‘Reclaim the meaning of the liberal arts’, universities urged

Breadth of study and ‘authentic learning communities’ can transform many different dimensions of graduates’ lives

November 21, 2021
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Liberal arts colleges - and educational methods - can open a surprising variety of doors

For Richard Detweiler, “the liberal arts have been the air I’ve breathed since going to college”.

He spent 19 years at Drew University in New Jersey, lecturing in psychology then rising up the ranks to vice-president, before serving as president of Hartwick College in New York state (1992-2003) and president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association (2004-18), which is dedicated to “strengthening education in the tradition of the liberal arts”.

Yet despite his role in advocating for it, Dr Detweiler said he understood that we are living in “a world increasingly sceptical of liberal arts education”, and where we are seeing “a growing belief that it is specialised and technical training which gives people jobs”. To determine exactly what the liberal arts model of education really delivers, he surveyed a sample of 1,000 college graduates aged from 25 to 65.

These graduates had not only attended a wide range of institutional types, they had also, as Dr Detweiler describes in his book The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment, “experienced different amounts of six categories of liberal arts educational experience”. In terms of content, this form of education was defined as non-vocational, wide-ranging and devoted to “develop[ing] intellectual skills”. This content was delivered in a context based around forms of pedagogy that “actively involve students”, “develop larger perspectives” and “occur in authentic learning communit[ies]”, where “students, faculty and staff interact with each other in meaningful ways” both in and out of class.

Such forms of education can be found in many kinds of institution, though most often and most intensively in small liberal arts colleges. So how effective are they in delivering the kinds of outcomes such colleges promise in their mission statements?

In looking at “those who shape society as leaders and altruists”, Dr Detweiler’s book explains, content of study was not a significant factor. What did matter was being part of “a personal and authentically involving learning community” – as indicated, for example, by “having a mentor with lasting impact” and “living on campus for at least three years”.

All six aspects of the liberal arts model were associated with continued learning and cultural involvement. And five of the six were also associated with higher levels of fulfilment. When it came to “success”, however, as assessed by income and the level of the current job, the findings were more equivocal. None of the six categories of educational content and context had a strong impact here, although race, gender and socio-economic background all proved very relevant.

Yet even this was not the full story. By focusing on the 326 college graduates aged between 55 and 65, Dr Detweiler was able to look at whole careers. Here, both education within an authentic learning community and “taking more than half one’s courses outside one’s major” increased graduates’ chances of long-term success – particularly for those coming from backgrounds of lower socio-economic status.

At a time when “people…have become increasingly concerned that college should result in a good job”, as Dr Detweiler points out in his book, it said a great deal for liberal arts ideals that “there is no substantial relationship between having a vocation-oriented major and longer-term success…our research findings emphasise the importance of breadth of study for all, especially for those who enter college from less economically advantaged families”.

So what lessons would Dr Detweiler draw for those in charge of liberal arts colleges or other institutions who wanted to adopt their educational philosophy?

We had seen “some erosion of educational methods at all institutions as vocationality crowds out span of study”, he replied, with many liberal arts colleges “looking for revenue opportunities” by “chasing after specialised technical training” in a way that “often decreases their liberal arts character”.

He therefore urged university leaders to “reclaim the meaning of the liberal arts” and also to “look at how they are allocating priorities and resources”. Given that “faculty interaction outside class” was a major element of creating the right sort of educational community, they needed to ask themselves, “Are you hiring faculty with that interest? What are your criteria for promotion and tenure – is all your emphasis on scholarly publication or have you found ways to reward faculty who are spending time with students?” Furthermore, while “what happens in class time” obviously matters, “you also need to be looking at the whole ecology of your institution and how the different aspects of the educational experience relate to life outcome”.


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