Defending the Liberal Arts

At a recent conference entitled “What is Liberal Education For?,” scholars gathered at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of its Santa Fe campus as well as to continue the debate about the merits of a wide, knowledge-encompassing degree versus something more practical and focused. St. Johns, known for its Great Books program that provides students with the opportunity to read and discuss many of the classic books in literature, philosophy, and the arts, provides a more classic approach to studying the liberal arts than other colleges and universities.

Inside Higher Education reporter Colleen Flaherty wrote about three individuals who presented their arguments for the merits of a liberal arts education. The arguments were similar to many previously reported elsewhere: a broad-based education is important for contributing to an individual’s historical consciousness, a liberal arts education is important for an individual’s ability to thrive outside of work, and a liberal arts education is important for an individual’s ability to apply critical thinking skills to practical applications.Liberal Arts

As a graduate of a liberal arts program, I appreciate the scholarly arguments about critical thinking and broad-based learning. However, some of the defenders of the cause (myself included) need to take a realistic look at how much college has changed over the past 30 years and why a liberal arts education may not be as attractive to individuals as it once was.

First of all, approximately 20 percent of today’s college students are traditional 18-year-olds attending college full time after graduating from high school. The composition of the “majority” of college students ranges from traditional age (18-24) students working full time and attending college part time to much older college students working full time and attending part time who have come back to college to complete a degree in order to enhance their career or employment prospects. Work is a dominant factor in these students’ lives. Expecting that a degree in History or English or Philosophy would be attractive to these students is overly optimistic. It is understandable that non-traditional students would focus on time to degree completion as well as the relevance of a degree/program major to employment prospects.

During my more traditional route of undergraduate education, I remember embracing the wide diversification of subjects that I selected for classes and thinking that all of them were good preparation for my next round in formal education, graduate school. Even though I was a financial aid student, monetary considerations weren’t as important as today given that my four years of tuition, fees, room and board at Duke University in the 1970s were approximately $12,000 total. That’s vastly different from a $250,000 four-year education at a private college or university today or even $100,000 for the all-in costs of attendance at a flagship public university. Add the consideration of time for degree completion to the consideration of cost and it’s easy to understand why critics call for a more utilitarian education.

I believe that it is unlikely that enrollments in liberal arts programs will return to their historical highs anytime soon, particularly if we don’t find ways to decrease the cost of college, the time to complete a degree, and the expectation of employers that college graduates should be able to understand non-liberal arts topics like finance and accounting.

To lower the costs of college, we could always build out liberal arts degrees utilizing MOOCs, but we’d have to find ways to improve the MOOC completion rates as well as improve ways of providing online discussions of the writings and subjects that create and stimulate the intellect and lead to the development of critical thinking skills. We would also have to find a way to shorten the time to degree completion if a more utilitarian master’s degree like an MBA is to be paired with an undergraduate liberal arts degree. A possible short-term solution could be a liberal arts certificate paired with an undergraduate business degree. That wouldn’t solve the broader issue for the purists, but perhaps a broadening of the perspective would increase the numbers of students taking liberal arts courses leading to a few deciding to change their degrees or to come back for a second degree in a liberal arts program.

If we don’t look for outside the box solutions, it’s likely that the number of liberal arts graduates will continue to shrink. That would be sad, but understandable.

 

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