Our Outrageously Altered Liberal Arts (Opinion)

Sharon Rieger's picture
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If recent trends hold true, most of the 3 million freshmen starting at U.S. colleges this fall will choose majors that prepare them for careers rather than majors in the liberal arts.

Department of Education data show that students are opting for engineering, education or criminology instead of more traditional majors such as history, philosophy or even mathematics. Part of the trend can be explained by students seeking degrees that will allow them to step into jobs upon graduating. But that is only part of the reason for the eclipse of the liberal arts.

Liberal arts scholars are mourning the shift. In her book "Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities," University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that pondering Plato, Shakespeare and Darwin cultivates "citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and understand the significance of another person's suffering and achievements."

That may be true. But in visiting university classes across the country, we were appalled at how the humanities and social sciences - even pure sciences - were being taught. If students are staying away from those classes, it's not necessarily because they prefer practical training. Many times it's because professors have subverted the subjects that once held pride of place on most campuses.

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