The Much-Exaggerated Death of the Liberal Arts

Today, an article at attempts to address the death of liberal arts in the American higher education system.

I call shenanegans.

Proportionately, liberal arts colleges graduate more students who attend graduate school, receive higher degrees, and become part of a skilled labor force as doctors, lawyers, PhDs, and various other professions. The universities churning out "vocational" students, as referred to in the article, are doing a poorer job at this.

Small liberal arts schools have far better records of alumni giving. They are also less beholden to state funds, and so don’t suffer nearly as much in quality when the state slices the budget. For instance, Centre and Transy will be less devastated than UK by the Kentucky governor's plan to make a 12% across the board budget cut to institutions of higher ed.

Of course fewer people know what liberal arts means — the larger universities are churning out diplomas to people who can barely read. (Heard more than once from a 5th year senior: “I’ve never been to the library, and I made up my data for lab.” Exactly the person I want running FDA trials.) Professors are increasingly dumbfounded by the barely literate papers that are turned in, and the lack of attention span evident in their students, and the same strive-for-mediocrity philosophy that has prevailed in K-12 education is slowly poisoning higher education. At new faculty orientation, faculty are told that they should of course never lower their academic standards, but that they need to do everything in their power to keep a student's grades up, because, after all, that's where tuition dollars come from. When faculty do send students to Honor Court, or whatever passes for a disciplinary body, students are rarely expelled for egregious academic offenses at larger universities, while many of the smaller liberal arts colleges take such breaches of the academic trust very seriously. At my alma mater, the professors gave you various resources and study tips, but if you couldn't hack it, they eventually culled you from the system rather than water down the education.

About the smaller salaries for professors: this is not an indication of how smaller institutions value their professors. It’s often an indication of smaller budgets and spending more on resources per student, where student learning is the priority, as opposed to research universities. For most professors at smaller liberal arts institutions, and I know quite a few, it is a conscious choice of accepting less pay for the opportunity to work with truly motivated undergrads in an environment that supports learning and deep relationships between faculty and their students and a sense of true community.

Small liberal arts institutions win on the quality vs quantity scale — a university education nowadays is given by TAs and adjuncts, often without PhDs. Universities also have ridiculously large classes where it is notoriously difficult for students to develop relationships with faculty (who are overworked and generally more concerned about research than teaching). A single professor is often left with 150 essays or - god forbid - research papers to grade. there is no way students can expect useful, in-depth feedback when their professor has such an overload of student work to attend to.

Students at liberal arts colleges do not have to compete with graduate students for professors' attention. At many liberal arts colleges, students get a jump on graduate level work by collaborating with full faculty on labwork and papers, and present at conferences before many graduate students get the opportunity to do so.

Given that today’s students change *careers* (not jobs, but careers) seven or so times during their lifetime, vocational schooling leaves us with a workforce that is constantly ill-prepared to deal with new challenges and think in innovative, cross-disciplinary ways. A liberal arts education trains the mind to address problems from various angles and not from a single paradigm. A liberal arts education actually increases the employability of a student, and it often exposes them to so many fields in their studies that they have a firmer footing about what they want to do for a living once they graduate. Having a liberal arts education in no way precludes students from pursuing internships and work-related experience while in college. In fact, at most of the liberal arts schools I know in the South, this is highly encouraged. The close relationship most of these schools have with their communities - usually smaller towns and cities - makes such opportunities abundant.

As a beneficiary of a liberal arts education, I am admittedly biased. A liberal arts education is a necessary preparation for graduate study in many fields, and benefits students in a variety of ways, including forcing them outside of their comfort zones, unlike the faceless Ginormo-versity. Things to think about before declaring liberal arts colleges an endangered species, since many of us running the world - or healing its leaders - have a liberal arts background.


Anonymous said…
Colleen, this is substantial and powerful, and beautifully penned.

If you are on Facebook, please search for "The Sudden Death of Liberal Arts in Lahore."
OughtThoughts said…
Hi Colleen,

I personally am indeed lamenting the death of the liberal arts education.

Not to say your observations aren't correct, but to redirect that the issue is not a question of whether there's value in a liberal arts education; rather, it's a question of where the glamorous money is flowing.

Endowments are another form of venture capital investing, where corporations with their own agendas look to score points with up and coming students by naming wings. Not chasing stats but I'm sure it's supportable to suggest that a lot of that money comes from financial and technical sectors and corporations and as such would tend to invest in disciplines with a technical bent.

The headlines love tech. There's much more attention on tech-related topics today than previously. Yes, there are more liberal arts educational institutions out there doing good work, but the perception is that all the action is in tech-related fields.

My concern for the shift towards sciences is that science typically asks quantifiable questions such as "can we do this?" (with the additional "can we do this faster, smoother, cheaper, bigger, smaller, colder, warmer or whatever empiracal measure is sought) and leaves the qualitative questions of "should we do this?" to someone else...but to whom when, increasingly, there are less people making a living just to think.

The erosion of language skills are a concrete symptom of the erosion of thought (since words clothe the invisible person of the idea).

I could drone on, but I won't. Suffice to say, I appreciate your blog and will drop by often.
Colleen said…
Ought - I completely agree. There's as much science & tech going on at liberal arts school as elsewhere, on the undergrad level, and they're likely the places with more money to implement sexier labs and new gadgets, but they dont get as much press. Have you read Jaron Lanier's "You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto"? He addresses that concern about tech folks addressing all of the "can we" without the "should we", making an argument for humanistic technology application. Very interesting, and timely. Thank you for stopping by!
OughtThoughts said…
Re: Lanier, I will check him out, thx :-)
OughtThoughts said…
Well, waddya know, look who popped up on At the Summit at Stanford

Jaron Lanier on why teenagers might start shunning social-media.


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