Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of news coverage and commentary remarking on the seemingly real or perhaps only greatly exaggerated death of the liberal arts in American higher education.
We are not alone in thinking that the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is tired and simplistic. To our minds, the liberal arts are as relevant as ever -- as a means of enriching lives, developing engaged citizens and nurturing foundational professional skills.
But if the public, rightly or wrongly, is becoming increasingly skeptical of the value of the liberal arts -- and enrollment trends at certain institutions would suggest that they may be, at least in some measure -- then schools of liberal arts will have to accept some share of the blame themselves.
Undoubtedly, public pronouncements arguing that we need “more welders and less philosophers,” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed late last year, irk many in the liberal arts -- and not solely because of Rubio’s poor use of grammar. This notion that liberal arts graduates are terminally unemployable is achieving a kind of -- to borrow Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism -- truthiness. And that kind of misinformation can be particularly frustrating to faculty members and students who have devoted their energy and enthusiasm to these fields of study, and enjoyed successful careers as a result of it.
The fact is, as researchers in the field of employability will tell you, a great many organizations have a real interest in hiring college graduates possessing communication and reasoning skills blended with technical expertise and strong character. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary from early 2016, Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman argued that his firm’s research on labor demand has shown that many of the fastest-growing jobs are hybrid in character, requiring “people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.” Few would argue that the liberal arts don’t have a contribution to make in producing these sorts of graduates.
Still, frustrating though they may be, news headlines and political commentary aren’t the real obstacles to sustaining the future of the liberal arts. That challenge has less to do with media perceptions or careless politicizing than with the traditional organizational structures and curricular approaches of schools of liberal arts themselves. Here’s what we mean.
Departmental structures can be inflexible and inhibit creative responses to changing market expectations. At a number of liberal arts institutions we work with, faculty express great interest in interdisciplinary work and other forms of innovation. In some respects they find organizational structures -- the proliferation of schools, departments, divisions, units -- just as frustrating and inhibiting as administrators do. But when faculty become uneasy with the tenor of the public debate about the contribution of the liberal arts and feel threatened, they often rely on these structures as a bulwark against change. Others may resist on principle any movement that might be perceived as moving in the direction of vocationalism or focusing on work readiness associated with linking the liberal arts to professional programs.
In both cases, the result can be the same: faculty hunker down. They look at the growth of faculty lines in engineering or business and argue that their departments would grow, too -- if only similar investments were made in their faculty. Of course, increasing capacity doesn’t automatically increase enrollments. Yet for those individuals, the fight for resources is viewed as a zero-sum game, and some faculty members and department chairs would seek to preserve the structures that they know rather than risk reorganizing in ways that merge departments or explicitly require collaboration with the professional disciplines -- even if such changes might deliver more value to students. But of course, such mergers and collaborations are possible where adjacent disciplines complement one another -- such as writing and English programs or communications and performing arts. Restructurings of these sorts can not only avoid unnecessary redundancies in staff positions and other organizational overhead, but also foster the development of a more contemporary curriculum and enrich the student experience.
Departmental structures can constrain the evolution and effectiveness of general-education curricula. As the volume of majors in the liberal arts disciplines continues to fluctuate, general education programs may be seen as an increasingly powerful mechanism to promote traditional liberal arts values. But they can also offer students new forms of interdisciplinary intellectual exposure via minors or other ways of bundling sequences of courses.
For departments with declining majors, general-education course enrollments are frequently seen by faculty as crucial evidence of their value. As a result, there is often resistance by faculty members and department chairs to restructuring general-education programs in ways that might deviate from the more immediately measurable performance models based on numbers of department majors -- even if such restructurings may lead to more relevant and flexible curricula for students. For example, while the contemporary student may derive significant value from experiential learning components and interdisciplinary capstone courses, their inclusion in general-education programs is often met with resistance by faculty as they fall outside the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure.
Departmental structures can necessitate organizational workarounds, such as the creation of interdisciplinary liberal arts centers or institutes, to find a home for innovation. While interdisciplinary centers or institutes can serve as vital catalysts for innovation and collaboration across the disciplines, merely establishing them will not necessarily overcome the force of decades of departmentally focused priorities. As a result, these interdisciplinary centers can sometimes evolve into isolated interdisciplinary silos. Indeed, the lack or perceived lack of incentives for faculty involvement, a misalignment with departmental promotional criteria and the absence of clear expectations with respect to the roles that particular departments or disciplines are meant to play in these centers can all contribute to their eventual marginalization and failure -- which can make it even more challenging to recruit and retain high-potential faculty. Paying lip service to interdisciplinarity isn’t sufficient. In fact, it just exacerbates tensions between units and can make numerous departments less productive. What’s required is a commitment to interdisciplinarity and the centers that promote it as hubs of cross-discipline engagement, for faculty and students alike.
Our view is that the liberal arts matter. Why? Because they prepare students to reason and solve problems, because they develop critical communication skills, and because they teach students how to engage in a process of discovery -- whether it be intellectual discovery, self-discovery or professional discovery. If schools of liberal arts put these same skills to work in examining their own efforts and organizational structures, the liberal arts might well flourish.
Such schools would be more apt to bring together data analytics and the study of literature, or revolutionize the way they think about the role and contribution of general-education programs, or promote liberal arts minors for engineers and biologists in lieu of fighting for more majors within the liberal arts. They might, in other words, rethink the longstanding organizational structures that have housed -- and for many years nurtured -- the liberal arts, but which have now begun to constrain and limit their impact.