On Liberal Education

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.

8 thoughts on “On Liberal Education

  1. Mr. Bivens-Tatum,
    I’m the author that you are criticizing above. I thought I’d take a moment to try to clarify and defend myself.
    a) My comments were taken a bit out of context in the article, because I answered some of the reporter’s questions without knowing the exact context in which they would be presented.
    b) Having said that, I still think my quotes reflect my basic beliefs. But I was really referring to “liberal arts education” in general, not just liberal arts colleges.
    c) My main concern is financial. Too many students these days are borrowing too much money for college, and then dropping out or graduating and receiving low starting salaries. I think you would agree that it does our society no good to take our best and brightest students and hamper them with high debt and low salaries.
    d) If a student wants to pursue liberal arts education, I would simply encourage them to keep their debt low, and to take a few classes (or obtain a few internships) that will make them attractive in employers’ eyes.
    e) I don’t think that every single college class has to have an overt practical component. But, if students take 32 classes during their entire college careers, I think it would be valuable for them to take at least a handful of classes that do have specific practicality. I don’t think that’s asking too much, and I don’t think that would taint the “purity” of whatever kind of liberal arts training you admire.
    Let’s find the common ground rather than sniping and criticizing one another.

  2. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I wasn’t trying to snipe, by the way, though obviously I have broad disagreements with your position, which I took to apply to “liberal education” more generally. I also suspected that some comments were taken out of context, and thus tried to fill in what I thought the best possible motivation–financial.
    Having some grad school student loan debt of my own, I can certainly appreciate the financial concern, and I would certainly agree with the concerns in point C above. Finance is certainly a concern.
    Part of my disagreement is motivated by a concern for liberal education in general, which is often under attack. It’s not practical enough, it doesn’t bring in the research grants, it’s driven by elitist socialists, etc. The liberal arts are criticized from many positions, as I’m sure you’re well aware. When under attack, one defends. Some people try to defend the liberal arts by emphasizing their “practical” results, for example that liberal arts graduates often have good writing, communication, and analytical skills which are very general but applicable to many specific situations; or that they are good preparation for entering professions such as law. This is true, but in my opinion an attempt to defend liberal education using rules of justification incompatible with such education–that of practicality and perhaps also financial considerations. The liberal arts aren’t practical. They’re not supposed to be.
    Having a concern for college costs and debt is very sensible, but I question the kind of cost benefit analysis that argues one won’t recoup college costs or won’t for several years or whatever. That kind of talk is completely appropriate for vocational training, which is undertaken to learn how to do a specific job.
    But it’s inappropriate for discussing liberal education because it makes assumptions incompatible with the aims of liberal education. The goal isn’t to make money or get a job. It’s a question of value, certainly, but value in two different senses–tangible and intangible. Liberal education isn’t less valuable than vocational training because it doesn’t get you a job and make you money; it’s just valuable in an intangible way, much as reading a book, watching a film, or playing baseball are valuable in intangible ways.
    As for point E above, I suppose it would depend on what sort of classes you’re talking about and what they would do that would supposedly make college graduates attractive to what kinds of employers. There’s certainly a place for vocational training, but 32 classes really isn’t that many when one considers how much there is to learn. Practical and vocational training soon goes out of date, whereas a benefit of a liberal education is learning how to learn and how to adapt and educate oneself in the future. It’s arguable, though I won’t make the argument, that the more general education is a better preparation for adapting to change in the future, and that specific vocational training is best left to specific employers, rather than considering colleges places to train employees.
    It may be that liberal or even college education just isn’t for everyone. Many students go to college not because they’re interested in education or learning, but because they want the credential to aid them in gaining future employment. These students shouldn’t be in college in the first place, but the solution is to emphasize alternative vocational paths (which already exist) rather than claim that liberal education is problematic because it isn’t something it never aimed to be. Do employers really want college-educated graduates? Or do they want people already trained to do a particular job? Do employers not benefit from the adaptability and capacity for self-learning of the liberally educated? If they don’t, then they don’t want educated employees. If they do, they shouldn’t want colleges watering down their curricula with vocational training.

  3. I really think that we have a lot of common ground, but most of your comments and assumptions are so far off and so contradictory of each other that I don’t know where to begin.
    For example, you say that it’s important for everyone to have a liberal arts education, but then you say that those who just want a credential shouldn’t even be in college. Why not? Doesn’t liberal arts education have something to offer the students who want a credential?
    And that’s just one example of the nature of your comments. OK, one more example. I tried to meet you on some common ground, saying that just 10% of practical content could be helpful for students, but you won’t even meet me there. Instead, it seems that you think that even one practical class would be a complete waste of students’ time, even if it could help them obtain one of their dream jobs.
    Let’s start there. In my opinion, knowledge is priceless, but it is also free. Students can obtain knowledge outside of college, often for free from places like the library, Internet, or even just study groups or book groups with others. College should not be the end of students’ education, it should be the beginning.
    Colleges have a monopoly on degrees, but they don’t have a monopoly on knowledge.
    In addition, the true purpose of liberal education, of which you seem to be unaware, is to light an intellectual fire within students, not “fill a pail.” In other words, a liberal arts education is supposed to encourage students to learn outside of school, rather than simply fill their brains with facts. I know you don’t agree with me, but 28 classes should be enough to accomplish this.
    The reality is that college is expensive. The reality is that employers require college degrees for jobs. The reality is that there is no empirical scientific evidence that a liberal arts education does any better than a practical education, like a business school education, in helping students to be more flexible in the future. There’s no evidence that a business school education goes “out of date” as you claim, any more than a liberal arts education does. I’ve studied the research literature and I see no evidence of your claims. If you know of any studies, please point me in their direction. As far as I can tell, the effectiveness of a liberal arts education is all based on peoples’ opinions. After all, how are the liberal arts “degree requirements” picked? Pretty arbitrarily as far as I can tell. There’s no scientific evidence that the combination of those particular classes add up to anything meaningful. And in the studies I’ve seen, employers are unhappy with the skills of many liberal arts grads.
    Let me take a step back. Maybe we just have our definitions mixed up. I’m assuming that you are lumping things like “business school” in the vocational category. However, perhaps you view business school as a type of liberal arts education, and by vocational training you are referring to things like plumbing. If you approve of undergraduate business school training, then perhaps we are on the same page. If you have contempt for business school, then we’re not on the same page.
    To boil it down, that’s basically what I’m suggesting. That every student be exposed to some business classes. Classes that will allow them to get decent jobs, should they decide not to pursue the other careers they had in mind. I’m tired of seeing liberal arts students graduate and be unable to find decent jobs. I’m tired of seeing them struggle with unmanageable debt.
    And it’s not an “either/or” premise. Study what you want. But keep your education costs low. And throw in a handful of business classes, to cover your butt. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

  4. Were you really up at 1am commenting on this blog? Perhaps the late hour explains some of your confusion.
    First, I don’t think study of the liberal arts is for everyone. As I was once asked at Illinois: “Why do I need to know how to write well; I’m going to be a farmer.” I’ve met plenty of students who resist even a minimal liberal arts distribution requirement for their degree.
    As for dated study, the last philosophy seminar I attended studied Plato. We read texts and discussed questions that have been discussed for about 2400 years. The texts don’t go out of date. The questions are perennial questions of the human condition. Perhaps that the sort of timeless instruction that goes on in business classes and I’m just not aware of it.
    As for undergraduate training in business, I neither approve of it nor have contempt for it. I don’t care about it at all. If students want to go to college cheaply to get trained in business, they can go to their relatively inexpensive regional state universities and take all the business classes they want. I would like students to be able to find jobs as well, but college isn’t necessarily the place for practical job training, and students who don’t take business classes aren’t necessarily fools.
    I only hope the tone of your book is as moderate as some of the comments here, because the title certainly isn’t, and judging by the title of your book and some of your other comments, you’re being disingenuous in your moderation. The implication seems to be that anyone who goes to college, studies the liberal arts, and doesn’t take business classes is a “sucker,” and that liberal education is a great “rip-off.” As one of those “suckers” myself, perhaps it’s natural that I would resist such philistinism.

  5. You’ll be happy to know that you’ve misinterpreted my book’s title! I don’t think that liberal arts students are fools, I don’t think that liberal arts students are suckers, I don’t think that liberal education is a rip-off.
    My title refers to my belief that, these days, too many colleges act like aggressive businesses, trying to get as much money from students as possible. When colleges financially explout their students to increase their profits, they leave no sucker – or victim – behind. My book proves that statement in its first 100 pages.
    You’ll also be happy to know that my book applauds liberal arts colleges for their excellent teaching. I even direct students to learn about the liberal arts colleges touted in “Colleges That Change Lives,” and “Colleges of Distinction.”
    Again, my fear comes down to the prices that students are paying for their degrees, and the salaries they can expect when they can graduate. I’m not necessarily advocating for students to be rich; I’m advocating for them to be employed and financially independent. As one recent graduate says in my book: “I didn’t expect to be rich, but I did expect to be able to make a living.”
    The one thing you haven’t commented on so far is your knowledge of how many college graduates are struggling financially. I wonder if you’re aware of the number of grads who can’t find jobs with decent salaries and/or benefits. I wonder if you’re aware of the number who have to return home to live with their parents because they can’t pay their bills. I wonder if you’re aware of the number that give up on their career dreams just so they can get higher-paying jobs so they can afford their loan bills. I wonder if you’re aware of the number that delay marriage and child-rearing due to their high college loans and low post-college salaries.
    Those are the people I worry about. And I believe that low college costs and a tiny bit of practical content in college could help future students achieve better outcomes.

  6. It does sound like I have misinterpreted your title, and that perhaps we are in much more agreement than I realized. Based on the original article, it’s very hard to tell, though, as I’m sure you’ll understand. You can also probably understand my own perhaps excessive defensiveness regarding the liberal arts and toward the idea that I might be a “sucker.” Even if I was, I wouldn’t want to admit it.
    I can certainly understand the point regarding the aggressive attempts by some colleges to get as much money as possible, and I’m very ambivalent about the subject. I couldn’t have afforded to attend the very institution I work at, though it’s not a liberal arts college and its benefits to students are quite generous. However, I think about my own education in relatively inexpensive state universities, and I would compare it favorably with that in many very expensive liberal arts colleges based on the final product–the graduates.
    When you’re book comes out, I’ll have to acquire it for my library and see the argument for myself.

  7. I’d be honored if you would include my book within your library.
    I agree that an education from an inexpensive college is often just as good (if not better) than one from an expensive college. That’s one of the main points in my book.
    If you’d like to learn more about my book and my opinions on higher education, check out my blog. Simply Google “No Sucker Left Behind.”
    All the best.

  8. Interesting debate gents. I have an English BA, a graphic design diploma, and an MLIS. My graphic design diploma has been an “added value” feature on my resume that gets me the job interview, while my poise and communication skills from liberal arts gets me the job. A librarian who designs and talks real good. Sold!
    I’m a big fan of balance. As far as I’ve seen, most liberal arts schools are adding more practical components to their courses, and I completely agree with that move. More students need to realize that they need balance to get jobs, if they want to enjoy “the humanity” of liberal arts, which I love and protect, and yet hate for the HUGE debt it gave me. But was it worth it? Oh just ask me.
    My point then, and perhaps a point you make in your book No Sucker, is to encourage students to make their own balance of dollars and doughnuts. Do something practical after the liberal education. After all, that’s what sciences do. Doctors, engineers, and teachers have “useless” BSc’s. The BSc is just as worthless on its own at this point (except they still get better funding) as the liberal arts degree.
    Students should realize that they can mix it up and that they don’t have to do it all in one go. Ignoring these two points is to dig a large hole, jump in, and work in retail for the rest of your life. Which is ok too (minus the debt), if that’s what you want to do.

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