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The Crisis in Liberal Arts Education

• July 29, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Questions about the direction and pertinence of a liberal arts education mirror questions being asked about the classical university as a whole.

Consider an anecdotal piece of evidence on the crisis of liberal arts education in America.

A student recently came into my office, seeking advice on whether to declare sociology or Asian-American studies as her major. I took a deep breath.

The student explained that her mother preferred sociology because she recognized it as a discipline. She, on the other hand, preferred Asian-American studies because she liked the classes better. The career services counselor told her she was going about it the wrong way. Think about the type of work you are interested in, the counselor advised. The major is secondary. This struck me as unhelpful advice, particularly in our recessionary times.

The deep breath was a stall tactic because I didn’t know what answer to give her. I wanted to tell her to march over and take some accounting classes, but instead I toed the (liberal arts) party line and said that both were fine and equal, and that she should choose the major she enjoyed more.

The fact was, I didn’t have a clear answer for why picking either major was a good idea. And for the moment, I want to punt my responsibility and say that my lack of a clear answer is the lack of a clear answer in liberal arts education as a whole.

What is to be gained in spending thousands of dollars reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxine Hong Kingston? Why learn about the glass ceiling in a sociology class if you are going to hit it anyway a decade after graduation?

Sounding an alarm on the crisis of liberal arts education is nothing new, but in our current moment, this alarm is accompanied by a much wider crisis in the university as a whole.

If, as Louis Menand suggests in his slim, evocative book The Marketplace of Ideas, the template of the modern American university was set in the 19th century, this early part of the 21st century seems like a time when that template might get rewritten.

Consider a few data points shaping the changing landscape of the modern university.

First and foremost are rising tuition costs, highlighted by the University of California’s decision to raise tuition rates by 32 percent. As various large-scale protests have demonstrated, there are plenty of people opposed to the hikes, while others argue that the hike makes economic sense. While many elite universities have made it easier for low-income students to attend college, the rising costs are still a deterrent for many students until financial aid programs catch up with rising costs.

Second, the conventional wisdom that a college education will allow you to earn more money over a lifetime, compared to having just a high school degree, is a promise whose hard numbers are not very clear.

But perhaps the biggest danger to the life of the university is the massive growth of for-profit educational institutions. Their promise of providing hard job skills during a recession, coupled with the historical return of students to school in tough economic times, is a pretty good marketing plan if a dicier proposition for students.

In the long run, elite universities have little to worry about. Theirs is a strong brand and there will always be takers willing to pay the price for a Stanford or a Princeton education. But other, less known universities have challenges ahead.

While Menand’s book concentrates on the fixes required specifically in liberal arts education, the fact is that the health of the liberal arts and the university as a whole are closely tied. Fixing the one helps with the other.

This connection, however, is not readily self-evident. In fact, it seems like quite the opposite when one realizes that a majority of students on college campuses major in the sciences and business and economics — fields of study meant to make the graduates easily employable. Students majoring in the liberal arts are increasingly seen as individuals acting against their own financial self-interest.

From a consumer standpoint and for the economic health of a university, the liberal arts seem less and less important. And they do lack importance if we think of the university as solely a place that trains its students for vocations.

But as Menand suggests in the introduction to his book, Americans make such “a large social investment” in universities because they produce knowledge, our most valuable of commodities. And here is where the liberal arts re-enter the conversation. At their core, the liberal arts pose questions about the production and the nature of knowledge. These probing questions are important in the work of knowledge production that the university does as a whole.

Refining the questions the liberal arts ask can, in turn, refine the role of traditional universities as both training grounds and research centers.

In the book (get a taste here and a precursor paper here), Menand poses four main questions: “Why is it so hard to institute a general education curriculum? Why did the humanities disciplines undergo a crisis of legitimation? Why has ‘interdisiplinarity’ become a magic word? And why do professors all tend to have the same politics?”

The four chapters take up these questions in turn. Menand provides succinct historical background to the questions, points out the problems and ends each chapter with some concrete suggestions for change and improvement.

In “The Problem of General Education,” Menand provides both a history of the philosophy of general education, or GE, classes, and the different ways in which universities educate their students generally. At a basic level, GEs are supposed to provide students in the sciences an exposure to the “softer” disciplines, and vice versa.

But because the majority of students major in the sciences and business, GE requirements are there so that students leave college “well-rounded,” with exposure to writing clear sentences, reading in different literary traditions and understanding the presence of race and ethnicity in American life.

While GEs have historically been about exposing students to Great Works, Menand suggests that GEs now serve a different, more methodological purpose.

“Historical and theoretical knowledge, which is the kind of knowledge that liberal education disseminates, is knowledge that exposes the contingency of present arrangements. It unearths a prioris buried in present assumptions; it shows the students the man behind the curtain, it provides a glimpse of what is outside the box. It encourages the students to think for themselves. … The goal is to enable students, after they leave college, to make more enlightened contributions to the common good.”

The second chapter takes on the crisis of legitimation experienced by humanities disciplines in the past several decades. The humanities became a particularly large target for the political right for its engagement with ideas about race, class and gender. The questioning from outside the academy led in turn to humanists questioning themselves and the work they were doing. This self-questioning, according to Menand, is very important.

“If one part of the university is (along with its many other projects) continually enacting a “crisis of institutional legitimation,” it is performing a service for the rest of the university. It is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.”

The final two chapters deal with interdisciplinarity and the supposed liberal bias in the university. In the case of interdisciplinarity, Menand argues that there is an anxiety over the term among university faculty because there is an anxiety over wanting to do work that matters. “Mainly, we want to feel we are in a real fight, a fight not with each other and our schools, which is the fight that outsiders seem to be encouraging us to have, but with the forces that make and remake the world most human beings live in.”

And finally, Menand suggests that professors may think alike because they are, ultimately, a self-selecting group.

Menand’s book is geared specifically at those actively engaged in the thinking about and teaching of the liberal arts, for they are the ones who have the most thinking to do in terms of their place in the university in the years to come. Menand demonstrates how the liberal arts need to rethink their core purpose in order to forge a future.

This rethinking might just give traditional universities as a whole the jolt they require in making the argument that a college education at a traditional four-year university is still the best deal going to help navigate an increasingly complex world.

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Sameer Pandya
Sameer Pandya, formerly an assistant professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, is a lecturer in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Other Voices and Epiphany Magazine. He is currently working on a book about Asian-Americans and sports.

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