• August 27, 2015

Saving the Life of the Mind

As pressure mounts to produce skilled workers, colleges try to promote intellectual values

Colleges Transform the Liberal Arts 1

Wyatt McSpadden for The Chronicle

Southwestern U., a liberal-arts institution in Texas, has begun a campaign to explain its offerings to potential students and their families.

The distress signals are sounding for the liberal arts. Again.

Enrollment statistics show that more than half of all undergraduates now choose majors in business, engineering, or nursing.

On some campuses, budget pressures are squeezing disciplines like German and philosophy into exile or extinction.

And all but the wealthiest of liberal-arts colleges are questioning how long they can stay true to their missions.

But there's another side to this picture. Welcome to the new liberal arts.

At the very time America may most need the liberal-arts traditions of robust inquiry, curricular breadth, and a focus on critical thinking, that genre of education is struggling against a tide of waning student interest and unprecedented financial duress.

"Society has changed, our values have changed, and the economy hasn't helped," notes Robert C. Dickeson, a consultant who has spent his career in higher education as a faculty member, college president, and foundation official.

The growing number of first-generation college students who have been entering higher education tend to avoid liberal-arts programs because they "want majors and programs that pay off" in terms of good jobs, says William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Many liberal-arts colleges themselves added professional programs years ago to support their core offerings. But given changing demographics and the weak economy, most of those colleges are fighting to avoid discounting themselves into bankruptcy or turning away needier students in favor of those who can foot the bill.

"What's happened in the last couple of years could be momentous—it's wrecked the funding base" that had allowed many struggling colleges to stay afloat, says Mr. Sullivan.

Few expect the wealthiest institutions to lose much ground, and to some observers, the prospect of some colleges closing down or, as has been the case of late, selling themselves to a for-profit college operator, isn't a huge problem.

The larger concern, they say, is that liberal-arts colleges and programs will become a less relevant force in higher education­—"too boutiquey," as Michael S. McPherson, of the education-focused Spencer Foundation, puts it. One indicator of that is that while the number of Pell Grant recipients rose by 38 percent from 1993 to 2008, it dropped at two-thirds of U.S. News & World Report's "best" liberal-arts colleges, according to an analysis by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

But at a growing number of public colleges, liberal-arts-colleges-turned-master's-institutions, community colleges, and even some for-profit colleges, the liberal arts are enjoying what that increasingly lonely medieval-English major could only call a renaissance. Taking a new form and, in some cases, going by a new name, the liberal arts are becoming a very visible force in the curricular lives of students. What's more, the number of students majoring in most humanities fields—disciplines viewed by some as the key to a liberal-arts education—has grown since the late 1980s.

The "liberal learning" and "practical liberal arts" that have taken root around the country are a far cry from the Great Books model epitomized by institutions like St. John's College, in Maryland, where the president, Christopher B. Nelson, still speaks quite unselfconsciously about the power of education to open students' minds and help "to fill their souls."

But beyond St. John's and its ilk, the definition has been expanded. At institutions like Hamline University and LaGuardia Community College, liberal arts means not only a course of study featuring a rich mix of disciplines in the arts and sciences, but also an education that emphasizes skills such as complex problem solving and requirements that students learn to apply classroom curricula to real-world experiences.

"It's not just training them for work" or offering academic subjects in isolation, says Linda N. Hanson, president of Hamline and chair of the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, which has been in the forefront of the movement for this new approach.

At LaGuardia, for example, Gail O. Mellow, the president, says, "we don't require art." But many of the 10,000 students there who develop electronic portfolios before they graduate get an education in visual literacy, analysis and reflection, and principles of design.

And even students in vocational fields like nursing are taught concepts that require complex thinking and an understanding of context. "The way in which we conceptualize knowledge is changing," Ms. Mellow says.

This powerful countertrend is reflected in the rise of new organizations like the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, in the 15-year-old New American Colleges and Universities consortium, which includes Hamline and 19 other institutions, and in the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which campaigns against the notion that a liberal education is only for elite institutions or wealthy students. The association now counts more than 1,200 institutions as members.

Whether these new liberal-arts movements reach as deep or as wide as their proponents describe, however, is up for debate.

Indeed, Carnegie's Mr. Sullivan, who is now studying undergraduate business majors around the country, says very few of the programs he's examined include opportunities for true intellectual exploration.

But the definition of "true intellectual exploration" is not a settled question. In the following articles, The Chronicle looks at several institutions reshaping their curricula in ways that are financially sustainable and are meant to graduate flexible, critical thinkers prepared for the complexities of a global society. To different degrees, these colleges are all attempting to redefine the liberal arts for the 21st century.


1. soojournal - March 01, 2010 at 09:03 am

Thank you. This is thought-provoking and useful to those of us working with the college-bound a rapidly changing global society. Re-imagining high school

2. 11245928 - March 01, 2010 at 09:40 am

A major problem with students today is that they begin their education with a sense that everything in the world is new, and they proceed with this vision for most of their lives. The ones who progress from this state to realize that much of their perceived experience is the result of millennia of acting,thinking and learning, much of which has involved cultures well outside their own, will do well. They have the key. The rest remain quite lost until the realization hits home, often after they have lost the ability to use what they could finally learn.

3. jamary - March 01, 2010 at 10:10 am

This article has a bait-and-switch tone: liberal education falling by the wayside? Appears so ... but wait, things have taken a new shape, including self-discovery for instrumentalism in a changing world and electronic portfolios to sell oneself in a dog-eat-dog world raised several notches beyond what was imagined by those of us who, as adolescents, weighed the purely impractical attractions of studying French versus German.
The truth here is that if we as a nation are to preserve regard for the value of a couple thousand plus years of literary, philosophical, cultural and intellectual tradition, this must begin in K-12 education. Compulsory public education is the place where an anchoring of a vision of the wonder of the past, of world history, of the classical age which like it or not did offer much of the basis of the world and culture we know - in a world out to which "Western Civilization" has filled, of the founding of our own nation - which is an essential ground for understanding and participating in democracy as we experience it, of the growth of philosophy, from pre-socratics to the revolutionary age, to existentialism and beyond, including ideas about society from Montesquieu to Marx, of the genesis of ideas which became psychology and sociology and economics - an economics that once belonged to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts - not the School of Business and Management. And literature, from Homer and Plato, to Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Dreiser....we must praise and compliment high school students - by showing them that they have - or that those who will attempt, can have - the ability to glean an appreciation of lives and minds long out of the world they encounter in their growing heap of electronic toys well beyond television (a technology which "with it " educators love to say young people are so familiar with using - but one which an extremely small fraction of youngsters will ever understand in terms of its making and process - viz: how many American youth are headed towards an understanding of the analytical geometry employed in computer graphics? I have seen an isolated youth master such concepts on equipment so 'rudimentary' as an Apple 2e. Today's computers are a million times more powerful, yet the number of American youth (as opposed to youth in ...... ) who have any notion of how a computer works or more deeply, how to instruct it, is miniscule - indeed, a couple of decades ago, some jr h.s. students were learning Basic programming on very 'basic' computers - and in so doing they learned far far more about the supposedly fantastic new world of electronics being reborn each year than do today's typical youth clattering out text messages, twitters, or whatever tomorrow's youth-market "must have" will be.
Liberal arts must be the focus in high school; without that, it will never play enough of a role in enough American college students' careers to have a staying effect. And having high school teachers with subject matter master's degrees and PhD's (rather than degrees in Education) would foster the potential for such a rebirth in American education - for a rebirth it would be; the liberal arts were indeed a focus of secondary education in America 50 years ago.

4. jsarvey - March 01, 2010 at 10:34 am

Too many subscribe to a false dichotomy between liberal arts vs. professional-oriented education. Part of this stems from the failure on the part of most advocates of liberal arts, to update the definition and intended outcomes of a liberal arts education for the 21st century. Most descriptions of a liberal arts education are that it enhances reading, writing, critical thinking, and some familiarity/appreciation for historic traditions of thought/culture/art (although for most liberal arts programs this means "Western" traditions only).

In today's global economy with constant changes and multiple career shifts in a lifetime, it makes more sense than ever for an undergraduate education to provide a broad set of skills. However, they should go broader than reading/writing/critical thinking and include such competencies as: research/discovery/critical analysis of information, project planning and management, teamwork/team leadership, communications skills (including more varied forms of public speaking and writing), technology skills, and so on. In addition, a modern liberal arts education ought to also contribute to the civic development of students along with all of the values and attitudes that that entails.

When students are asked "what are you going to do with that major?" ideally the answer would not be to cite a single intended occupation, but to say that "I'll probably do a variety of things throughout my career, many of which I have no idea at this time. However, throughout all of my roles I'm going to know how to acquire information, discern what's useful and valid, manage projects, work in teams, speak and write clearly and persuasively, and meanwhile, be an informed and active citizen."

5. richardtaborgreene - March 01, 2010 at 11:07 am

In the 5 years I taught MBAs at the University of Chicago, my best students, every year (the best 10 or so each year) were ALWAYS (no exceptions during that limited window of time) philosophy or literature majors in undergrad school. They were never business or econ majors. Why?

I had (and have) my own answers, but instead, at the time, I presented this question to a small CEO roundtable of Chicago area hi tech venture founders, expecting various interesting answers from them. I was TOTALLY disappointed! They all, with 1 exception that I still remember, instantly knew it was language ability---that everything in business depends on and that philosophy and literature programs greatly develop. LANGUAGE USE is everywhere and determine everything in businesses.

CONCRETELY is this true? How does mere language make a person powerful in a business filled filled packed jam packed with econ and business majors?

Again, my CEOs were nearly unanimous---the person who can articulate every party's views, so well they state it better than that party themselves do, convinces all that he/she knows what everyone is saying and can then find (AND articulate) middle ground. Others, lacking great language ability, when stating a position include within it extremist elements that irritate either the party whose position it is or the party whose position it is not. This is but ONE of hundreds of ways, that language is POWER. LANGUAGE IS POWER, and woe be the undergrad who thinks finance and business and econ courses will give them this power.

6. speterfreund - March 01, 2010 at 11:12 am

What would be extremely helpful before the stampede to "practical" majors reaches a point of no return would be for some reputable statistician to do a longitudinal study of earning power in business fields, business majors versus liberal arts graduates. When I did such a study fifteen years ago, using then-available Department of Labor statistics, it turned out that in most business fields, such as finance, management,and marketing, the liberal arts graduates outearned the business graduates significantly. The only field in which business graduates outearned liberal arts graduates was actuarial science.

I want to make two points. First, this comparison is based on good old fashioned liberal arts versus business, not on some "new and improved" liberal arts variant created ad hoc to do battle with the threat of professionalist majors. Second, the liberal arts grads in question apparently had no problem making their way into the business workforce, indicating that employers at that time understood that while business-specific skills are fungible, the skills of observation, analysis, judgment, and assessment acquired in the course of a liberal arts education are not.

The sad fact about most professional education is that it has a lifespan of only so many years, after which one must retool, move up to management, or seek a second career. In my estimation, a strong grounding in liberal arts is a better way to face any of these three options than a narrowly focused undergraduate specialization in what may be either a fad or a fast-moving trend. In a curious twist of fate, what appears to be an attempt to respond to the needs of employers may, in the long run, create a workforce of McEmployees, who make contingent academic labor look attractive by comparison.

7. richardtaborgreene - March 01, 2010 at 11:17 am

HOWEVER, colleges are greatly at fault. The entire idea of "an education" is often slighted by deans, presidents, provosts, foundations, research centers, research professors. How does educating an undergrad help my next NIH or NSA grant application? This attitude of our elite, our top, our admired, our lusted for institutions, trickles down lots faster and more than money ever does for republications. So we DO liberal arts as cul-de-sacs within an ocean of lusted-for research eliteness and grant piles. WHat is important?--each student and generation ask---AND colleges respond?----not education, not self distancing and self doubting, not overcoming the biases and bents of where and when and how one was raised, BUT what is important is ELITENESS---BE LIKE HARVARD, learn to steal billions from government after helping Greece lie to the EU terribly for a decade. THAT is HARVARD's message about what is important (we all know Harvard has the budgets to maintain admirable history, anthro, literature, language, area studies, policy, and other such non-trival rather educative programs). They season the meat---of elites like McNamara (and Goldman Sachs former execs now in Obama-land).

Colleges themselves in their lust for tuitions or whatever give this double bind message---we will fulfill your vocational lusts while decorating your life with semi-educated-nesses. Nice try but no banana.

My personal preference is doing the research that shows that it is the most highly educated persons, in a business like Goldman Sachs, that perform best, get richest, without helping Greece. THAT research is both possible and powerful--and students shown the 64 capabilities of highly educated people and seeing how those 64 distinguish, 10 years early, future VPs from future attempted VPs who do not become VPs, get the message---educatedness pays and I, as a student, lack 48 of the 64 capabilities that define it.

8. educate4life - March 01, 2010 at 02:06 pm

The Chronicle did a nice profile a few months ago about Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in PA. Re-reading that article showed that they seemed to strke that balance between technical competencies and the liberal arts. Looks like require students to learn the STEM major but require (and test for) the mastery of eight core competencies (that strike me as being the cornerstone of the liberal arts.
Critical Thinking
Teamwork and Collaboration
Information Literacy
Ethical Decision Making
Global Awareness
Civic Engagement

9. eyeswideopen - March 01, 2010 at 02:44 pm

Life of the mind? How about life of the human? What seems lost to me in this debate is the question of why we do anything at all? What is it that a human wants from life? There is an assumption that participation in society as a part of the economic machine will be meaningful and fulfilling. If it isn't, does it really matter if college prepares you well to participate?

10. flannigan - March 01, 2010 at 04:05 pm

This is extremely alarming to me, both as someone employed in higher education and as a graduate of a small liberal arts college. I wish I could convey to every student who considers a liberal arts education and then dismisses it how well prepared this type of education makes you for the workforce. It instills intellectual discipline, an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, and that key buzz phrase: critical thinking.

The major concern of employers is that the current college-age employee pool CANNOT SOLVE PROBLEMS!!. This is because they use google, iPhone apps, their parents, you name it. Everything except compiling, analyzing, synthesizing information and drawing conclusions. We are quickly becoming a society that cannot think for itself. That has really scary implications.

11. jsarvey - March 01, 2010 at 05:04 pm

To play devil's advocate and inject some critical thinking into the conversation:
is there any actual evidence that a liberal arts education develops critical thinking or problem-solving skills better than more professionally-oriented majors?

Perhaps the extent to which a student develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills has more to do with the pedagogy than the major.

The predominant required work in most liberal arts classes consists of read these pieces (articles, chapters, books, essays, papers), analyze them, and write a paper (or perhaps take a test where you write an essay). Less frequently, it might also involve participating or leading a meaningful discussion about what you've read. Does this necessarily equip you to analyze and solve a real-world issue? Maybe, maybe not. How would that experience compare to a student majoring in, for example, human services who conducts a community needs assessment, designs a program, and develops a strategic plan for implementing that program, all while working with community residents and other students?

A liberal arts education is much more likely to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills if it's connected to a greater variety of student work/experience including service-learning, internships, editing/working on a student newspaper/journal, leading a student organization, etc.

12. 22122488 - March 02, 2010 at 07:00 pm

Let us look at Europe. The Bologna Declaration that aims at organizing and updating higher education for millions of European students - is adding "Liberal Arts components"to its up to now monolithic (discipline wise) majors. Global awareness, ethics, the roles of history and culture are some of the new objectives in the education of professional engineers, business executives and scientists. But even here in the USA, new proposal for the new Engineering curriculum include a stronger dose of the Humanities, Ethics and Communication skills. Where we proponents of Liberal Education may have failed in the past is that we allowed what appeared to many as a disconnect between the Major and Liberal Education to persist. We now need to make a bolder effort in linking the two branches of learning and make sure that the benefits of Liberal Education are clearly articulated to all. We need to reach out to our colleagues in the professional areas and convince them that they too are rightful stakeholders to Liberal Education as those of us who teach it.

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