Are these the dying days of genuine liberal arts education?

Consumerism, technology and the culture wars threaten to render critical thinking an unwanted skill, worries Victor Ferrall

May 30, 2019
Source: Miles Cole

For those who believe that a liberal arts education is a good road to critical thinking and effective communicating, the past 50 years have been discouraging.

Demand for post-secondary education in the US exploded after the Second World War, led by returning military veterans seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Liberal arts majors had traditionally come from college-educated families; higher education was simply the next step for them after finishing high school. Most of the first-generation matriculants, however, had the specific goal of getting a better job, and did not share the expectations of a guaranteed comfortable income regardless of major. So while liberal arts colleges shared in the initial surge, demand for their programmes began to decline in the 1960s.

At first, the colleges’ administrators (perhaps distracted by Vietnam War protests and the Age of Aquarius) largely overlooked this. When they finally pegged on, they kept quiet, possibly hoping it would go unnoticed by high school seniors and their parents. During the final quarter of the 20th century, the decline became impossible to ignore, but college leaders opined that while a few under-endowed schools might suffer, the liberal arts ship would weather the storm.

When it became apparent that the decline in demand was accelerating, leaders had no choice but to act. Instead of jointly promoting the value of their services, however, they began an all-out war to attract students. They discounted tuition fees, lowered admissions standards, removed graduation requirements, adopted easier grading, built fancy new dorms and sports facilities, and loudly proclaimed that their college was unique and better than its competitors.

The result was increased costs and decreased revenues. Worst of all, it didn’t prompt increased admissions. Students wanted more practical, vocational majors. So liberal arts colleges resolved to give them what they wanted, devising a vast range of specifically job-related majors, in areas such as firefighting, homeland security, law enforcement, public administration and social services.

In my 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, I examined 225 high-ranking liberal arts colleges. Of those, all but 12 increased the number of vocational major graduates between 1987 and 2017, with their proportion of the total rising from 10.6 per cent to 35 per cent over that period. At 71 of the colleges, more than half of 2017 graduates were vocational majors, and only nine colleges graduated no vocational majors. Since 2011, several have closed their doors and many are under severe financial duress. Most attempted to meet their financial needs by admitting more students, and the average graduation class size increased by more than 75 per cent between 1987 and 2008, to 386. But from 2008 to 2017, it fell by 10 per cent.

Nearly 20 years ago, former liberal arts college presidents Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro worried that there were “not even 50” such colleges with “the financial power and the reputation to remain in control of their own destiny through almost any plausible future”. Today, “not even 25” would be more accurate. And those institutions recognise that they, too, need to attract students.

Supplementing or replacing liberal arts majors with vocational majors may yet save liberal arts colleges from going under. But one thing is certain: it will not save liberal arts education.

It is becoming accepted wisdom that students will learn less if they are not at the best college. Responsibility for their success rests on what they are taught, not what they learn themselves. It is a “give a man a fish, rather than teaching him how to fish” perspective. Hence, parents are driven to ensure that their children have every advantage to get them into the best college – including, we now know, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to disguise them as volleyball players.

It is increasingly advocated that the challenges faced by educationally disadvantaged students should be addressed by lowering admissions standards, rather than supporting them in meeting higher standards. New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio has proposed increasing minority enrolment at the City’s two premier college prep high schools by doing exactly this.

Technology is revolutionising communications and research. Writing and speaking are being degraded by texting and tweeting. And if you need to know something, just ask Google or Siri. No one can begin to assimilate all the information now available. Hence, shortcuts are a must. Quick “group identity” assessment replaces laborious critical thinking. “She is a liberal.” “He supports Trump.” That is all one needs to know.

To top it all off, a kind of arrogant, consumer entitlement has taken hold on campuses, insisting that it is students’ right to boycott an unpopular professor, disrupt a controversial lecture or demand that an offending work of art be taken down.

To think critically requires questioning the accuracy of one’s own beliefs and searching opposing beliefs for insight. Yet in the stridently contentious world in which we now live, can it be that critical thinking is becoming an unwanted skill? If so, the prospects for liberal arts education are grim indeed.

Victor E. Ferrall, Jr is the former president of Beloit College, Wisconsin, and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press, 2011).

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