Saving the Life of the Mind

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

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.
February 28, 2010

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.