Owning the Liberal Arts: A Concordia College Seminar Discussion
In 2005, The Economist proclaimed the American educational system the very best in the world. That article, “The Brains Business,” reviewed the global status of higher education, concluding that the U.S. had the best system in the world because there was no system – no ministry of education, no planned economy, no sense that the state would pay for it all. In the United States, the article noted, universities compete for students, set their own tuition rates, especially the more selective schools, and they educated students for an ever-changing world. To The Economist, higher education in the U.S. is a beauty.
The authors went on to outline four factors giving character to that beauty:
- Democratization or massification: where education is widely available to a broad cross section of students through a broad range of institutions.
- The rise of a knowledge-based economy: where brainpower replaces physical power and physical resources.
- Globalization: where distance is no longer a barrier to competition or anything else – a variation of the argument offered by the journalist Thomas Friedman that the world is flat.
- Competition: where the search for the most talented students is the driver.
In the end, the article concluded in all four areas the U.S. is ahead.
This oft-cited article emphasized the superior quality of American higher education; in doing so, it failed to emphasize the beauty of what we produce, the importance of the knowledge generated by higher education, particularly the world’s leading colleges and universities. We know all too well that our work adds immensely to the common welfare and the base of knowledge that fuels the financial and intellectual economies.
More important for today’s conversation, the article made scant mention of the liberal arts tradition of learning that is particular to many American institutions of higher education. The term “liberal arts” originated during medieval times and refers to the areas of learning deemed necessary to fully prepare a person for life as a free person. Traditionally, seven areas constituted the liberal arts – grammar, rhetoric, and logic or dialectics, and geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Unlike the illiberal arts or the mechanical arts, the liberal arts were not designed to produce vocational jobs or tradesmen, but individuals duly suited to pursue refined, advanced learning and to influence the affairs of the state.
While the composition of the liberal arts has grown over time to embrace far more than seven fields of knowledge, its fundamental purpose remains essentially the same. In the liberal arts tradition, students are taught to master previous materials, to be sure, but they are also taught the value of formulating the proper questions. It is this sense of things that led Albert Einstein in 1921 to remark, “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
Yet by many accounts we find ourselves at an inflection point, a time of profound change in American higher education. Demographic projections suggest that not only will we witness a decade-long drop in the number of American high schoolers, but this decline will be paired with a noticeable change in the racial and economic make-up of the annual cohorts. More Latinos and first-generation students, for example, will be among those eligible to complete high school and possibly enter college. At the same time, we have begun to witness a profound increase in the demand for seats in many of our colleges and universities by members of the growing middle class in China. Many international students from China, India and elsewhere enter with a socially informed tilt toward certain areas of the liberal arts, and even more profess an interest in professional fields such as business and engineering. It is assumed that such fields assure students of a greater likelihood of landing employment after graduation. Here education is often viewed as utilitarian or a means toward an end, a perspective often shared by many first-generation Americans as well.
This inflection point comes at the same time a new critique of American higher education has begun to emerge. Rather than heralding the American system, with its long tradition of liberal arts education as a virtue or beauty, the critique or in some cases defense emphasizes higher education as beast. The titles that either criticize or defend the academy, especially the liberal arts approach, has been considerable. Let me reference just a few: The Innovative University, The Fall of the Faculty, Academically Adrift, Crises on Campus, Why Does College Cost so Much, Liberal Arts at the Brink and Not for Profit.
In reading these and other works several themes emerge. We are told that the DNA of the modern research university needs to be re-examined because the successes of Harvard in the 20th century will not be replicated by others, with the same success, in the 21st century. The argument runs along the following lines: disruptive technologies are already gripping other domains of the higher education sector, with different price structures, different delivery systems, measurable outcomes, and a global appeal. Residential colleges and research universities that are alert to the changes and adjust will fare well and others may find themselves laying claim to a smaller and smaller niche in a shrinking segment of the market. In other words our effectiveness in the classroom is questioned, as is our students’ appetite for deep, serious and substantial learning. Meanwhile, several critics lament what they see as the growing corporatization of the academy, which they link to calls for metrics, performance-based merit systems, and growing administrative structures and salaries. This corporatization, goes the argument, leads to alienation between faculty and administration, and obscures institutional missions. Then there are some who champion the traditional virtues of the liberal arts. They often highlight the importance of critical reasoning skills, independent thinking, insightful writing, and superb analytical prowess. Yet even here it is too often the case that one dimension of the liberal arts is held up as the liberal arts, which leaves the impression that the liberal arts do not change over time, leaving us to ponder how we managed to integrate women’s studies, African American studies, neurosciences, behavioral biology, environmental studies and other fields into the arts and sciences over the last generation or two. The tendency of limiting the liberal arts to the humanities can even leave highly learned members of the academy confused. As an example, I recently asked a noted mathematician and recent hire at Emory to serve on a new commission to rethink the liberal arts for the 21st century. He responded that he was not a humanist and knew little about the liberal arts. Recall, however, that mathematics was one of the original liberal arts.
Are there reasons to worry about the liberal arts or at least to be concerned? Objectively, yes. We know that between 1945 and 1975 undergraduate enrollments in the United States grew by 500 percent. Yet, since the end of WWII the percent of students in liberal arts colleges has dropped steadily – 25 percent in 1950; 8 percent in 1975; and a mere 3 percent by 2010. At the same time, arts and science B.A.s, which accounted for 47 percent of graduates in 1968, fell to 26 percent by 1986, only to grow to 34 percent in 2010. This last figure suggests, however, that perhaps more is going on that beguiles us all, and that we may be proclaiming a death prematurely.
Of course, this worry about declension or backsliding is not new. In 1971 a young James Axtell, who would go on to a celebrated career at the College of William and Mary, penned the essay, “The Death of the Liberal Arts College,” in which he chastised historians for overstating the demise of the liberal arts tradition and the value of the liberal arts college. “The obituary they wrote,” he observed, “reads something like this”:
“Dateline Washington, 2 July 1862. The American Liberal Arts College died today after a prolonged illness. It was 226 years old. Born on the salty backwashes of the Charles River … shortly after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, the scion of Puritan Reform and Renaissance Civility grew to sturdy usefulness in the colonial years by overseeing America’s leaders prior to their war for independence. When the new nation emerged, however, demanding a larger, more expert [italics mine] citizenry, The College was unable to overcome its aristocratic origins … In the 1820s, when Jacksonian Democracy was urging needed reforms on American Institutions, The College’s role in society contracted into a stance of pugnacious conservatism … Today, after a recent cardiac arrest, its heart stopped on the floor of the House of Representatives, just as the roll call for Justin Morrill’s Land-Grant Act had ended.”
So what is our task going forward? I would like to think it is: “owning the liberal arts.” Or stated differently, what should be the character, qualities, attributes and intangibles of a liberal arts education in 25 years? Imagine, if you would, that you had been assigned the task of being part of a committee to re-examine the liberal arts at Concordia, and you were given 12-18 months to complete the project. Everything is understood to be on the table and there are no prescribed safe harbors. A charge could look something like the following:
In the next 12-18 months I would like for you to take a broad and deep look at liberal arts education over the next quarter century. The questions that have been previously rehearsed can be broken into five general areas, including content, structure, form, schedule, and innovation.
- What should be the core elements of a liberal arts education as we look ahead? Are we confident that a disciplinary approach is the answer? Interdisciplinary? Please take a close look at our current content and think hard about what should be changed, if anything? Engineering, at least in the first two years? Should we create a developmental approach to critical reasoning, for example?
- Should we contemplate more major-minor possibilities? What new degree offerings can or should we imagine?
- Are we best to emphasize either a core educational approach in the first two years or a general educational orientation?
- Are departments and programs as currently configured the best options going forward? Can we and should we take advantage of faculty talents across the college to deliver content? Are there new partnerships that warrant considerations, especially with the professional schools nearby?
- Residential education has been the hallmark of the liberal arts experience for ages. We can imagine that this will remain the primary way students learn from faculty and one another. Yet, can we also see a time when a certain percent of course instruction will come through other modalities, especially digital and distance? Are there effective ways of delivering more content by using other modalities?
- Should we consider a yearlong schedule that dispenses with the current September-May academic calendar? Are there other changes or tweaks that are worth considering?
- What completely new changes make sense?
- Should a capstone research experience become a core element of the curriculum for all undergraduate students?
- Are there innovative programs or changes that we should review and possibly emulate?
These questions will most certainly generate another set of questions. Who, for instance, are the proper stakeholders – Faculty? Students? Alumni? External stakeholders? Administrators? All? And if we shifted from departmental to intellectual themes, how do we bring coherence to the fields of knowledge? Moreover, should colleges and universities think about new partnerships, where they share faculty talent and other resources?
Or what content areas truly warrant consideration? Arts? Sciences? Humanities? Social sciences? What about engineering sciences? A study of the created world? What about study of all of the professions? Should students be afforded the luxury of creating their own areas of interest? If so, how do we avoid intellectual chaos, or worse yet, the production of frivolous areas of inquiry that have little market interest or staying power?
As we look to the future, are there educational skills that we expect all students to attain upon graduation? Writing and speaking well and critically, for example? Meanwhile, should we insert new expectation for critical engagement with the digital world? Where does research fit in the design? Should all of our graduates be required to complete an independent research project before graduating?
What should crosscut the disciplinary approach? To be fully educated, should our graduates be intellectually conversant with global thinking, race and difference, sexuality and religion? Should that be the hallmark of a contemporary liberal arts education? Should all students simultaneously be literate in science, math, and politics or history, art, and philosophy? Should they know at least one language other than English and have experience living abroad?
Is there anything that we have done or covered that makes less sense to include going forward? If we only add and never subtract, how do we afford the cost of producing such an education in the years ahead, especially given current financial limits?
As critical, is there a new sense that students learn and must learn differently? How do we deliver this education in the future? How much is residential? If we adopted a year-round approach, would or should the course of study take three rather than four years? How much of the instruction should employ digital modalities? Is a hybrid model a part of the future, somehow? Furthermore, how do we explore the value of active learning approaches or design a curriculum so that the course of study is explicitly developmental – that is, each course builds on the previous course and lower-division courses have different learning outcomes than upper division courses? Finally, in a rapidly changing environment, how do we inculcate broad knowledge and skills suitable for ethical and effective engagement as citizens, professionals and academics? Or stated differently, how we think about the production of citizen-scholars in the generation ahead?
In sum, how do we address American higher education as both beauty and beast? Allow me to return to James Axtell for a moment. While the obituary for the liberal arts has been crafted one too many times, all ways prematurely, it is the case the higher education landscape changed profoundly after passage of the Morrill Act helped introduce the large, state-supported land grant university. Is now not the perfect time for us to self-confidently and boldly tell the world, after a period of internal reflection, that we are prepared to bet on our version of the future? So what should a liberal arts education look like at Concordia, Emory and other institutions in 25 years? Let’s start a discussion.