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The Boutique Liberal Arts?
The liberal arts are in trouble, and have been for a long time—even before David Breneman first mapped the ongoing transition of liberal arts colleges to more vocationally oriented “professional colleges.”1 In 1990, Breneman identified a total of 212 “true liberal arts colleges”; by 2012, when Vicki Baker, Roger Baldwin, and Sumedha Makker revisited and updated Breneman’s survey, that number had dropped to 130—a 38 percent decline.2 Victor Ferrall’s recent book Liberal Arts at the Brink reinforces this narrative of decline, diagnosing a variety of sources and offering little hope for the future of the decidedly American institution of the liberal arts college.3 Moreover, the recent economic downturn has hit liberal arts colleges particularly hard, resulting in an ever-increasing catalog of schools closing, cutting staff, or failing to make enrollment targets. Predications about the demise of the liberal arts college are becoming almost commonplace.
Given this apocalyptic forecasting and the anemic condition of the liberal arts college sector, there is something perplexing about recent attacks from the political right—predictable though they may be.4 Of course, we should not confuse ideological attacks on a liberal arts education with the structural challenges faced by individual institutions. And, to be fair, some of the more brash attacks on the “liberal arts” are actually misplaced attacks on the arts and humanities. Nonetheless, these attacks might unwittingly reveal the durability of the liberal arts by helping bring into sharper relief the distinction between the liberal arts college, as an institution, and liberal or liberal arts education as a set of practices that shape curricula, inspire learning, and broaden intellectual horizons.
For some time, I counted myself among those who believe that there are ways for the liberal arts college to weather the storm through careful adaptation, perhaps even emerging in a stronger position. For instance, in a very short time, the notion of recasting liberal education to incorporate experiential learning has moved from a controversial proposal to common practice at many institutions. To be sure, the history of the liberal arts in the twentieth century can be read as a history of decline. Yet doing so might too closely associate the private residential liberal arts college as an institution with the more widespread practices of liberal education. For when it comes to liberal education, I am inclined to read its history, for better or worse, as one of adaptation and diffusion.
More recently, however, I have started to wonder whether the future may, in fact, be as bleak as many fear. To be clear, I am not talking about the cultural appetite for vocational and pre-professional education. Nor am I envisioning the collapse of the liberal arts coming from the Common Core, which threatens to erode the liberal arts by funneling students into instrumentalist learning regimes and perpetual assessment, thereby sending colleges and universities a new generation of students who will have had a less liberal education in high school than perhaps any previous generation in our nation’s recent history. These are real problems, but I am increasingly concerned that these and so many other challenges facing the liberal arts might be distracting us from another set of risks. That is, I have started wondering whether a future collapse might come, in part, by our own hands. As liberal arts colleges and liberal education advocates respond to higher education crises, we might be simultaneously acting in what seems to be our own best interest and endangering the future of liberal education even further.
The structure of higher education today, in conjunction with those actively trying to devalue a liberal arts degree in the public sphere, has set the table for what seems like a completely rational solution: finding a “niche.” One need only look to long-range planning documents where institution after institution attempts to determine and leverage their niche. Broadly speaking, colleges offering a liberal arts education identify their “niche market” in terms of the conditions of teaching and learning, presenting themselves as the colleges of choice for students who want close personal interaction with faculty, smaller courses, and a grassy quadrangle. For instance, conjuring images of the traditional liberal arts college became a commonsense response to the MOOC panic. If the MOOC threat is founded on the essential fungibility of the college degree as a commodity, then the advocates of the liberal arts college naturally focused on the uniqueness of its product. Perceiving the MOOC threat as one of scale, the liberal arts college’s niche is defined by the personal, residential nature of the experience it provides.
Adapting to conditions is understandable and necessary. But are we really comfortable with a “boutique” liberal arts experience? By swinging the pendulum of scale to the small, are we possibly undermining the full range of qualities associated with the liberal arts degree? And more importantly, do we risk diminishing the broader cultural and moral authority of a liberal arts education as the guiding compass for higher education in general? Putting aside just how queasy it makes me feel to call liberal arts education and the learning it makes possible a “product,” it is easy to see “boutiquification” as a rational choice made by those dedicated to preserving the liberal arts and their own institutions. However, the conditions under which an education is delivered, the circumstances of the demand for that education, and the population that receives it will no doubt affect the very frame of the liberal arts itself.
To be sure, there is not anything inherently wrong with boutique products. The emergence of the boutique hotel is a prominent example of how an industry can reimagine itself in profitable ways by creating a personalized experience tailored to a particular kind of customer. Yet, surprisingly, boutique products and niche markets are increasingly relevant for understanding the fate of liberal arts colleges and liberal education more generally.
Boutique products and branding have had a successful track record over the last few decades. These small-scale approaches to marketing a product place particular emphasis on the circumstances surrounding the experience or consumption of the product. The most prominent example is the rise of boutique hotel. Personalized, uniquely designed spaces with an overriding design consciousness glazed with a patina of sophistication became the defining features for this new sector of the hospitality industry. Credit for the invention of the boutique hotel is often attributed to Ian Schrager, who established the Morgans Hotel in 1984 and subsequently the profitable Morgans Group chain of boutique hotels.5 It is no coincidence that Schrager was also a cofounder of Studio 54, and he attributes the invention of the boutique hotel to an attempt to bring elements of the nightclub experience into the pedestrian act of a hotel stay. The boutique hotel distinguishes itself by its design and service, both of which are cast in terms of producing a unique experience for its guests. The architecture enhances intimacy with an emphasis on signature elements that are intended to speak to the guest and differentiate the boutique hotel from other hotels. The staff of a boutique hotel is often trained to ensure the guest’s experience is personalized, popularizing the intimacy and warmth most often associated with exclusive luxury lodging.
In their excellent study of the “cultural economy” of the boutique hotel, Donald McNeill and Kim McNamara underscore the transformation in consumption embodied by the boutique label. Rather than the familiar consistency of the traditional hotel, the boutique hotel allows consumers to demonstrate their discriminating tastes. The emphasis here is on difference—from many different kinds of room décor and themed rooms to claims that no boutique hotel is exactly like another. McNeill and McNamara chart the shift from the standardized hotel room, where “hygiene, accessibility, and privacy” were privileged, to boutique hotels that foreground difference and idiosyncrasy. They contend that “boutique hotels have tracked shifting consumer sentiment through their conscious expression of urbanity, appealing to consumers with avant-garde tastes, and rapidly diversifying into a wide range of significantly differing hotel offers.”6
By cultivating the aura of difference and distinction, the boutique product capitalizes on a fantasy of difference, scarcity, and uniqueness. Yet the range of items within a particular category is vast enough to strike the fancy of a large population with discerning tastes, making the boutique product tantalizingly accessible while simultaneously gesturing to its inherent exclusivity. The boutique commodity depends on this luxury status—so much so that the question becomes, what happens when the boutique aura of the object withers or is no longer a fashionable symbol of status? (This should be familiar to anyone who has had the dubious luck of reserving a room at a boutique hotel on the decline). The boutique hotel becomes a vehicle that transports the guest with a desire for the unique and with a particular design sensibility into a realm of luxury where he or she can enjoy features and status that might ordinarily not be available to him or her.
The status of the boutique product depends especially on how the product is portrayed to the consumer and the symbolic universe it embodies. Yet unlike standard luxury products, the boutique product deploys a fantasy of uniqueness and personalization. That desire for a personal connection to the product is something visible in the rise of artisanal products of all kinds as well as marketplaces like Etsy and custom-made products that promise the consumer a connection with the artisan through the act of consumption. The desire to place a personal mark on the commodity is a driving force here. The boutique cultivates this desire for a connection with the product in a manner that can transcend the brand and the maker by pointing to the consumer as participant, even if that participation is merely the act of selecting the product.
In many respects, the rise of boutique and artisanal products reflects a logical response on the part of the consumer and the producer to the essential fungibility or substitutability of the commodity, whether it is a kitchen table or a hotel room or a college degree. One result is a broad segmentation of the market into innumerable “niche” markets. Such segmentation can be seen in higher education’s reaction to various crises over the last decade. The most common form of adaptation of the liberal arts has operated under the sign of the niche, a term that has become increasingly popular in higher education planning documents and public discourse as colleges attempt to establish their brands in a turbulent market.
The attention to the niche signals a move away from a standardized approach to marketing and provides evidence of a society increasingly focused on what might be called the “end-user” experience. The niche perspective is so pervasive not only because this is how businesses are communicating with customers today, but also because this is how consumers increasingly expect to be addressed. Joseph Turow has studied this phenomenon and, in his book Niche Envy, he describes the transformation in twenty-first-century marketing and advertising. Facilitated by data mining and a splintered media landscape, marketers no longer make the same broad-based appeals to a large population of consumers. As consumers are increasingly profiled and categorized, companies customize their messages to different populations, carefully managing how different segments of the audience understand their brands. One consequence is a shift in expectations. People expect to be addressed as a member of a niche population and behave accordingly. When “people increasingly identify with niches rather than with the broad American middle or upper-middle class,” as Turow suggests, they do so in response to transformations in how companies hail their customers.7 Thus, for Turow, the envy of another’s niche works in two directions—among customers who might imagine better “treatment” in their peers’ category and among companies vying for increasingly more finely defined portions of the market. In both cases, Turow points to a shift in “belonging in society,” as customers no longer regard themselves as part of a broad-based audience, but rather as members of increasingly specific subgroups.8
The boutique liberal arts
This societal shift in belonging can be seen shaping how colleges market themselves and even how their curricula are designed. Does this boutique and niche-market reality have a negative impact on liberal education, or is this just a matter of the liberal arts college keeping pace with changing demands in higher education? Is there even a danger in how we brand and bring students into the culture of a liberal education? There are three primary reasons that I think those of us who value liberal education should be concerned about the liberal arts experience being branded as a boutique product.
First, a boutique liberal arts diminishes the transformative potential of a liberal education. Joseph Turow persuasively shows how niche marketing signals a restructuring of belonging in society, radically segmenting society around how individuals are hailed as particular kinds of consumers whose connections with each other and with society as a whole are filtered through a unique kaleidoscopic rendering of products designed just for them. Boutique products primarily depend on the consumer gazing inward. And when boutique consumers do look outward, it is for the purpose of distinguishing and elevating themselves above others. Yet the liberal arts have always employed a fairly consistent dialectic of inward and outward looking. The effect is not only the cultivation of better citizens for our democracy but also the transcendence of self. It is through the student’s engagement with ideas rooted in the past that a liberal education offers the possibility of connecting with a larger universe of intellectual production that has enduring relevance in the present.
This is, of course, at the heart of the traditionalist argument for the liberal arts, the purpose of which, in the words of Robert Maynard Hutchins, should be to “draw out the elements of our common human nature,” which he insists “are the same in any time or place.”9 You don’t need to be a traditionalist in the mold of Hutchins to appreciate the danger of an overly specific or individualized intellectual background, however. Even John Dewey identified the problems with a particularized and technological education when he insisted that the liberal arts were essential insofar as they cultivated the broad and capacious possibilities of the human imagination. Technology had narrowed the world in some frightening ways, leading Dewey to claim that the liberal arts allow “the technical subjects which are now socially necessary to acquire a humane direction.”10 Yet when conceived as a boutique product, the liberal arts experience becomes woefully narrow and ultimately works at cross-purposes with liberal education.
Second, the notion of a boutique liberal arts experience belies the real value of a liberal education. By depending so heavily on the aura surrounding its circumstances of delivery or consumption, the value of a boutique product becomes more wedded to its identity as a unique brand choice. In many ways, this resembles the fetish character of the commodity, and the boutique hyper-activates those “mystical” qualities of the product that transforms it into what Marx called “a social hieroglyphic.”11 Accordingly, a liberal education takes on the aura of luxury. While this does help rationalize the exorbitant costs associated with private liberal arts colleges, there is a negative aspect in terms of public perception. The danger is that people might come to look upon the liberal arts degree—not only an education at a prestigious, selective private liberal arts institution, but a liberal arts degree in general—as a luxury desired, but ultimately not available to them.
This view effectively underwrites the logic of proposals, like those in North Carolina and Florida, that students who major in liberal arts disciplines at public universities should pay higher tuition rates. It is revealing that, while backward when it comes to reckoning the actual cost of providing an education, such proposals appeal to the common sense of many. Indeed, the boutique quality of the liberal arts might be inherent in the governor of North Carolina’s quip, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it.”12 Casting the liberal arts as a luxury is a politically convenient way to marginalize the potential public good or cultural critique that might emerge from these particular academic quarters.
Third, when the liberal arts experience is conceived as a luxury or boutique product, fewer institutions might embrace the kind of learning a liberal education makes possible. For if a liberal education becomes something that happens “over there” or “elsewhere,” merely one niche in the vast higher education ecosystem, then we might see a reversal of the spread of the liberal education ethos that we saw in the last century. Despite the narrative of decline, there remains a powerful aura around the notion of a liberal arts education, even at institutions that have diversified and become something other than “pure” liberal arts colleges. Yet could we be headed toward a future in which liberal education is only available at a handful of boutique colleges and has no role in shaping curricula at public institutions?
I hope I am wrong. I hope the boutique messaging and strategies surrounding the promotion of the liberal arts do not diminish the kind of learning liberal arts colleges have traditionally made possible. I hope we can convey a message of accessibility and necessity even as individual institutions adapt and distinguish themselves among the many alternatives available to students today. I hope we will enter a phase that embraces a new set of institutional and political dynamics that will make liberal education even more widespread. I hope we can find ways of underscoring the essential nature of this kind of education and the institutions that make it possible. However, if the liberal arts do not or cannot weather these headwinds, self-made or otherwise, then I know we will find ourselves in a diminished world, one where the boutique liberal arts is widely seen as artisanal—and irrelevant.
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1. David Breneman, “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?” AAHE Bulletin 43, no. 2 (1990): 3–6.
2. Vicki L. Baker, Roger G. Baldwin, and Sumedha Makker, “Where Are They Now? Revisiting Breneman’s Study of Liberal Arts Colleges,” Liberal Education 98, no. 3 (2012): 48–53.
3. Victor E. Ferrall Jr., Liberal Arts at the Brink (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
4. Most notable, perhaps, are recent statements and proposals from the governors of North Carolina and Florida. In both cases, the argument is that state-funded intuitions should give priority to majors and disciplines perceived as vital to “job creation.” Governor Pat McCory of North Carolina wants to “change the basic formula in how education money” is distributed to public universities in the state, from measuring enrollment to valuing particular outcomes: “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” See Kevin Kiley, “Another Liberal Arts Critic,” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/30/north-carolina-governor-j.... A year earlier, Governor Rick Scott of Florida appealed to a similarly instrumentalist logic: “I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” See Zac Anderson, “Rick Scott Wants to Shift University Funding Away from Some Degrees,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 10, 2011, http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2011/10/10/rick-scott-wants-to-shift-u....
5. See Michael Daly, “The Comeback Kids,” New York Magazine 18, no. 28 (1985): 28–39.
6. Donald McNeill and Kim McNamara, “The Cultural Economy of the Boutique Hotel: The Case of the Schrager and W Hotels in New York,” in Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective, ed. Michael Goodman, David Goodman, and M. R. Redlift (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 156.
7. Joseph Turow, Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 10.
8. Ibid., 3.
9. Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Higher Learning in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1936), 66.
10. John Dewey, “The Function of the Liberal Arts College in a Democratic Society,” The American Scholar 14, no. 3 (1944): 393.
11. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin, 1990), 165, 167.
12. Kiley, “Another Liberal Arts Critic.”
Scott Cohen is associate professor of English at Stonehill College.