, both for his colleagues and, more importantly, for his students.
The resiliency of the liberal arts college has been demonstrated across many generations, and with the addition of a growing public liberal arts sector to reaffirm the value of broad-based learning in a small campus setting, the future offers great promise. We should applaud, not criticize, liberal arts colleges that respond to the growing demand for skilled professionals in a variety of applied fields. These graduates will bring to their work the habits of critical inquiry and the integration of knowledge -- both liberal arts outcomes -- that serve to temper the narrow instrumentalism often found at the center of our professional lives.
Bill Spellman is director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.
The liberal arts are higher education’s answer to Broadway, that "fabulous invalid" whose demise is predicted with both certainty and regularity. Claims that the liberal arts are in jeopardy have taken on increased urgency in the current economic climate. As students swell the ranks of community colleges, the presumption is that readily identifiable and employable skills rather than broad and deep learning are the primary focus of their educational ambitions.
But in the case of the liberal arts, conventional wisdom is at odds with what experience and current data suggest. For example, the benchmark freshmen surveys conducted each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show an increasing appetite for the kind of educational experience typically associated with the liberal arts. In 2008, for the first time since 1982, more than 50 percent of first year students identified “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an important or very important goal of their college experience.
Similarly, the venerable pollster John Zogby has found that a growing segment -- including but not limited to the traditional college age population -- of United States citizens believes living a "meaningful life" is central to the realization of the American dream. And despite dire predictions, enrollment at most liberal arts colleges, including my own, has risen during this difficult economic year.
There are likely two reasons for this gap between conventional wisdom and student decision making. The first is that the separation of liberal arts education from employment is simply unfounded. Employers consistently say that they want to hire graduates who can write and speak clearly, who are innovative and critical thinkers, and who are sophisticated and comfortable with diversity. While not exclusively the domain of liberal education, these traits are certainly cultivated in a liberal arts environment.
The second probable reason for the persistence of the liberal arts is the focus of students themselves. Today’s traditional college age population is more globally-minded, less interested in work as a means only to material success, more willing to find middle ground on issues that typically lead to bi-modal responses (such as abortion), and entirely comfortable with differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation.
In short, today’s young people are balm to the liberal educator’s soul. Ideally, liberal education should literally do just that – it should be education that liberates, that frees the mind from the vagaries and prejudices of received opinion and limited life experiences.
Of course, a reinvigorated focus on liberal education in this light suggests that some of the country club amenities of recent college life may not be particularly essential. Yet material gain is not eschewed in recent findings; it is simply not sufficient. Student expectations for material comfort and the search for meaning are not incompatible, but they may not be attainable in institutions whose resources are strained.
When in doubt, we should follow the example of Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: ignore unreasonable demands and respond to the best of their aspirations. In this case, the liberal arts should provide a model of education that offers both a path to employment and faith in learning for its own sake; a set of useful skills along with the ability to reflect and find value in something beyond oneself. And a campus with older residence halls housing two and three students to a room is not only defensible, it is quite probably a sign of an institution focused on -- well, on education.
To add to the economic anxiety, there is also frequent hand wringing over the fate of the liberal arts due to the growth and proliferation of technology. It was not so long ago that technology was seen as a threat to educational engagement, whether it was through online learning or in society at large as we all “bowled alone.” Yet much of this anxiety evolved from a false dichotomy -- the notion that high tech and high touch are incompatible.
Students see no contradiction between technological sophistication and a personally connected learning community, and they expect both to be a part of their education. The reflection and personal engagement implied by the search for a meaningful life is fully compatible with the Internet age. Students are increasingly sophisticated in online work, while simultaneously they thrive, as much as ever, from strong relationships with faculty. Students expect fully contemporary technological resources, even as they seek the depth and meaning promised by a liberal arts education. The practical and financial challenge is to secure the necessary technological resources and fully integrate them into a sophisticated liberal arts education.
The threat to the liberal arts, if there is one, is not from the recession -- although our resources in higher education are limited. And it is not from a failure to offer marketable skills, for liberal education prepares students for both life and employment. The threat is the enduring challenge of education: to engage eternal truths even as we respond to contemporary issues. It is to ensure that liberal education evolves, that meaningful reflection can employ contemporary technological tools, that cultural exchange should extend beyond the boundaries of western democracies, that understanding identity does not inevitably lead to a chasm of difference. It is to create a liberal education that is both contemporary and enduring, evolving and profound. This is, simply and as always, the promise and the challenge of liberal education.
Mary B. Marcy
Mary B. Marcy is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
Warning: The following column contains neither satire nor humor. Any such interpretations could be denial of the senseless, egregious inequities in U.S. higher education today.
Eureka. I need thousands of seats at four-year colleges for community college students. And the seats are right under my nose – all the undergraduate spots at the Ivies and all the seats, period, at the four-year Self Described Most Highly Selective Elites (”elites” hereafter). How? Easy, and everybody wins.
Next month, at graduation and all graduations thereafter, the top high schools – Riverdale, Brearley, Exeter, Andover, Scarsdale High School in the East, and Lafayette High School and Thacher School in California -- award bachelor’s degrees. These are the students finishing high school with wheelbarrows full of Advanced Placement college credits and equivalent courses.
Why? I need these seats for the students lined up outside my door this winter at Bunker Hill Community College, most of whom have ample ability but little hope of an elite spot worthy of their dreams. Why are the odds so against the students at my door? Because the AP-laden students already have the elite seats, to redo an education they already have.
U.S. higher education needs what the MBAs call a discontinuity, an iPod-style move by someone to flush out at least a few of the inequities. Hit the “Refresh” button. The elites brought this situation on themselves, by cramming down admissions standards requiring that incoming students already have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the first place. In one move, all the students preparing for the Ivies and the elites don’t have to apply to college at all, and students who today don’t dare to dream of attending a great college can go.
Lord knows, I’ve tried to remedy all this. In my (as yet) unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Williams College, for example, I proposed that Williams offer a master’s degree for the regular students and a Ph.D. for students who complete an honors thesis. Nothing doing on that from Williams. So far.
Last winter, the formidable and impressive Independent Curriculum Group, a consortium of public and private secondary schools trying to build a better mousetrap, invited me to join a conversation about how these schools can reclaim their curriculums from the demands of elite admissions. That’s when I realized that trying to persuade the elites to change is futile. As long as the Common Application brings these colleges terabytes full of overqualified students willing to beg, borrow and scrounge $50,000 a year in tuition and fees, what’s the incentive to change? Nothing. High schools have to take back the curriculum on their own. “Go for it. Award a B.A. yourselves. Who’s to stop you?” I exhorted the audience.
The sic probo, as the academics say, is a snap. What self-respecting accreditor would deny a bachelor’s degree to these AP-laden students? Take samples of student work at these secondary schools, even from the bottom of the class, AP or not -- papers, essays in foreign languages, lab write-ups and math exams. Match this work with a random sample of student work from college seniors around the nation, even at the elites. If even I have seen high school work that stacks up, the faculty of these secondary schools certainly know that what they have taught their students by senior year beats what, sadly, too many bachelor’s-degree-receiving graduates have learned.
The outrage is the total feasibility, not the outlandishness, of my bachelor’s proposal. Everyone reading here knows that for these AP high schools a bachelor’s degree reflects the academic achievement of the graduates far more than the high school diploma these students are about to receive. Is this situation just? No way. For the sake of a few thousand students in community colleges, could we at least admit the folly in sending the most fortunate cohort of students to college twice, while millions of others, just as able, may never finish college at all?
I explained all this at the ICG conference. These fine secondary-school teachers offered a few laughs. No takers on my proposal. Nothing new there.
Three successive principals of Exeter, my school, have refused to consider my bachelor’s-degree idea, no matter how polite my presentation. On the drive home, I realized I’d failed at even the basics of the persuasive skills I try to teach in my own expository writing classes at Bunker Hill Community College. What does a principal care? Principals have good salaries, secretaries, great parking and often a house. The current system works for principals. Serves me right. The principals, like the elites, are the wrong audience, too.
I had forgotten to follow the money. So, who wins under my proposal? First, the teachers at these public and private secondary schools. Delivering a bachelor’s degree by 12th grade is worth a big raise. To pay for the raises? Private schools can charge more. School districts with these high schools can raise taxes. As noted, based on work quality alone, these public and private secondary schools will have no trouble receiving accreditation to award bachelor’s degrees.
Then, parents will jump for joy at a bachelor’s degree at the end of 12th grade – saving $100,000 to $200,000 in college tuition. As long as no one is greedy, teachers can have this raise and still save families a bundle. Your students won’t need to go to college, and that opens up all those seats for a few of the community college students with few choices ahead.
Anticipate objection, I tell my students. OK, who could object?
Certainly not anyone in higher education. In a tough economy, my proposal means more dues-paying members for the powerful higher education trade groups, such as the American Council on Education. Heck, even the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which seems to oppose everything, would have a hard time turning away this many new members.
Do I mean to send these 18-year-old bachelor’s-degree-wielding men and women out into the world to work at places like banks? Well, aren’t most of the top malefactors of Wall Street, the graduates of these same elites? What’s to lose? The Ivies, the public flagships, and the rest of the self-described most-highly selection colleges account for -- depending on where you draw the line -- maybe 75,000 undergraduate seats. All of these AP-laden students -- set them free now.
For most of history, physical adulthood has begun expected adulthood. Civilization has allotted “youth,” and bright college years, to only a very few. What have we done with our gift of youth? On our watch, so far, we are responsible for global warming, two wars, the economy and letting most of the U.S. public education system fall to ruin.
Still, someone reading this will object. Fair enough. Explaining your objections to your colleagues at the elites is too easy. I invite you to make your case to the students at my door at Bunker Hill and the other 1,177 community colleges.
Who else is the audience for your objections? Students waiting in line here and at the other community colleges. That’s one student, jailed, beaten and tortured in Africa. A single mother, beaten and cigarette-burned, who asked me the other day, “What do you know about Plato’s Apology?” Or the construction mason, who has read every book I know. An authentic Jude the Obscure, but botched surgeries from work injuries keep intruding, and he can’t work and finish school. A wounded Iraq veteran. A woman who apologized for missing class – “My boyfriend was murdered, and the memorial service was that day.”
Do these students have the intellect to succeed at the Ivies and the elites? Judge for yourself. Sometimes I wonder what Walt Whitman would make of the voices at community colleges. From time to time, I ask students to write their own version of Whitman’s "I Hear America Singing." We don’t spend time on Whitman first. I just say that they can choose another verb. I hand out a copy of Whitman’s poem. That’s it.
If you object to my proposal, what case would you make to these two students?
I Hear America Texting Zelideth Rivera
I hear America Texting, the different finger speeds at work. The bankers texting about the market system. The politician texting for his donations as he smiles@people. The father texting, who has the game on their big-screen T.V. The mother texting her friends for the ingredients for a quick dinner for five. The kid texting his buddy, so he can copy his homework. The girl texting her BFF, telling her about the cute boy in class. I even hear the toddler texting as he pretends to text like mommy. Quick, fast, smooth, easy finger strokes, all to get the Message through. All day and night even on your 15-minute break America is texting and getting its message through.
I Hear America Crying Tatiana Baez
I HEAR America crying, the varied carols I hear; Those of single mothers -- each one crying to sleep at night as they try and brainstorm new ways to make ends meet; The little boy crying out for a father figure, someone who he can look upto, and teach him how to become a man; The addict in every family crying as he or she struggles to stay clean just so that he or she can win back custody of their child; The young teenage mother crying hoping she will be able to graduate high school and not become another teen statistic; The father behind bars crying as he tries to explain to his only daughter how come daddy isn’t home; The insecure girl within all of women crying as we struggle daily to learn how to love ourselves unconditionally The awful cry of the single mother – or the little boy – or the addict – Each crying about what eats up at them; The day what belongs to the day – at night, the party of young fellows, upset, disappointed, Singing with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
In 2009 a group of 42 researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs met together at the invitation of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm, to discuss how the Web could transform education. A major theme of the daylong discussion, which took place under the theme "Hacking Education," was "unbundling," the process through which online distribution of digital media and information breaks apart and erodes existing industries. At the center of "unbundling" are new technologically-enabled relationships that democratize access to the means of production and collectively create plenty where scarcity once existed.
An often-cited example of "unbundling" is newspapers: with blogs and other online tools, one no longer needs a printing press or fleet of delivery vehicles to be heard. The newspaper editorial room competes with an army of bloggers and other online media outlets. Craigslist emerges as the marketplace for used household items, local job listings, and community announcements, replacing the advertising function of the traditional print newspaper. The combination is a perfect storm leading to a steady, nationwide stream of newspaper closures.
Is liberal education as vulnerable to "unbundling" as newspapers are? Two characteristics suggest it is. First, it too functions under the economics of scarcity: gather some of the best teacher-scholars in various disciplines and seclude them with students in close learning environments on a residential campus. But where scarcity once existed, early signs of plenty are emerging: you can access engaging faculty lectures (with course materials) on Yale's OpenCourseWare site or browse the "how-to" video catalog of new upstarts like Khan Academy or dozens of similar online nonprofit and for-profit alternatives. (See Hassan Masum's recent interview with Salman Khan.) These and similar resources will grow in sophistication and offer alternatives to much general education coursework.
Second, education in general – and especially liberal education – is also primarily an information product. What you get for your money is not a set of real-world, physical goods, but intangible skills and information. So there is every reason to believe that whatever "liberal education" is, "it" can travel over a network. While the resources cited above focus on introductory curriculums, remember that we are in the early days of a digital transformation of academics: 20 years ago, most colleges did not even have reliable networks.
While the foundations for "unbundling" seem present, I would suggest that liberal education should see in new technology developments tremendous opportunity to preserve its mission of producing "liberally educated" graduates, all the while expanding its diversity and adding curricular breadth and depth. As the participants in the Union Square Ventures "Hacking Education" event realized, the education economy differs significantly from other information economies: accreditation and the importance of institutional reputation are important reasons why learning at home with online course lectures differs from matriculating at a university. (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy's study in Remaking the American University, published by Rutgers University Press in 2005, suggests that the value of institutional reputation remains strong). Liberal education adds another important differentiator: close faculty-student and student-student contact, both designed to foster engaged dialogue and both core to this model of education.
Our coming ability to conduct engaged and very personal academic discussion across great distances – or in cyberspace – should be of keen interest to institutions of liberal education. Rather than unbundle liberal education, these new technologies and networks will allow liberal education institutions to "rebundle" themselves: to recombine academic assets into new arrangements across distance and institutional boundaries. In a world where space has been collapsed to allow for intimate engaged dialogue over distance, the physical campus will become less the locus of learning than a point within a web of learning environments.
Campus Space and Cyberspace
The processes that drive liberal education rely strongly on configurations of physical space, and some of the most profound changes this model of education is approaching involve rethinking how physical and virtual spaces interact. These campuses are constructed to foster academic interactions of a very personal, intimate kind. The small seminar class is perhaps the primary example: it is a tool to encourage close, engaged participation by all students and to develop intense faculty-student dialogue. At a larger level, campus space planning itself – especially at residential, liberal arts institutions – considers how to promote both formal and informal learning opportunities. The locations of residences, labs, cafes, the library, and other spaces are carefully considered as ways to further create opportunities for dialogue. As the Annapolis Group, a consortium of top liberal arts colleges, describes on its Web site, this style of education seeks "to develop intimate learning environments where extensive interaction between faculty and students and among students themselves fosters a community of serious discourse."
One principal effect of new technologies and advanced networks is to make physical space matter less, simply because online venues can serve those same functions. Technologies and networks are creating alternative virtual spaces at such a high rate and with such increasing sophistication (whether in terms of visual or sensory fidelity or social and interactive sophistication) that established practices with managing social and professional relationships are quickly changing. Three principal technology areas are covered briefly here.
Telepresence and High-Definition Videoconferencing
High-definition videoconferencing and "telepresence" may be the best-poised to enter rapidly into liberal education for one reason: we are seeing the development of virtualized environments that combine high-definition video and other technologies to gather multiple remote participants into realistic, though virtual, meeting environments. These environments challenge the notion that the "intimate" part of liberal education means "face-to-face" and "sitting at the same table" NITLE's research partnerships with the commercial sector have enabled consideration of new videoconference products and services by companies such as Polycom, LifeSize, Tandberg, or Cisco, and have made clear that the industry seeks, among other goals, to replicate and replace the face-to-face business meeting with a virtualized one. The similarities between the business meeting and the seminar classroom make this development compelling for liberal education: small room, limited numbers of participants, careful time delimitations, support by media assets, and the goal of soliciting active involvement of all participants.
The time may be right for broad adoption of these virtual environments by liberal education institutions. First, hardware and infrastructure costs have become surprisingly affordable. Introductory hardware capable of equipping a single space with basic high-definition video capabilities has fallen under $5,000, and bandwidth requirements are dropping steadily. Second, these environments are removing barriers of technical and operational knowledge that challenge us in other virtual environments, such as immersive video games or social networks. Questions such as "What do I click to make my avatar walk?" or "If I friend you, can your friends see our online discussion?" are answered intuitively through one's own experience in the space.
Finally, over time fewer necessary adaptations to course curriculums will be required. We can expect a basic class session featuring seminar-style group discussion and a whiteboard (perhaps a real one made easily readable by high-quality video) to function in ways that may be nearly identical to those of a traditional, face-to-face seminar.
Social Software and Web 2.0
Users of Twitter, Facebook, texting, and blogs are familiar with the sense of social interconnectness and constant banter with one's "buddies," "friends," or "followers." These tools enable new modes of interaction, and while some criticize social networks for being saturated with mundane daily details (and thus of questionable applicability to education), users engaged in academic activities can be expected to “post,” “tweet” or “text” details of that academic work. We are steadily seeing more robust academic exchanges on Twitter quite different than chatter about what you or I just ate for lunch. (Skeptics might consider the Library of Congress's recent decision to archive every tweet ever made, or read Clay Shirky's account of how "low-brow" exchanges in new media develop over time into new literacies and new social value.) These tools offer a platform for rich, always-on "discourse," a key strategy for liberal education. They open new channels for dialogue and seem to reflect learning as process and engagement and not as memorization and rote knowledge acquisition.
Virtual Worlds and Gaming
Driven in part by the development of impressive, affordable computer graphics capabilities and increasingly realistic, multi-user virtual worlds, interest in virtual worlds, gaming and education has grown significantly. In higher education, the virtual world Second Life saw a large "land rush" in 2008–9, with hundreds of campuses establishing a Second Life presence in that year. While this movement may not have lived up to its early hype, a steady stream of experiments in teaching in virtual worlds are nevertheless producing interesting results.
Sharing Academics and Curriculums
These technologies open new possibilities for intimate, discourse-centered education, but they cannot scale access to expertise: they cannot take one expert or one seminar classroom and turn it into many. Instead, they remove the need for academic experience to take place within a particular geographical location, and are therefore less likely to affect the value of academic expertise and access to faculty through small seminar-style classrooms and other learning environments. (There are only so many who can engage at once in a small, focused dialogue.) They are likely to enable sharing of expertise over distances.
In other words, access to experts should remain a valuable, scarce commodity in the "liberal education" information economy. Rather than replace faculty expertise (the traditional, but fading, hobgoblin of technology and teaching discussions) these networks and tools should allow specific expertise to be exercised at great distances. Star faculty should see their value rise as networks and tools allow them, and their institutions, access to new institutions and environments for sharing their expertise.
This creates at least two opportunities of considerable value, which help answer the question: "Why we should invest in these networks to share academic expertise?" First, these networks will give us the ability to combine smaller classes and departments across distances to create richer academic experiences. There are a number of permutations we can imagine. A biology faculty member who wants to team-teach an interdisciplinary course on computational biology, but who has no willing, local computer science collaborator can now search more broadly among a consortium for a collaborator. Likewise, an institution may combine class sessions with partner institutions abroad.
Second, these networks allow us to import disciplinary expertise that cannot efficiently be budgeted locally, thereby growing the course catalog. A college not able to hire an Italian language and culture instructor to support a few students in art history for whom Italian is a key need can now look more broadly. For some, this idea is controversial (i.e., it is "distance learning") and is often attacked on grounds that distance education deprives students access to expertise. However, in this instance, there is no deprivation, just a different form of mediation.
Organizationally, the challenges will be significant. The current model of grouping costs and revenue under the umbrella of a single organization allows for accountability and pairing pricing and costs. Breaking these costs and benefits out inter-institutionally will raise questions about equity. Bringing in remote expertise and sharing local expertise remotely will likely require new administrative apparatuses and inter-organizational systems for managing these activities; some existing organizations will step into these roles, and new organizations will form to meet needs in other places. Last, there will be fear of these new models from many places, and skepticism from parents and students about the quality and characteristics of academic experiences in virtual environments. But while the challenges are great, so are the rewards.
As we look to the future of liberal education, we seem unlikely to change the fundamentals of what has made that model successful. We will enhance the curriculum with interactive smart classrooms, course and lecture capture, ubiquitous wireless connecting smaller and more capable digital devices, and other technologies not yet invented, but close faculty-student and student-student interaction will remain the core. What seems more likely to change – and to offer transformative possibilities – is the medium. Those looking for fundamental shifts in this pedagogical model will be disappointed. Those looking for creative options to organizing, planning, and packaging – or "rebundling" – this style of education are likely to be rewarded.
Eric Jansson is labs director at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.
I recently visited the campus of the college where I received my B.A. degree (in 1976). Doane College, a remarkable and endearing liberal arts institution, is located about 25 miles southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the fair city of Crete.
Things were pretty quiet around my old school this summer — my 9-year-old son and I stopped by, unannounced, on a warm Saturday morning — July 31, to be exact. I took several digital photos, of course, and inhaled the fragrant air of my youth — perhaps somewhat sadly, but with nostalgic enthusiasm.
The trees, stone bridges, and gentle inclines of the campus brought back so many memories and emotions.
The buildings looked terrific — and seemed the same size as they did back when I was 22. Swans still paddled around the campus ponds, but I’m sure those birds were the great-great-great grand offspring of the white-clad feathered trumpeters who dwelt in Crete back in the mid-70s.
Quinten stopped playing his Nintendo DS long enough to listen to a few stories from the now-distant past — the snowstorms, the professors, the way things used to be. A typical 9-year-old of the 21st century, he saw the campus as a collection of old buildings, nice lawns, flowers, and pathways — and of course he had none of my emotional connection to this place that demanded so much of me all those years ago. Even so, he enjoyed our visit and laughed with vigor when I told him I slipped and fell into Doane Lake a time or two.
He now shares a significant experience with me at Doane that transcends time and space — and is probably unique for a Doane graduate.
I took a picture of him standing next to Boswell Observatory — a lovely small brick facility built in 1883 and still containing a working telescope.
Way back in 1959 or so, when I was about 5, my grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. S.E. Ross of Aurora, Nebraska) took me along on a trip down to Doane. We were visiting my Aunt Deanna, who was then attending the college. I have a very powerful memory of standing near Boswell Observatory, and touching the rough bricks and gazing at the vines. I am convinced that visit had a great deal to do with my decision to attend Doane many years later. That misty morning, I stood in awe and near-reverence at the old Observatory, and somehow gravitated towards its power, its emotive force, and its presence ... its symbolism ... of something I did not then understand.
The edifice of the observatory, the burnished dome, and the mysteries I associated with the college as a child — what powerful emotional or cognitive impact did that brief confrontation with a 19th-century scientific building impress upon me then?
My educational journey at Doane still positively influences my life, my values, and my future.
I remember telling some of my dorm friends on graduation day that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a living. Silly me, I had gone to college because I wanted to learn — I wanted to read the great novels and poems, study with intellectual professors, and walk the flower-edged pathways while discussing Boethius, Woolf, Keats, and Kant with my classmates.
I continue to love and respect the liberal arts education I received. I owe my professors so much. My own life and career track — teaching writing at a community college — have been nurtured by my liberal arts experience. My professors’ confidence, their calm insightfulness, their wholesome grasp of complex intellectual truths, provided me with an insatiable appetite for learning. Throughout my teaching experiences, I have consciously attempted to convey this enthusiasm and encourage my students to embrace learning as a desirable and achievable constant in their lives. Generations of students come and go, but the liberal arts provide for sustainable truths and a continuum of values that transcend time and space….
Do I think Quinten made a magical connection with my old school? My emotions swirled as he stood by Boswell Observatory — my pilgrimage had been successful. I had brought him to the life litmus-topographic coordinates that had somehow eventually formed my Character, my Being, and my Self.
Certainly I hope he attends Doane someday. I would love to take a picture of him once again, standing by Boswell, wearing a cap and gown, circa 2023.
Small liberal arts colleges — and their lovely campuses and worthwhile missions — have prepared so many of us for satisfying and successful lives.
The old Observatory is a powerful image of the timeless human quest for new awareness, new understanding, and for learning perhaps in its purest form. As a society, I think, it is important that we value learning for the sake of the joy and enlightenment knowledge brings — a power that should daily temper our careers, our politics, our transitory possessions, and needs — especially needs for those items that never really improve the quality of our lives.....
A liberal arts education can make us more humane — and give us the skills needed to see far into the future, as well as to learn from the past.
Knowledge, and character, can handle most situations. I would contend that an education can be an end in itself, not a process, or career move, or something to get "out of the way."
Perhaps some of you will believe me anachronistic. Caught in the rancor of daily life, perhaps reading this article on a smartphone while riding the Metro or recently airborne to a meeting, you may find my views odd or old-fashioned or tired whispers from a time and place, historical only....
Meanwhile, the Observatory, with its working telescope, lives on. And the swans swim peacefully on Doane Lake.
Jeffrey Ross is an instructor at Central Arizona College.
Many of us committed to the liberal arts have been defensive for as long as we can remember.
We have all cringed when we have heard a version of the following joke: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”; the graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”; the graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”
We have responded to such mockery by proclaiming the value of the liberal arts in the abstract: it creates a well-rounded person, is good for democracy, and develops the life of the mind. All these are certainly true, but somehow each misses the point that the joke drives home. Today’s college students and their families want to see a tangible financial outcome from the large investment that is now American higher education. That doesn’t make them anti-intellectual, but simply realists. Outside of home ownership, a college degree might be the largest single purchase for many Americans.
There is a disconnect as parents and students worry about economic outcomes when too many of us talk about lofty ideals. More families are questioning both the sticker price of schools and the value of whole fields of study. It is natural in this environment for us to feel defensive. It is time, however, that we in the liberal arts understand this new environment, and rather than merely react to it, we need to proactively engage it. To many Americans the liberal arts have a luxury they feel they need to give up to make a living -- nice but impractical. We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree.
The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way.
We are witnessing an economic shift that may be every bit as profound as the shift from farm to factory. Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.
Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.
We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.
If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors. Colleges and universities with a true culture of assessment already are making the necessary strategic adjustments.
In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.
Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.
For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.
It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.
In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.
This could be a moment for the rebirth of the liberal arts. For starters, we are witnessing exciting new research about the economy that is situating the discussion more squarely within the liberal arts orbit, and in the process blurring disciplinary boundaries. These scholars are doing what the American studies scholar Andrew Ross has called “scholarly reporting,” a blend of investigative reporting, social science and ethnography, as a way to understand the new economy shift. Scholars such as the sociologists Dalton Conley and Sharon Zurkin and the historian Bryant Simon offer new models of engaged scholarship that explain the cultural parameters of the new economy. We need to recognize and support this research because increasingly we will need to teach it as the best way to ensure our students understand the moment.
We also need to be less territorial, and recognize that the professional schools are not the enemy. They have a lot to offer our students. Strategic partnerships between professional schools and the arts and sciences enrich both and offer liberal arts students important professional opportunities long closed off to them. We also need to find ways to be good neighbors to the growing micropreneurial class, either by providing space, wifi, or interns. Some schools have created successful incubators, which can jump-start small businesses and give their students important ground-floor exposure to the emerging economy.
Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family. And, since there will be little budget or time for entry-level training, we need to ensure that all our students understand the basics of business even if they are in the arts. We also might consider preparing our graduates as if they were all going to become small business owners, because in a sense many of them are going to be micropreneurs.
Richard A. Greenwald
Richard A Greenwald is dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, director of university partnerships, and professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is entitled The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life.
When the economy goes down, one expects the liberal arts -- especially the humanities -- to wither, and laments about their death to go up. That’s no surprise since these fields have often defined themselves as unsullied by practical application. This notion provides little comfort to students -- and parents -- who are anxious about their post-college prospects; getting a good job -- in dire times, any job -- is of utmost importance. (According to CIRP’s 2009 Freshman Survey, 56.5 percent of students -- the highest since 1983 -- said that “graduates getting good jobs” was an important factor when choosing where to go to college.)
One expects students, then, to rush to courses and majors that promise plenty of entry-level jobs. Anticipating this, college administrators would cut back or eliminate programs that are not “employment friendly,” as well as those that generate little research revenue. Exit fields like classics, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, religion, and enter only those that are preprofessional in orientation. Colleges preserving a commitment to the liberal arts would see a decline in enrollment; in some cases, the institution itself would disappear.
So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts?
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor's degrees in “employment friendly” fields has been on the rise since 1970. Undergraduate business degrees -- the go-to “employment friendly” major -- has increased from 1970-71, with 115,400 degrees conferred, to 2007-08, with 335,250 conferred. In a parallel development, institutions graduated seven times more communications and journalism majors in 2007-08 than in 1970-71. And while numbers are small, there has been exponential growth in “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” “security and protective services,” and “transportation and materials moving” degrees. Computer science, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-80s, dropped in the mid-90s, peaked again in the mid-2000s, and dropped again in the last five years.
What has students’ turn to such degrees meant for the humanities and social sciences? A mapping of bachelor degrees conferred in the humanities from 1966 to 2007 by the Humanities Indicator Project shows that the percentage of such majors was highest in the late 1960s (17-18 percent of all degrees conferred), low in the mid-1980s (6-7 percent), and more or less level since the early 1990s (8-9 percent). Trends, of course, vary from discipline to discipline.
Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.
What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.
Of course, macro-level statistics reveal only part of the story. What do things look like at the ground level? How are departments faring? Course enrollments? Majors? Since the study of the Greek and Roman classics tends to be a bellwether for trends in the humanities and related fields (with departments that are small and often vulnerable), it seemed reasonable to ask Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association whether classics departments were being dropped at a significant number of places. “Not really” was his answer; while the classics major at Michigan State was cut, and a few other departments were in difficulty, there was no widespread damage to the field -- at least not yet.
Big declines in classics enrollments? Again, the answer seems to be, “Not really.” Many institutions report a steady gain in the number of majors over the past decade. Princeton’s classics department, for example, announced this past spring 17 graduating seniors, roughly twice what the number had been three decades ago. And the strength is not just in elite institutions. Charles Pazdernik at Grand Valley State University in hard-hit Michigan reported that his department has 50+ majors on the books and strong enrollments in language courses.
If classics seems to be faring surprisingly well, what about the modern languages? There are dire reports about German and Russian, and the Romance languages seem increasingly to be programs in Spanish, with a little French and Italian tossed in. The Modern Language Association reported in fall 2006 -- well before the current downturn -- a 12.9 percent gain in language study since 2002. This translates into 180,557 more enrollments. Every language except Biblical Hebrew showed increases, some exponential -- Arabic (126.5 percent), Chinese (51 percent), and Korean (37.1 percent) -- while others less so -- French (2.2 percent), German (3.5 percent), and Russian (3.9 percent). (Back to the ancient world for a moment: Latin saw a 7.9 percent increase, and ancient Greek 12.1 percent). The study of foreign languages, in other words, seems not to be disappearing; the mix is simply changing.
Theoretical and ideological issues have troubled and fragmented literature departments in recent years, but a spring 2010 conference on literary studies at the National Humanities Center suggests that the field is enjoying a revitalization. The mood was eloquent, upbeat, innovative; no doom and gloom, even though many participants were from institutions where painful budget cuts had recently been made.
A similar mood was evident at National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a gathering of some highly regarded assistant professors in the humanities and social sciences this past February. They were well aware that times were tough, the job market for Ph.D.s miserable, and tenure prospects uncertain. Yet their response was to get on with the work of strengthening liberal education, rather than bemoan its decline and fall. Energy was high, and with it the conviction that the best way to move liberal education forward was to achieve demonstrable improvements in student learning.
It’s true that these young faculty members are from top-flight universities. What about smaller, less well-endowed institutions? Richard Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges reports that while a few of the colleges in his consortium are indeed in trouble, most were doing quite well, increasing enrollments and becoming more selective. And what about state universities and land grant institutions, where most students go to college? Were they scuttling the liberal arts and sciences because of fierce cutbacks? David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says that while budget cuts have resulted in strategic “consolidation of programs and sometimes the elimination of low-enrollment majors,” he does not “know of any public universities weakening their liberal education requirements.”
Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.
One could imagine any number of reasons why this is the case -- the inherent conservatism of colleges and universities is one -- but maybe something much more dynamic is at work. Perhaps the stamina of the liberal arts in today’s environment draws in part from the vital role they play in providing students with a robust liberal education, that is, a kind of education that develops their knowledge in a range of disciplinary fields, and importantly, their cognitive skills and personal competencies. The liberal arts continue -- and likely will always -- give students an education that delves into the intricate language of Shakespeare or Woolf, or the complex historical details of the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution. That is a given.
But what the liberal arts also provide is a rich site for students to think critically, to write analytically and expressively, to consider questions of moral and ethical importance (as well as those of meaning and value), and to construct a framework for understanding the infinite complexities and uncertainties of human life. This is, as many have argued before, a powerful form of education, a point that students, the statistics and anecdotes show, agree with.
W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching
W. Robert Connor is the former president of the Teagle Foundation, to which he is now a senior adviser. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at Teagle.
It has by now become received wisdom: college students today are less interested in traditional subjects, and have become more professionally oriented. They’ve voted with their feet, choosing business, pre-med, and engineering majors over German, art history, or comparative literature. Clearly, it’s in the zeitgeist. Unfortunately for humanities professors, however, lower enrollment can translate into the elimination of entire departments: just ask German professors at the University of Southern California. But what’s to be done? The client is king, and students are our clients in higher education. The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees.
The rising cost of undergraduate education, especially at elite private institutions, has understandably become in these unforgiving economic times a target of much angst. Particularly jarring, for critics, is the increase in expenses related to administrative support: the percentage of staff who do not teach at Williams College – 70! – is routinely portrayed as thick layer of glut, ready-made for the chopping block.
I happen to disagree with most of these critics. Having gone to a public university in Europe, I am incessantly amazed by the advising, counseling, curricular opportunities, and overall support that students receive at Stanford University, where I teach. I remain profoundly jealous of their education, which I believe is second to none. At the same time, I am not blind to the source of this charmed life. It’s frightfully expensive to employ the staff needed to run the overseas programs, writing centers, freshman seminars, extracurricular activities, summer school, etc., that help make Stanford the university it is. I do not doubt administrators when they say that the average cost per student exceeds the already obscene tuition fees charged.
While the skyrocketing cost of college education is no doubt inexplicable from the outside (why should tuitions increase at a pace far faster than inflation?), the answer, from the inside, appears fairly humdrum. Put simply, universities are engaged in an arms race: they compete to bring the best-armed students to their campuses. This means incessantly inventing new programs. Stanford offers freshman seminars? Harvard will too! Yale has highly rated residential education? Penn must improve! Top schools similarly compete for faculty academostars, luring them not only with high salaries and other perks, but also a reduced teaching load. The price for such celebrity academics, of course, gets passed on to the student. This arms race at the top – and liberal arts colleges seem to suffer from the same educational-industrial complex – thus drives the cost of attending the Ivies way up. And when students have to pay 40 grand to attend Cornell, other colleges and universities must raise their tuitions as well, to stay in competition.
The exponential rise of tuition costs is not, therefore, the result of some nefarious plot. Most professors (alas) are not lining their pockets, and the salaries of top administrators are still dwarfed by those of CEOs in the private sector. The money raised by higher tuitions does actually provide students with more services and opportunities. To repeat: I am unceasingly jealous of my students at Stanford. But there is a hidden cost: once students (or their parents) are called upon to deliver their pound of flesh, they fall under a huge amount of pressure to make that investment pay.
I cannot help contrasting this situation with my own experience as a student, at a public university in Switzerland. I paid the equivalent of $35 a semester in tuition; halfway through my studies, the price was raised, after much protest, to $300. It was a fairly bare-bones experience: our professors were world class, but there was zero support for students. We had no advisers, no writing center, no extracurricular activities, no dorm – we didn’t even have a graduation ceremony. Because the cost was so low, however, we had remarkable freedom – freedom to take as many seminars as we wanted, to space out our exams, to try out new subjects, and more generally, to take as long as we wanted. I spent six years as an undergraduate, the norm at the time (although you could technically graduate in four).
European universities are now in a different sort of financial crisis, and I doubt we have many administrative or curricular lessons to learn from them. But they do remind us that the cost of an education can act as a filter for intellectual choices. Students will be far less willing to take risks when they’re paying a fortune to enroll. It’s not the zeitgeist: it’s common sense.
The irony, of course, is that a B.A. in French or classics provides students with many of the qualities that employers most commonly request, such as critical thinking, cultural proficiency, and good writing and communication skills. A solid liberal education is just as beneficial for the vast majority of professions; in addition, it prepares for a life well-lived, and not just for a career. But if universities continue to charge as much as they do, they will progressively steer students away from the very subjects that, until recently, constituted the very core of the university.
There is no easy or obvious remedy for this situation. It is hard to imagine an incoming university president at a leading institution, say, pledging to halve tuition. Of course, at institutions with large enough endowments to offer generous financial aid packages, a considerable percentage of students do not even pay full tuition. But these institutions can probably be counted on two hands; the vast majority of colleges and universities depend heavily on tuition to fund instructors and staff, sustain campus buildings, pay heating bills, etc. Some have suggested cutting back on athletic facilities or other extracurricular programs, yet in many cases the funding for these expenditures comes from targeted donations.
Until the tuition imbalance stabilizes – and eventually Congress may well intervene to ensure that it does – humanities departments need to act more aggressively to ensure their survival. Increasing the turnout of majors may be beyond our reach, but we perhaps need to rethink the relationship between research and teaching. Do highly specialized courses offered by individual departments provide the best kind of background in the humanities for students headed for careers in law, engineering, finance, or science? Or do we need to offer more cross-disciplinary courses, ideally team-taught by faculty from different departments, on core questions and topics in the humanities? The bulk of our teaching is geared toward majors and graduate students. If we do not want to be the victims of the next recession (or, if it lasts long enough, the current one), we also need to target those students who feel they do no longer have the luxury of specializing in a humanistic subject.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
The entire nation is reeling with the devastating events in Tucson and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. While we do not yet know the full details of this tragedy, nor do we understand the true motivation that led to the killings, authorities indicate she was the clear target. We all struggle to understand how anyone could do something so heinous.
Scripps College, a small, women’s liberal arts college is Gabrielle Giffords’ alma mater. So we are particularly heartbroken by the tragic events and are rallying around Gabrielle and her family. As we hold her in our hearts, we are unified in our voice that Gabrielle embodies the values of Scripps College and a liberal arts education, and thus represents the best the nation has to offer.
Gabrielle is a role model, not just for our students, but for all women and for all Americans. She did not shy away from her calling to be a leader. With grace and determination, she has become an outstanding and courageous public servant. Gabrielle Giffords’s career shows that she is fiercely independent — framing her positions on issues thoughtfully and humanely, and, in the words of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, "with confidence, courage and hope."
Listen to her own words. In her 2009 commencement address at Scripps, Congresswoman Giffords told our students: “The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas. Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.” Prescient words.
Public service, in all forms, is courageous. Respectful disagreement — the ability to hear another’s viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion — has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest, and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric.
Gabrielle deeply appreciated her liberal arts education: the exposure to different ideas, different ways of thinking. In her words: "What Scripps forced you to grapple with was a peeling back of the human onion in order to discover the supreme value of the soul and how crucial it is to maintain personal integrity and honesty." She believes in free exchange of ideas, understanding difference, and taking a stand based on rational and critical reasoning. As Martha Kantor said to the Annapolis Group in 2010, "A liberal arts education teaches us [that] empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy."
What can we take away from this tragedy? We have a responsibility to the victims and their families to learn from this event. A senseless act must be turned into an opportunity for this country to unify, to learn from Gabrielle Giffords about the power of constructive and collaborative dialogue. To embrace human dignity, to resist the temptation to point fingers and blame, but to change the discourse for the betterment of our future. We are, after all, a democracy — a democracy that requires an empathetic and knowledgeable citizenship and respects the right to disagree.
Lori Bettison-Varga is president of Scripps College.