Assaults on the liberal arts always seem to come from people who don’t understand what liberal education is about.
Being a product and proponent of liberal education, I suppose I should take issue with this article: Liberal Arts Colleges: A Dying Breed? (found via the KUAL). The gist of the story is that liberal arts colleges are dying out because they’re not practical enough. It’s odd to focus just on liberal arts colleges, since most universities and colleges have undergraduates who study the liberal arts. Perhaps all those vocational students attending the universities subsidize the liberal arts students.
However, I couldn’t take issue because I found some of the comments so irrelevant to the issue of liberal education, though perhaps relative to the financial security of some liberal arts colleges. Consider this quote:
If liberal arts colleges are a dying breed, not everyone is in mourning. Career-based education is simply more practical, some experts believe.
“First, we all need to realize that the ‘liberal arts curriculum’ has never been proven through empirical research to be superior to the ‘career college education,’ or even ‘self-teaching,’ for that matter,” says Marc Scheer, Ph.D., author of a soon-to-be-released book about higher education, No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-Off.
I’m not going to make a case for the practicality of a liberal education, though one can certainly be made. Instead, I find the entire statement bizarre, and hope it was taken out of context. What exactly would an empirical study be like that could “prove” a liberal arts curriculum is superior or inferior to vocational education, which is really what “career college education” is, though for some reason the person doesn’t want to use the term. Even vocational “education” is a euphemism for what many would prefer to call vocational training.
The only way the statement makes sense is if we add a purpose. Superior for what purpose? If the purpose is to leave four years of college and immediately be able to do some practical work, then perhaps vocational training is superior to liberal education. I’m assuming that is the context of the person’s thought, because otherwise the remark doesn’t mean much. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of a college “education” is to prepare one to immediately perform some practical job somewhere.
But of course that’s obvious, because the purpose of liberal education and the liberal arts has rarely been to prepare people to perform specific jobs. The liberal arts are liberal because the purpose is to create free human beings knowledgeable about their world, capable of critical thought and sophisticated communication, and poised to develop their human potentials. I know this makes me sound like the unrepentant humanist I am, but it doesn’t take any empirical research to show that a good liberal arts curriculum would go further toward this aim than any vocational training.
The critic of liberal education thinks the problem is the snobby professors.
“Liberal arts colleges need to add some more practical content to their coursework and encourage their instructors to do so. As it stands now, many faculty members have basic contempt for career training. They view it as beneath them. They don’t think career training is part of their job. However, it’s clear that both employers and students want more career training at all colleges. So colleges need to change their long-held contempt for this kind of training, and actively attempt to integrate practical material into their coursework.”
However, I think even here the statement is problematic because of the faulty assumptions. I’m not sure any faculty members at liberal arts colleges have any “basic contempt” for vocational training, but that’s just not what they do. I would bet that a lot of professors believe that a lot of the students that are in college now probably shouldn’t be there because they have no interest in developing their intellects and themselves as free human beings and only want to get a job. If it really is “clear that both employers and students want more career training at all colleges,” then the solution may be for liberal arts colleges to die off, though I hope that doesn’t happen. However, if that really is the case, then it shows only that employers and students don’t really want educated people, not that colleges should start offering more vocational training.
How exactly would one add “integrate practical material” into a seminar on literature, philosophy, or history? What does “practical” mean in this instance? All liberal arts classes aim to develop the critical and communication skills of students as well as understand a topic better. Are these not “practical” skills? The answer is probably in the forthcoming book, but I think I’ll be too busy reading impractical philosophy and literature this summer to have time.
Even here, though, I can’t agree based on my own work experience that vocational training is superior to a liberal arts curriculum. In my experience, those without a liberal education are perfectly capable of performing specific tasks, but often less capable of thinking about the broader context of their work as well as less capable of understanding other perspectives. This certainly isn’t always the case, because intelligence and capacity can make up for a lot, and I’ve certainly known products of liberal arts colleges who were intellectually and conceptually substandard. Still, a liberal education teaches one to examine issues past the surface, to place ideas and actions in context, and to appreciate the diversity of people and motives. These things can come without it, and may not always stem from it, but those goals are parts of the purpose of a liberal education, and are typically not part of any vocational training.
Another odd perspective is that Scheer seems to think only in financial terms. For example:
“Yes, students at liberal arts colleges may recoup their investment over their lifetime,” Scheer says. “But based on my research and the research of others, they probably won’t ‘recoup’ their investment until the age of 33. In addition, students get the same financial payoff from college, whether they spend a lot on their degrees or not.”
However, from the perspective of the liberally educated, this statement means next to nothing. How does one “recoup” an investment in reading a poem or a book or philosophy, or for that matter studying pure mathematics. The “investment” in liberal education cannot be measured in financial terms, but only the liberally educated can appreciate that. Attackers of liberal education think colleges should train employees; defenders think colleges should educate human beings. The financial interest for the individual person may dictate vocational training, but the human interest of the person as well as the social and political interest of the whole require a good dose of the liberal arts.