Questions about the value and future of an American liberal arts education are hardly a new phenomenon. But the Great Recession has led to a cottage industry in books and articles that pit the need to educate students for lives of virtue, which is the traditional focus of the liberal arts, against the increasing need to prepare students for careers and jobs.
Although my own position, unsurprisingly, is that the fundamental philosophy of the liberal arts is more relevant today than it ever was, I base this belief on the strengths and weaknesses that today’s students bring to college. These strengths and weaknesses, in fact, are the opposite of what they were 20 years ago.
When I first started teaching, I found myself writing comments on term papers along the lines of, “You have a great thesis and you argue it with great passion and fluent writing. Unfortunately, you have no evidence to support it.”
When I left teaching a few years ago, I was writing comments like these: “Congratulations on the mass of data you have discovered. Unfortunately, you have no thesis or central argument. I have no idea what you are trying to prove.”
Students today can easily find information. The challenge is making sense of the whole, finding connections, evaluating the credibility of the information, taking a position, and dealing with complexity.
If ever there was a time when we should be emphasizing education – more than distributing information or training for specific jobs – if ever there was a time for the classic liberal arts, this is it. And I worry that in our enthusiasm to embrace new technologies, we will play too much to our students’ supposed strengths, ignoring the weaknesses they bring to us.
It is hard to find a commonly agreed-upon definition of the liberal arts. For those of us who experienced this kind of education, the definition would be personal. If we went to a college that claimed to be a liberal arts college, we would define a liberal arts education as what we got there.
For me, a liberal arts college is one premised on learning together what we cannot learn alone. A liberal arts education provides perspective and raises the “why” question along with the “what” question. In a hierarchy that starts with information, then moves up the ladder to knowledge, and then even higher to wisdom, a liberal arts college aspires to be operating at the highest rung.
One of the best books I have ever read on the liberal arts came out this year. “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be” was written by Andrew Delbanco, a literature professor at Columbia University. Early on, he provides wonderful focus for what is to come.
“A few years ago,” he writes, “I came upon a manuscript diary – from 1850 – kept by a student at a small Methodist college, Emory and Henry, in southwest Virginia. One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal: ‘Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.’”
Mr. Delbanco considers that probably the best way to define the mission of the liberal arts: to teach people how to think and how to choose.
It’s probably also as good a description as I can find right now for what we are supposed to be doing as leaders of higher education.