Revival of the Liberal Arts?

I am delighted to learn from this week’s Chronicle that, despite the increasing focus on vocational training in higher education, some institutions have gone back to basics by emphasizing the power of a liberal-arts curriculum. I am not against vocational training, but we should be honest about the fact that vocational training, even if it takes place on a college campus, is not the same thing as a higher education. A solid foundation in the liberal arts—including in the physical and natural sciences, mathematics, history, literature, art, music, and philosophy—is critical to ensuring the future value of the higher education for which today’s students pay so dearly. 

Despite what some would have us believe, though, simply attaching the words “critical thinking and real-world problem solving” to the curriculum does not mean that students are gaining the knowledge and skills that are associated with being learned. All too often “critical thinking” is used to describe courses that require no actual learning and in which there are no right or wrong answers. Tell us what you think, and we’ll give you a gold star for thinking it, regardless of how well you can construct an argument or defend your hypothesis using empirical evidence, reliable sources, or well-constructed proofs or logic.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel pointed out the mockery of “real world” problems in that what is “real” is clearly in the eye of the beholder. What is “real” to a tenured professor and what is real to an hourly wage earner or a corporate CEO could be very different things. And to be honest, real “real world” problems are generally far too complex for anyone who lacks a deep understanding of economics, science, technology, diplomacy, history, and psychology to tackle.  Real-world problems wouldn’t be real-world problems if the average undergraduate could solve them. 

Similarly, we must be wary of “modularized” courses which serve only to introduce students to ideas and concepts without requiring them to master critical skills in mathematical computation, literary interpretation, scientific analysis or foreign-language fluency. The idea that a faculty member can “go deeply into one topic” in a course that meets only six times over three weeks is a joke.

And the idea that first-year students have the skills they need to combine “research skills with civic projects, such as conflict resolution in local schools” makes me wonder if the faculty members who teach these courses have any research skills themselves, or have ever spent time in troubled local schools. Such modularized short courses likely serve only to trivialize both the problems students are asked to solve and the skills needed to develop viable and effective solutions. 

With so much focus on college retention and graduation rates—and so little focus on educational quality—I can’t help but wonder if the “new” humanities focus isn’t yet another attempt to dumb down an already dumb curriculum so that more students can have fun and get through.

History is hard if we actually must memorize dates and understand the social, economic, scientific, and cultural context in which various actions occured and decisions were made. Foreign language is hard if we must  learn how to communicate clearly and correctly in another language (especially when we can’t construct a complete sentence in our first language). Mathematics is hard if we must use higher-order algorithms to derive correct answers. Literature is hard if we must master a college-level vocabulary and read for content. Science is hard if we must design and carry out controlled experiments that build upon current theory and evidence to defend or refute our hypotheses.

So, when we can’t get students to do the hard stuff, it might just be easier to have them dribble on and on about what they think or what they feel and call it a day.  

The question is, though, does this sort of education constitute a higher education and does it well prepare a student—and especially a first-generation college student—to succeed in the competitive global marketplace? It is time to stop treating students like consumers and to go back to treating them like students. Students may not like it if they have to perform higher order mathematical functions and get the right answer, or if they have to become proficient in a second language, or even if they have to read classical pieces of literature upon which Eastern or Western civilizations were based, but as the adults in charge, we need to ensure that a diploma on the wall means that the recipient is capable of reading, writing, and performing arithmetic at a level worthy of the sheepskin. 

I urge higher education leaders to initiate a serious discussion about what constitutes a rigorous liberal-arts education—and what does not—and to be sure that liberal arts does not become the new euphemism for social promotion in higher education. After all, a solid, rigorous liberal-arts education provides the best hope that the next generation will be empowered to solve the problems of tomorrow, which we can’t begin to anticipate today.

And it isn’t so bad, given the cost of a college degree today, that a liberal-arts education feeds the soul and enriches the mind, thus allowing individuals to experience the world in a richer, more meaningful, and more satisfying way.  This may be especially important given the current economic outlook since high unemployment and high underemployment may mean that all of those vocationally trained individuals will have to look farther than their weekly paycheck to find a source of joy, satisfaction and higher purpose.


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