Education: a broader view

IN all the official lamenting of the demise of the classical liberal-arts education in the United States, and of the too-narrow focus of students on trendy, career-oriented majors, something has been overlooked: a welcome revival of interest in the liberal arts. There is even a rebound of interest in foreign languages - which back during the 1960s and '70s headed too many lists of ``irrelevant'' subjects. Colleges are reinstituting language requirements, both for entrance and for graduation.

Perhaps most interesting of all, US liberal arts education is beginning to move away from its European orientation. Students are pursuing the liberal arts to be ``well rounded,'' and they are realizing that they can't be truly that in a globally interdependent society without learning something of the other cultures around the world as well.

This is not to say that concern about US technological competitiveness has slacked off; the US still needs engineers and computer whizzes. But even among engineering students, an awareness seems to be growing that a few courses in the humanities will prove broadening. Some students are finding that a liberal arts college may be a better place than a technological institute for even a science major, and other students are finding majors in English or even philosophy a lot more ``practical'' nowadays. Being able to think and write clearly can count for more than specific technical expertise. And businesses are coming to appreciate having employees with a certain cultural breadth and depth.

Of course, this one's ``liberal arts'' are another's ``social sciences,'' at least in English. The French, for example, fold in history, sociology, anthropology, and other such fields with language and literature under the general heading of sciences humaines.

Hitherto, liberal arts institutions in North America have looked eastward across the Atlantic. Whatever the transcript actually said, many liberal arts students had really majored in European studies. The career for which they were best ``prepared,'' in a strict vocational sense, was to be perpetual tourists on the Continent, like refugees from a latter-day Henry James novel.

But that is changing as students wonder how, for instance, US products can be made to compete in Japan when Americans' understanding of Japanese culture is minimal or nonexistent.

Japanese-language enrollments are on the way up in the US, as are those in other non-European languages. In California, for example, public-school enrollments in Korean have tripled, though admittedly from a very low base: from one drop in the bucket to three drops.

Even the study of a language with no real live speakers left - notably Latin or classical Greek - is being appreciated once more for what it does to help students learn to think analytically.

Like so many reinventors of the wheel before them, American students are rediscovering that one of the best ``career moves'' is a liberal education.

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