In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Two groups issue joint statement on "increasingly threatened" disciplines and approaches.

June 1, 2018
 
2015 protest over cuts to liberal arts at College of St. Rose

In an era when liberal arts programs are being eliminated or changed at institutions public and private, two organizations on Thursday issued a joint statement in defense of the values of liberal arts education and of liberal arts disciplines.

"In recent years, the disciplines of the liberal arts, once universally regarded as central to the intellectual life of the university, have been steadily moved to the periphery and increasingly threatened -- by some administrators, elected officials, journalists, and parents of college-age children. The study of the history of human societies and forms of human expression is now too often construed as frivolous, and several colleges and universities have recently announced the wholesale elimination of liberal arts departments," says the statement from the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the American Association of University Professors.

The statement goes on to object to the argument -- put forth by many politicians and regularly promoted by pundits -- that studying the humanities (one part of the liberal arts) leaves students unable to pursue good careers after graduation.

"Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances." (And indeed numerous studies have found that humanities graduates not only land jobs but are successful and happy in life. Consider the data in this February report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.)

For both the AAUP and AAC&U, the statement is notable because both groups represent people and institutions that extend well beyond the liberal arts. AAUP members come from a wide range of disciplines. AAC&U generally talks about "liberal learning" more than the liberal arts, and stresses that the value it places on general education and a meaningful curriculum apply to preprofessional programs, not just the liberal arts.

But the organizations' statement said that current trends in which liberal arts programs are shrinking endanger the meaning of higher education at all kinds of institutions.

"We believe that institutions of higher education, if they are truly to serve as institutions of higher education, should provide more than narrow vocational training and should seek to enhance students’ capacities for lifelong learning," says the statement.

The statement does not name any institutions. But several lines appear to respond to some of the ideas put forward by administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. That institution has become a focal point for many academics after it announced plans this year to eliminate 13 majors -- including English, history, political science and sociology -- to focus more attention on job-oriented programs. Defenders of the shift have said that states like Wisconsin can't afford to support many liberal arts disciplines beyond those at the university system's flagship campus at Madison. Students at places like Stevens Point benefit from career-focused majors, the argument goes.

The statement rejects such a view.

The importance of liberal arts as a meaningful part of a college education is "as true of open-access institutions as it is of highly selective elite colleges and universities," the statement says. "The disciplines of the liberal arts -- and the overall benefit of a liberal education -- are exemplary in this regard, for they foster intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled -- questions about justice, about community, about politics and culture, about difference in every sense of the word. All college students and not solely a privileged few should have opportunities to address such questions as a critical part of their educational experience."

Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and chair of the Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University, is among the AAUP leaders who worked on the statement. He said the Stevens Point cuts were a "trigger" on why taking this stance is important right now. He noted that the AAUP has spoken up before out of concern over the way in which universities "prune" themselves of "the liberal arts disciplines that should properly be central to the institution's educational mission."

Will the statement be enough to make a difference?

Bérubé said that it may be increasingly important to push back against the narrative that liberal arts majors don't succeed in life. He provided a series of articles in Forbes (hardly a publication to be confused with the PMLA) noting the career successes of liberal arts graduates, including those in the humanities. Four of the links he noted are here and here and here and here.

Among liberal arts disciplines facing program elimination and reductions, humanities departments appear particularly vulnerable. Bérubé said that, in this context, talking about job outcomes is important, even if some academics dislike the idea.

"Distasteful as it may be to some people in the humanities," he said, "it seems about time to be making the case not only for the intellectual value but also for the economic value of degrees in the humanities."

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the AAC&U, said via email that the statement reflects the organization's new strategic plan, "centered on creating an ascendant narrative that contests accusations of irrelevancy and illegitimacy leveled against higher education, in general, and liberal education, in particular. At a time when there has been a decoupling of higher education from the American dream, the plan serves as a collective call to action to make visible the transformative power of colleges and universities, and for those of us who believe that higher education is inextricably linked to our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy, the work seems more urgent than ever."

She said that there is "urgency" because of the trends of living in "an ostensibly post-truth era." Added Pasquerella, "Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in society through education, and, in the case of land-grant institutions, of 'promoting the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life,' has been replaced by talk of a return on investment -- tuition in exchange for jobs. In these days of widespread skepticism regarding the value added of a college education and in the face of state systems excising 'the search for truth,' 'public service' and 'improving the human condition' from their mission statements, the overriding concern is that we are eroding democratic access to the more substantive avenues by which learning enriches us all."

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top