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Generation Gaps

Changing public opinion on the liberal arts
University Business, May 2013

It’s become fashionable to prize innovation in higher education, not only because university research produces new knowledge that enriches our lives and changes our understanding of the world, but also because new campus programs are themselves markers of institutional vitality. It is less fashionable to celebrate colleges and universities as custodians of the world’s cumulative knowledge and conveyors of it to the next generation.

Nonetheless, Isaac Newton’s idea that we stand “on the shoulders of giants” remains a valid description of higher education. Newton’s emphasis on the meaning of texts, ideas, and events—content rather than method—still offers a viable pedagogy to engage students in the liberal arts. Continuity and incremental progress are still the currency of research and teaching—as they should be.

But, ever since the 1960s, scholars in many disciplines have put more emphasis on methodology than content. Applications of learning that are practical, civic, and aimed at self-improvement have been neglected. As the battles of the 1960s and 1970s over the rigidity of degree requirements morphed into the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the college grads of the 1980s became the parents of students who now apply to and enroll in college.

In contrast to students in the 1960s who may have agitated for more non-Western studies, students of the 1980s did not fret over curriculum expansion. Instead, too many viewed courses about China or Spain, politics or economics, American literature or environmental economics as interchangeable parts, serving merely to satisfy requirements as inconsequential choices on the way to a degree.

These effects of a 1980s education remain visible in the ways many graduates of that era now guide their children’s college choices. It may be understandable in the recent recession that parents who didn’t attend college often steered their children toward majoring in fields that lead to jobs in high-demand professions.

But nearly two-thirds of parents of independent college students did go to college, and to a surprising extent, they also focus on choice of major. Whether these parents prefer a major in the arts and sciences or in a pre-professional field such as business, other essential dimensions of college—such as co-curricular experiences, interactive learning, and the contested fields of study from the culture wars of their undergraduate years—are often overlooked. Their college experiences would not lead them to advise their children that certain bodies of knowledge or dimensions of experience are essential parts of a college education.

Employers frequently report that they favor new employees who possess the skills that the arts and sciences teach, but that’s not enough to assure parents and their children that study of the liberal arts prepares students in the “higher order cognitive capacities” to think critically, solve problems, work effectively in teams, and write effective expository prose. More needs to be done.

In addition to their roles as parents of college-goers, the college graduates of the 1980s occupy prominent positions in contemporary life. Although not all elected officials are in their 40s and 50s, many are. More than half of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives (219 of 435) are alumni of nonprofit private colleges and universities.

Why do so many members of Congress favor legislation to stop the questionable practices of the for-profit providers when the legislation is as harsh in its impact on nonprofit, private institutions as it is on the for-profits? Why aren’t these political leaders more cognizant of the features of their own educations that advanced their successful careers? For college-goers of the 1980s and 1990s who did not experience rigorous general education and are now elected officials, perhaps a “scorecard” of salaries of new graduates is a sufficient measure of a college’s effectiveness.

No fixed body of knowledge can define an educated man or woman in a country as diverse as ours. Leadership preparation shouldn’t be a matter of equipping some people with cultural references that only other members of the elite would recognize.

Nevertheless, professional proponents of a liberal arts education should be able to articulate which elements of knowledge are more fundamental to undergraduates than others and why. In this, the campus advocates of the liberal arts are likely to find ready allies among faculty colleagues beyond the arts and sciences.

A Liberal Arts Campaign

CIC is wading into these waters by launching a public information campaign for the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges. We are leading efforts to coordinate the campaign with several other national organizations’ projects.

We hope to persuade the public that the liberal arts are fundamental to the education of all Americans and that these subjects will help young people achieve their legitimate aspirations to stimulating careers, good salaries, personal fulfillment, and a sense of contributing to the common good.

These are rarely the overt goals of college, so they aren’t easily measured. But they are embedded in two centuries of an essentially Jeffersonian view of American education that has served the country well. That approach is further validated by the track records of Americans who followed this path to successful adulthood.

Even Richard Arum and Josipa Roska—whose Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2010) diatribe against U.S. colleges captured so much public attention—concede that someone who has studied physics, anthropology, political science, philosophy, or languages—all fields that are at risk of elimination at more than a few colleges and universities—is more likely to be a better employee, more active citizen, and more responsible adult than someone who has not.  
It is especially challenging to change public opinion today because the reference points are no longer the mid-20th century touchstones of the liberal arts. We are starting over with a generation of parents whose own college experiences differed from the highly structured ones of previous generations.

Every faculty member, dean, and president in America has a stake in assuring high standards of student achievement and in persuading employers that colleges are attentive to the need for a better-prepared workforce. Everyone inside the academy also has a responsibility to determine curricular choices.

Although large economic and demographic factors remain beyond our control, much of what needs to be repaired is internal to the academy. Eventually, we will probably persuade the public that a rigorous liberal arts education is the best preparation for success in life, but we need to make it happen before today’s college students become parents of high school seniors who are applying to college.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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