Fading liberal arts leave a dangerous vacuum

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Liberal Arts Institutions have historically flourished as havens from the pressures of the outside world, a place where students' attention can focus on the wider use of the mind. Ten years ago, students agreed overwhelmingly with this precept.

Today, all that has changed: The students' goal is now primarily preparation for the workplace. And statistical evidence indicates that, in response, the universities are abandoning their commitment to a traditional liberal-arts education. Increasingly, we see a shift to the practical, and that much sought-after preparation for work.

According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the consumer-driven understanding of education is changing the very nature of our institutions of higher education. In its study of "New entrants to the full-time faculty of higher education institutions," NCES reports that new faculty disproportionately represented subject areas outside the liberal arts. These figures tell a tale that is not surprising: 51 percent of the new faculty entrants specialized in fields of study outside the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and the fine arts. By comparison, 45 percent of the senior faculty specialized outside these areas.

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Liberal-arts institutions are succumbing to the pressures of the outside world, leaving society no space within the community at large to contemplate itself and its past, which is key to ensuring an informed future. The absence of liberal-arts institutions creates a vacuum that crushes an individual's ability to function as a member of a community. Important dimensions of the individual are being ignored.

Speculate for a moment on why China finds itself in such a difficult position when it comes to opening the society to free discussion while keeping strict political controls. Freedom of discussion breeds a desire for political freedom.

Free discussion in the West is based upon the idea that reason is a fundamental differentiating element of our sense of autonomy and is the very foundation of our struggle for equality.

This imperative is central to our sense of political freedom in more than one way. It engages us in self-questioning, and it prompts us to question our community values and our ideologies.

Far too many colleges have responded to a consumerist demand for the practical by turning to the kinds of courses that aim students directly toward the workplace.

The revised courses are indicative of this job-oriented view: "Ethics" has become "Business Ethics" or "The Ethical Dimension of Salesmanship." While students used to study the science of biology, they now unquestioningly attend classes called "Health Sciences."

These course titles may be individually benign, but when considered in the whole, they are indications of a dangerous paradigm shift.

The process of "dumbing down," as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York so pointedly puts it, is really a process of avoiding the very heart of the intellectual pursuit by looking for the outcome of a course of study rather than the course of study itself.

We do need a work force that is educated and technologically literate. But those same workers need to be equipped to be thinking, involved members of society.

At a time when other nations find themselves forced to consider values of individual freedom and autonomy, are we turning away from the grounding we have had in our precious commitment to the liberal arts?

We should cherish those institutions that still hold to the value of questioning the society and one's place in it.

Understanding community is not just being willing to serve society; it also demands an understanding of what the society is that we serve.

As educators, let us be certain that our decisions are deliberate ones, and that we are not merely acquiescing. Our current direction bodes poorly for the future of a great nation. Let's wake up and heed the warning.

*John S. Morris is interim president of New England College in Henniker, N.H.

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