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"Preparing for the Apocalypse?"

One of the great paradoxes of higher education has to do with our dueling outlooks on the world.  Why do professionals who have devoted their careers to the notion that they can improve the lives of individuals through education and therefore improve the world—an inherently optimistic leap of faith—simultaneously wallow in the contemplation of the demise of their very undertaking and the extinction of all they value?

I am referring, of course, to the current spate of academic criticism, what I call the “literature of academic eschatology.”  We go to meetings, read articles and books, and listen to talks all dedicated to the assumption that higher education, as we know it, and particularly the liberal arts, is doomed.  And we, the professional optimists, seem to love it.  I know I do.

Certainly there is nothing new about all this doom and gloom in higher ed.  For decades we have heard about the corporatization of education, the canon wars, laments about the lack of high school preparation, and so on, and many of these threats are still present in some form or other.  Some have likely increased.  Worries about disruptive technology and college affordability are largely variations on the themes of the past, which is not to say that these threats are not real or we should be dismissive of them.  In fact, it may be our very propensity toward pessimistic anxiety that gives us the wherewithal to adapt and survive.  I imagine university dons in the Middle Ages similarly bemoaning that, given the continued influx of lunkheads and roustabouts as students, there would be no way for their institutions to survive into future generations.  And yet here we are.

The Thursday AAC&U Annual Meeting session titled “Preparing for the Apocalypse? The Liberal Arts in the Era of ‘Higher Education Reform’” touched on many of these themes—sometimes indirectly—and unsurprisingly drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.  During the session, two presenters—Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University, and Scott Cohen, an associate professor of English at Stonehill College—gave their views on what we could do to keep liberal arts education intact in the face of elimination from its traditional perch in institutions of higher education.  Afterward, responsive commentaries from Benjamin Ginsberg of the Washington Center of American Government at Johns Hopkins and Goldie Blumenstyk from The Chronicle of Higher Education rounded out the session.

The title of the session alone is troubling: “Preparing for the Apocalypse?”  The question mark can either be a provocation or a dodge.  As for the session, in the best academic tradition, it raised many more questions than it answered.

Neem and Cohen offered intriguing alternate strategies to protect the liberal arts in the face of the threat of extinction.  They both assumed, as did the audience presumably, the existential value of the liberal arts.  Neem, though, frequently asserted that he was not convinced of the imminent demise of liberal arts but that he wanted to be prepared, “like a Boy Scout.”  He suggested four alternatives to teaching the liberal arts in a traditional university setting, including seeking out philanthropic patrons and starting instructional service networks along the lines of yoga communities.  Cohen focused exclusively on building niche or boutique universities for the liberal arts, but he also expressed misgivings.  For instance, he cited Joseph Turow’s Niche Envy to suggest that boutique culture can erode the very coherence of society.  After all, if everyone has their niche, where is the common ground on which we can all gather?

Ginsberg picked up on this point to critique Neem’s and Cohen’s ideas by decrying the potential loss of the egalitarian reach of the liberal arts as they are currently offered.  He described Neem’s recommendations as a form of “immigration”—that is, departing from problems to find a new land of possibility—and Cohen’s niche as a “retreat.” The irony that these suggestions were offered to empower faculty but instead felt reactive supports Ginsberg’s assessment.  But Ginsberg also laid blame at the feet of the faculty who, as he claims, do not spend enough time or effort forcefully and explicitly promoting liberal arts through their teaching.  Ginsberg’s idealism was most apparent when he cited Richard Vedder’s observation that many cab drivers have liberal arts degrees, which Ginsberg sees not as a symbol of liberal arts’ uselessness, but a mark of our culture’s great strength.  Even our cab drivers are informed citizens of our democracy, he declared.  Nonetheless, his comments seemed to assume that the main audience for lauding the liberal arts would be found in the university classroom, which presents a dilemma in an age of shrinking liberal arts enrollments.

The ensuing questions and comments at times provided more heat (not entirely unwelcome on a frigid morning) than light.  Is there “a common body of knowledge” we must teach, or is it a set of “common cultural understandings?”  Or perhaps we should ask “a common set of questions” and guide students as they grapple with answers.

And there, in the final discussion, we returned to the beginning.  There is a crisis in academia, an imminent failure that threatens to undo all we hold in the highest esteem.  It is so malign that we cannot even formulate the question that it comprises.  Our only communal agreement is that we know there is a threat and that it imperils what we all most value.  As academics, we debate the details but take the fundamentals for granted.  No matter our perspectives or backgrounds or philosophical stances, we all react to the menace and move to protect our core.  Maybe, even in the midst of our disputes, we can pause and take stock of our common ground.  We can celebrate what we all agree to be most true—the inherent value of the liberal arts—and communicate that value boldly in the public sphere.  We instinctively react to threats to the liberal arts because of this common belief.  So, let us celebrate the transformational power of the liberal arts we all seek to preserve…

Good.  Now we can resume the debate.


Jim Salvucci is the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University