Universities and the Liberal Arts Too

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A second installment of thoughts about the present state of the liberal arts in our educational setting.  The Chronicle of Higher Educationreleased a series of articles called “The New Liberal Arts” on March 5.  Now seems an appropriate time to discuss this issue further.  Let me summarize what I wrote a week ago. Here it is in a nutshell—our society and our educational system prizes specialization and professionalization. The public endorses this in the most practical way possible, by enrolling in every greater proportion. Yet when business and other leaders are asked what they desire in employees, they point to critical thinking, good communication, and the ability to work in teams, etc. the subjects that are usually associated with the Liberal Arts, with its broad range of disciplines, unspecialized curriculum, and its softer sciences

The Chronicleseries points to the problem the liberal arts face, the practicality of students, and the needs of first generation students, then goes on to point to several public and private colleges and universities and their experiments in the liberal arts.  Southern Vermont tries to launch students into professional careers through embedding small-class learning environments into their curriculum; Bennington develops programs that focus on public problems.  The president of Bennington, Elizabeth Coleman, is quoted as saying that one of the problems of liberal arts institutions is that they have “professionalized the liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the intellectual range and heightened capacity for civic engagement that is their signature.” 

In this she may well be right.  The article’s focus on critical thinking, and cross disciplinary work is not the same thing as what has traditionally been the focus of the liberal arts.  In that traditional focus history provided a window into public service and an understanding of political order; literature required the student to struggle with great works of imagination and insight; languages acquainted one with how others thought and created words to understand their world; philosophy confronted students with perennial questions and answers, often in conflict on with another and required that they sort through them, weigh and test them. The current focus on critical thinking seems often to substitute the hammer for the house.   

The series also mentions the experiments that even public schools are conducting the in creation of liberal arts institutions.  A significant number of students enroll, still, however, a small percentage of college and university student overall.  These seem to be living and often compelling experiments by highly dedicated and committed faculty members and administrators.

When all is said and done, however, these experiments are limited and it seems that the focus has been lost. So what can one do? At the risk of being irrelevant, I will list several things that a creative university might do to develop its liberal arts character and at the same time remain relevant to the marketplace and its demands. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have hardly a utopian bone in my body, and little patience for lost causes.  I intend the following as a practical list of practical steps which would, I think, strengthen our institutions and the learning we attempt to develop in our students.

A university that wants to retain the best of the liberal arts in our professionalized-specialized world might…

  • Limit the size of its professional majors, recognizing that students will develop their specialties as they move on in their careers. The goal of the bachelor’s degree should be getting the student into their first job and graduate school, not creating master’s level specialists.
  • With the size of the major limited, a good university will offer breadth of learning in the traditional arts, humanities and sciences.  These might be in the form of minor programs requiring 15-20 units, or small concentration sequences that students can take in 2-4 courses, or even just electives that broaden the mind and experience.
  • Provide a general education core that requires (yes “requires”) grappling with great ideas, great works of art, historical events and problems.  I realize that I beg the question by naming these “great.” I do this intentionally understanding that each faculty will need to debate this. At Fresno Pacific we did this nearly twenty years ago and developed a core program that weaves together world civilizations, biblical and religious studies, and current topics. My experience tells me that this kind of discussion requires ongoing nurturing and debate.
  • An excellent university will teach not only what we know in or through particular fields of study, or what we think we know, but will also teach in extensive enough a fashion to also discuss what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and why we think we do not know it. One of the problems of our overly specialized world is that we seem to think that we have or ought to have answers to everything. Recognizing the limits of our knowledge may be more an attitude and approach than something instituted. It requires a faculty dedicated to learning itself, which is always pushing the limits of its discipline, and recognizing the limits of its wisdom.

A university today must meet the needs of the public for trained knowledge workers (such an ugly phrase), and will and must provide the curriculum and programs that produce student ready to assume roles in our professional world, but it can and should encourage a kind of knowledge, broader and deeper than our specialized areas of study promote.  When it finds a way of doing so it will be extending the great strengths of the liberal arts tradition into the future.

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