What To Do About the Vanishing Liberal Arts?
I should start this post off with this disclaimer: I have no idea how to save the study of liberal arts. I am, however, fascinated by the fact...
I should start this post off with this disclaimer: I have no idea how to save the study of liberal arts. I am, however, fascinated by the fact that it appears to be vanishing.My fascination with liberal arts stems from my ignorance of it. As a prospective undergraduate, I was steered towards preprofessional fields, like science, engineering and business, by parents who wanted to make sure I would live comfortably as an adult. I am not sure I knew what a liberal arts school was until I visited Swarthmore on a college tour arranged by my private high school. To me, it looked more like a summer camp than a school.Just because I grew up unaware their function doesn't mean I think it's good news that Ohio's Antioch College no longer exists (though there's an attempt to bring it back by 2011) or that Reed College is trading in students who'd need financial aid for those who can easily foot its nearly $50,ooo per year cost. Reed's predicament illustrates the biggest knock on liberal arts education: that its training is in non-job-related intellectual thought for those who have considerable funds to burn on it.A recent In These Times piece laments: "The liberal arts are not the only source of a valuable education, but they place an unparalleled emphasis on critical thinking, integrated learning and civic engagement." ANew Yorker piece from a couple weeks ago quotes a Berkeley English teacher saying that amidst the cutbacks throughout the U.C. system, "most humanities departments lost their phones this fall, while most science departments haven't."Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and a graduate of Tennessee's The University of the South (better known as "Sewanee"), last week penned a defense of liberal arts education. In it, he notes that Barack Obama began his higher education at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed (while getting some measure of inspiration for the Macintosh from a calligraphy class he took there). Unfortunately, his "defense" ends up feeling more like wishful thinking:"It is just possible, though, that the traditional understanding of the liberal arts may help us in our search for new innovation and new competitiveness. The next chapter of the nation's economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected."I know way too many hard-working, innovative, and, perhaps most importantly, hire-able people who have liberal arts degrees-a few of whom are staff members at this publication-to argue with Meachem's intuition. But, as a non-liberal arts student, I wish he had more data.So, what can we do to save liberal arts?Since at least 2004, when he penned a piece on the subject for The Atlantic, Richard M. Freeland, the former president of Northeastern University and current Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner, has suggested supplementing liberal arts curriculums with internships, study abroad programs, and practical skill development that would make graduates more attractive as professionals-and thus make a liberal arts education appear more worth spending big money on. It's hard for me to say whether such a tack would work, given my educational experience. The idea though doesn't sound totally ridiculous to me.It's probably better to throw the question to you guys: Could Freeland's idea be a way to preserve the study of liberal arts? Or does it go against the primary goals of a liberal arts education?