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Is there a future for liberal arts education? 20 January 2009

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education.

If Stanley Fish and his former student now professor Frank Donoghue are right, there is no future. We are on a train to nowhere, killed by American values and anti-intellectualism.  I really wish I hadn’t read Stanly Fish’s latest missive wherein he traces the history of the slow but steady decline of the humanities. It’s not pretty. But I fear that he is correct.

I think that it’s actually even worse than Dr. Fish predicts: The social sciences are equally underfunded and even some of the sciences, especially biological and theoretical sciences are likewise shrinking and for, in my opinion, similar reasons. Or if they aren’t shrinking, they are moving and shifting to a market instrumentality (e.g., genetics research yes, but for instrumental purposes, not for knowledge or understanding).  

I also think that the switch to an adjunct faculty across the higher education landscape spells the end (eventually) of universities as locales of research and pursuit of knowledge. The contingent faculty (of which I was a part for 5 years; I was one of the very few lucky ones who ever get into a tenure-line position) are both the effect of the diminution of the ideal of “the higher education” and harbingers of its death. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been in those trenches and it is hard work and thankless and low-paid and demeaning on so many levels. But by its very nature, it requires adjuncts to usually teach on multiple campuses and they are nearly always relegated to the very classes that are seen as the basic need for people to graduate (e.g., college writing courses) and not the courses that push forward the idea of yesteryear’s college and university. Adjuncts, no matter how hard they work or try, are outside of the institution that exploits them, and even when they feel they have a stake in their departments and classes, structurally they are excluded from participating in the building of their programs, curricula, majors, etc. And don’t even think about trying to research and publish and keep up in your field if you must commute between three campuses to teach five courses just to make enough money to pay the rent.

I already teach in an environment that is completely focused on results-oriented education (i.e., degrees as qualification for employment, with the budgetary lines a stark reminder of where the institution’s priorities lie: engineering and business).  And I don’t think my experience is unique.

I have read elsewhere and still wonder if really the best future way to organize things is to divide professional education from liberal arts education. My reservation with that, however, is that I firmly believe that people working in business or engineering *should* be deeply educated in the liberal arts as well. America already suffers from a culture of people who think that market instrumentality and personal well-being are the end-all and be-all of their existence.



1. SillyNut - 29 January 2009

I agree with you that the nation’s businessmen and engineers need to be exposed to the full liberal arts education. Perhaps the problem is that not everyone is cut out to be a university student–perhaps our society has gone too far in the “college for everyone” mindset. College has taken over the role that high school used to play–as the basic educational standard to be a successful working adult. And so colleges have become trade schools, as you point out, for business or engineering, or they have become “dumbed-down”, as students who could not have measured up in a university environment 40-50 years ago are expected to make it through college now. I guess what I am getting at, is that in order to preserve intellectual achievement in this country, we need to quit expecting that every kid is going to be an intellectual, and then direct the funds (which are always going to be finite) towards those most promising students and programs.

Frank (borrowing Jenn’s laptop)

2. Todd - 29 January 2009

I agree Frank. I’m not sure it’s about native intelligence. There’s a lot about culture and expectations and simple desire as well that predicts failure or difficulty in university. I’m a firm believer that affordable public university education should be available for anyone who wants it; and I also believe that it should be able throughout a person’s lifetime, so that someone could go back and get one later in life if they want.

But like you, I’m far less sanguine that everyone *should* be university educated. Some people just don’t want to or simply aren’t currently prepared for it. Culturally, we need to re-valorize the trades, skilled labor, and artisanship; and at a legislative level, we need to re-fund vocational ed. That a college degree is now the ticket to a middle-class life is one of the great tragedies of the post-war era, IMO.

None of this will work, however, until we have equal access to high-quality public education at the K-12 level. We really don’t know who is or could be capable of a university education right now because across the country the disparity in the quality of education is breathtaking.

And a far more tricky and fraught issue, we must figure out how to overcome some of the barriers among poor populations (of all races) who lack many of the cultural habits of mind and behavior that create home enviornments that would move their children through the system to achieving their full potential.

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