Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 10, 2014

decline of the liberal arts?

Minding the Campus sets forth a question:

As students and their families rethink the value of the liberal arts, defenders of traditional education are understandably ambivalent. On the one hand, the diminished stature of the liberal arts seems long overdue, and this critical reevaluation might lead to thoughtful reform. On the other, this reevaluation might doom the liberal arts to irrelevance. To that end, Minding the Campus asked a list of distinguished thinkers a straightforward question: should we be unhappy that the liberal arts are going down? Here are responses from Heather Mac Donald, Thomas Lindsay, and Samuel Goldman.

Three more answers, by Patrick Deneen, Peter Wood, and Peter Lawler follow here. Each respondent agrees with the question’s premise, though there’s a partial dissent from Samuel Goldman, who notes that “liberal education can't be reduced to colleges, course offerings, or graduate programs” — liberal learning and the experience of great art happen outside these formal settings, and we don't have any reliable ways of measuring how often.

Goldman’s point is a good one, and I’d like to imitate its spirit and inquire more seriously into the assumptions underlying the conversation.

First of all, we might note that enrollment in university humanities course is not declining, despite everything you’ve heard. But the respondents to the Minding the Campus would not be consoled by this news, since, as several of them point out, humanities and arts programs have all-too-frequently abandoned the teaching of traditional great books and masterpieces of art — or at best have made the study of such works optional.

But even if that’s true, it may not support the claim that “the liberal arts are going down.” Consider the things we’d need to know before we could draw that conclusion:

  • What are the geographical boundaries of our inquiry? Are we looking just at American colleges and universities, or are we considering what’s happening in other countries?
  • What are the temporal boundaries of our inquiry? If we’re comparing the educational situation today to 1960 the trends may look rather different than if we’re comparing our present moment to 1600.
  • What does a student need to be doing in order to qualify as studying the liberal arts in some traditional form? Do they need to be majoring in a liberal-arts program that follows some (to-be-defined) traditional model? Or would an engineering major who had participated in a core curriculum like that at Columbia, or a pre-law major here at Baylor who took the pre-law Great Texts track, count?
  • What population are we looking at? We might ask this question: “What percentage of full-time college and university students are pursuing a traditional liberal arts curriculum?” But we might also ask this question: “What percentage of a given country’s 18-to-22-year-olds are pursuing a traditional liberal arts curriculum?”

That last point seems to be especially important. If we were to ask the second question, then we’d have to say that a higher percentage of young Americans are studying traditional liberal arts than are doing so in almost any other country, or have done so at almost any point in human history — would we not? When the traditional liberal-arts curriculum that Minding the Campus prefers was dominant, a far smaller percentage of Americans attended college or university. So maybe the liberal arts — however traditionally you define them — aren’t going down at all, if we take the whole American population and an expansive time-frame into account. The question just needs to be framed much more precisely.

2 comments:

  • Good point, Ajay.

    I would offer the following as a means to achieving precision: the concern is likely not one of real, but of relative numbers of students. So the first question is more important, I think.

    Also, I think that the sorts of people willing to study the liberal arts seems to be reducing itself. That is, would-be leaders of civil society are steering more often away from the liberal arts. So, to add complexity to the search for precision, it might be that we need to look at the sorts of careers and test scores that liberal arts students have and had.

    That, and many who, I think fairly, bemoan the diminution of the liberal arts would agree that often what goes on in purportedly liberal arts classes is nothing of the sort, right? For that part, I'm not sure how to help in the pursuit of precision.

    As ever,
    @MTMehan

  • I have not looked into the numbers, but I wonder how many students from the hey day of liberal arts study came from entrenched wealth and therefore could be generally guaranteed employment upon the completion of their studies. With the attendance of college much more egalitarian these days, the majority of students need to major in something that will help them land a job (and pay off those student loans) and perhaps the liberal arts seems a less direct route to those earnings.

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