Universities and the Liberal Arts

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It used to be that a university like Fresno Pacific might describe itself as a “liberal arts” college.  This seemed to be understood and respected.  And it still is in some places and among some people.  There are many good liberal arts schools around, and they produce very fine graduates, who are proportionally more influential than their peers from research universities.  But in the last 1oo years, the comprehensive research university has gained dominance in the educational world and in the minds of university aged students, their parents, policy-setters, high school counselors, and almost everyone else.  This is so to the extent that many people do not know what “liberal arts” signifies. 

A few years ago we were part of a marketing study in which our potential and current students were asked if they understood and thought positively about the description “Christian college or university.”  Just under 25% responded affirmatively  Then they were asked the same question about the description “Christian liberal arts college or university.”  Less than 15% responded positively.  At that point I stopped using the phrase “liberal arts” when describing what we were.  I figured that we lost 10% of the audience with the use of the phrase. This was a personal blow–I had basically pursued my own education all the way through the doctorate in the liberal arts.  I was apparently way out of touch–others, those closest to me knew this, but self-awareness is not easy. I learned that people thought of liberal arts was opposed to conservative, or that it meant that a student was not prepared to do anything in particular, that they would leave the college, degree in hand, to begin their career at a fast food window.  Or, if they were so inclined, they could teach elementary, and perhaps some subjects in secondary schools.

Students want, as reported in study after study, in increasing intensity over the last two decades, majors that lead them to jobs, well-paying jobs, and entrance into specialized graduate programs. They want faculty who are expert in their specialized fields of study, who are also good teachers.  The model they, and we, see most often in higher education everywhere around us is the research university, with schools of engineering, business, the sciences, human services, education, and the arts (if they lead to specialized careers).  This is a very understandable desire and even necessary in our world.  

A recent article in the New York Times, “Making College ‘Relevant,'” sent to me by one of our Biblical Studies professors, Dr. Brian Schultz (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03careerism-t.html), has kindled some renewed interest on the part of our faculty, who take pride in their teaching in the liberal arts tradition.  A topic or two in the article will explain why.

The article notes that today’s students are much more practically oriented than a generation ago.  They are interested in careers and jobs, more than being well-rounded, critical thinkers, or with a deep appreciation for history, world affairs, or literature.  There are, of course, students who do not fit this trend, but they are now the minority.  And given our economy and the way we finance higher education, the practicality of most students seems like good common sense.

Yet, the article cites a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) of business people and what they seek in new employees.  The highest ranked qualities they seek are “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” “critical thinking and analytical skills,” and “the ability to innovate and be creative.”  That is businesses want people with skills and abilities which are typically associated witht the liberal arts (history, literature, art, rhetoric), not with specialized technical majors.  This conclusion is not news.  We have known it for decades.  Those we at FPU have surveyed mirror this report, but also add that they want students who are ethical and have integrity, right at the top of their list of qualities.  

So students are faced with a puzzling choice. Most of what they read and hear tells them to go to a large university where they will get the specialized knowledge they need to get a job and begin a profession–be it in medicine, accounting or engineering.  At the same time, if we read the reports, businesses and professions are looking for qualities that are not always encouraged in technical fields and specialized academic majors. They may not know it but they are looking for the liberal arts educated student.  What are students to do?

Here is the advice I have been giving students and their parents for the last dozen years at least.  I think it is practical–it works. Your major gets you your first job.  This is the reality.  If you want to become a psychologist, you must study psychology and dig into it as deeply as you can, for instance.  But the broader education you acquire, typcially through a good general education program, electives, and perhaps a minor, gets you your second, third and fourth.  This breadth, the ability to think across disciplinary boundaries, and in depth about our human predicament and the natural world, with the experienced gained from having studied intriguing subjects, great works of art, literature or history, and puzzled over problems and mysteries with insightful professors encourages further creativity, inspires people to great achievement, and to be recognized as leaders in their communities. 

A good university recognizes the reality of the world we live in, the practical necessities we face in our “knowledge society.” And it adopts high ideals and goals, looking beyond the immediate and sometimes short-sighted demands of the market. But is must prove itself. It must show that graduates will and do get that first job, enter into professions, and begin to take their place in our speicalized world. Reports like the one in the Times validate again that there is more to it than that and that good colleges encourage in addition a different kind of learning, whch used to be called with understanding the liberal arts, more difficult to quantify and less easily categorized.  Students can do the same.

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