Redeeming the Liberal Arts

Few subjects have suffered as much as the liberal arts from the numbing power of stale rhetoric, hollow appeals to tradition, and unrelenting journalistic misrepresentation. Together, these three factors have generated and legitimated public skepticism about the liberal arts. A liberal arts education (which is rarely identified with the acquisition of scientific literacy) seems either a useless enterprise or a decorative habit cherished by a narrow elite, comparable to someone’s adherence to religious ritual without inner conviction. The brutal facts of a demographic decline in the college-bound population in the decades ahead and the steady decrease in net tuition revenues since 2007 (which sparked the need to bring down the cost of a college education through discounts and financial aid) have added a severe financial dimension to a wider crisis of confidence for liberal arts institutions. Indeed, the unprecedented existential predicament now faced by liberal arts education is widely understood. Less well understood is how to counteract the mix of ignorance and falsehoods about the liberal arts. It is clear that there are no superficial remedies. Only bold responses will work.

These responses must be substantive. They must deal with the definition of liberal learning, the content of the curriculum, and the character and quality of teaching and learning. Insofar as the commonplace traditional rhetoric used in defense of the liberal arts has any value—an appeal to the skills and perspectives the liberal arts are said to nurture—that rhetoric must be vindicated by what students actually encounter in their undergraduate experience. No quick fix based on technological tricks will work. The history of education, particularly at the postsecondary level, has shown that teaching and learning have easily absorbed technological progress since the Renaissance—movable type, modes of mechanical reproduction, and telecommunication—without altering their fundamental human character. Teaching and learning require face-to-face contact in real time and in real—not virtual—spaces. The latest technological revolution will improve teaching and learning, but only at the margins.

Let us assume, then, that contemporary technology might help the promise of the liberal arts to be realized. The ideals and principles of the liberal arts are not the problem. But the practice of liberal arts education has suffered from neglect. If we are to redeem the promise of the liberal arts, ten long-standing issues must be confronted.

  1. The structure of the undergraduate curriculum must be emancipated from the disciplinary organization of the graduate research university curriculum, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, but also in the sciences. There is no justification for structuring an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum along the lines of graduate school academic departments. The result of doing so is that the overwhelming focus in college is on the major, which is defined in graduate school terms. Students entering college ask basic questions about life. They are in search of ways to define their place in the world. They are concerned about their own lives and are curious about large problems in the world—matters of justice, the nature and possibilities of work and employment, the future of the planet, the construction of meaning, the nature of knowledge and belief, and the understanding of nature. These grand, wide-ranging concerns are not mirrored by the professional or disciplinary divisions of a university. The proper response is not old-fashioned survey courses; rather, courses on issues and problems that probe deeply and draw from more than one discipline are needed. So too are curricular structures that develop, from the first year, a common ground for all students that can enable serious conversation and debate among them. Finally, the sense of excitement and satisfaction derived from the active life of the mind must be nurtured. As Seneca put it, “True joy is a serious thing.” Cultivating that recognition ought to be a basic goal of the liberal arts.
  2. The faculty that teach the liberal arts are therefore not sufficiently trained by doctoral degree programs. The discipline-based specialization reflected in a doctoral dissertation is indispensable, but it is not sufficient. It does not prepare faculty to teach in a liberal arts curriculum. Undergraduate institutions must address this shortcoming. The task of the faculty is to link the intellectual traditions in which they are trained to the implicit and explicit questions students have and the desire for answers students bring to college. If college graduates are to be armed with rigorous methods of inquiry that define scholarship, interpretation, and research, the curriculum must be organized explicitly to link the conduct of learning to life. In this regard, the dichotomy between research and teaching is false. Both are essential activities, but newly minted experts need training to connect to novice and nonspecialist students. They also need to be trained to widen the scope of their classroom expertise beyond one discipline. The curriculum ought to be organized around issues and problems, not fields of study.
  3. The command of language is central to the liberal arts. A primary goal of all liberal arts education must be the nurturing of a sophisticated command of language in writing, reading, and speaking. The capacity to articulate a persuasive argument and to interpret texts through close reading are indispensable objectives for the liberal arts. These are not trivial goals. The command of language is crucial to finding out what others think and what one thinks or wishes to think. Furthermore, these skills must be augmented by an understanding of scientific methods, the rules of evidence, and the various approaches to the critical interrogation of received wisdom and knowledge. For that to happen, coding, computation, and a fundamental grasp of mathematics—particularly statistics and probability—are essential.
  4. The learning that occurs in the liberal arts must be consistently active and not passive. The teaching must demand close scrutiny of what students say and write. In the sciences, the beginning years of study must integrate active research—the doing of science—by defining problems and working to solve them, in order to deepen a genuine need to know in students. From the very start, what students have yet to grapple with—the counterintuitive and the obscure—needs to be the basis for generating the curiosity that drives their acquisition of skills and knowledge.
  5. The liberal arts must include in its practice the realm of the human imagination that we define as the aesthetic. The making of art with written language (poetry and prose fiction), nonlinguistic materials (visual media like painting or video), sound (music), the body (dance and movement), and speech (theater) must find a place in the curriculum.
  6. The conduct of philosophy is the foundation of the liberal arts. The issues of what might constitute truth, beauty, and justice are fundamental. Questions of epistemology, theology, aesthetics, and moral and political values—ethics—concern all students, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, or professional ambitions. Therefore, all liberal arts programs must provide a curricular platform that cuts across interests, identities, and origins and fosters debate and the airing of conflicting views. The skills required to develop empathy, tolerance, and one’s own convictions must be honed through exchanges with peers in and out of the classroom.
  7. The prominence of technology in the lives of entering college students has diminished the rigorous study of the past and its preservation. The implication of recent radical advances in technology, particularly in communication and access to information, is that history does not matter. The break between past and present appears sharper than it is. The liberal arts must challenge the dominant illusion of discontinuity and therefore the idea that the study of the past is irrelevant. Our constructs of the past, notably the unquestioned, often mythic simplification of history, actually shape the way we see the present and future. Engagement with the historical encourages memory, a habit of mind that is endangered by today’s gadgets.
  8. A student’s academic career in the liberal arts must end with a major academic undertaking designed and completed by the student. This can be a major essay, baccalaureate thesis, exhibit, recital, engineering project, research enterprise, or initiative organized and realized within society. The student should have the opportunity to stake some ground with their expertise, take responsibility and ownership of a significant effort, and gain responses beyond that of a single teacher. The entrepreneurial skills involved in planning and executing a major project during one’s college years are critical for a student’s future utility of a liberal arts education.
  9. The boundaries between the classroom and the extracurricular realm need to be broken down. The whole point of the liberal arts is that they have the potential to influence one’s conduct in life, not only in terms of personal ambitions and decisions but in terms of citizenship. What is considered fun or leisure ought to be challenged by learning and reflection. Our sense of the commonplace and ordinary can be transfigured. Likewise, the curriculum should help students cultivate ideas about how they wish to function as a constituent within politics and society. Out-of-classroom opportunities for civic engagement should emerge from the classroom and be coordinated with curricular expectations.
  10. All students should encounter and study a civilization and culture with which they have no personal connection or history. Whether through the study of a language other than English or some other curricular opportunity, the task of sorting out resemblances and differences between and among discrete cultures is essential; it helps locate the shared as well as the distinctive, explode stereotypes, and promote tolerance and combat prejudice.

Central to the claims on behalf of the liberal arts is a presumed link between higher education and the practice of democracy. The expansion of access to higher education since the 1960s has resulted in more citizens graduating from college, many with liberal arts degrees. Yet despite that increase, the quality of civic and political life has never sunk so low. Apathy and passivity thrive alongside intolerance and rabid partisanship. This itself is an indictment of the way we practice the liberal arts.

The stark fact is that in post–World War II America, the liberal arts were never given a chance. In the name of the liberal arts, from the mid-1960s on, students increasingly earned degrees in academic fields or preprofessional programs framed by an ever-shrinking and perfunctory component of general education. Indeed, thoughtful efforts to implement liberal learning were distinctly in the minority after the war. In the 1950s and 1960s, colleges increasingly professionalized the faculty in terms of formal disciplines and institutionalized undergraduate programs that mirrored graduate departmental notions of modern academic practice and high standards.

It is ironic that only in the face of severe threats to democracy, liberty, and the rule of law has the commitment to undergraduate education in the name of the liberal arts thrived. The first example stems from America’s entry into World War I. The war spurred Columbia University to create a two-year core curriculum designed to introduce American students to culture and history beyond America’s shores.

In the 1930s, America found itself in an economic depression and surrounded by new revolutionary states, communist and fascist. Both offered plausible alternatives to a seemingly failed ideal of democracy designed to protect the freedom of the individual. St. John’s College and the University of Chicago developed liberal arts curricula with the explicit intention of making an argument for freedom and democracy, particularly against Nazism and Stalinism. The link between liberal education and democracy was celebrated early on in the Cold War, when the threat took the form of a challenge from abroad in the name of communism. But the response, particularly after the Sputnik crisis, was largely utilitarian and favored majoring in academic fields of expertise.

The threat we face today is as profound as those America faced in 1917 and in the 1930s. And it has emerged from within our own country. The breakdown of civility, the heightening of prejudice and fear, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, the evisceration of public space, the intolerance of ambiguity, the denigration of any standard of truth telling, the shameless venality of politicians, and the manipulation of policy to perpetuate radical economic inequality have all created an unprecedented challenge to democratic politics and freedom of thought and speech.

The defense of reason and deliberation, a commitment to finding the truth and exposing falsehood, and the habit of political participation should all be inspired by liberal education. The fact that they have not been reminds us that the political crisis we face calls for a basic reform of what we now accept as standard practice in the liberal arts: a curricular system dominated by majors in academic fields and preprofessional readiness. In this system, the college experience becomes little more than the accumulation of courses and a minimum of random distribution requirements.

In addition to a major reform of how the liberal arts need to be implemented, we must pay attention to how higher education is separated from elementary and secondary education. The time has come to shorten the length of elementary and secondary schooling and start college, with a liberal education, two years earlier than the current practice permits. A two-tier system in elementary and secondary schooling would result: six grades after preschool for the elementary segment and four years of high school, ending after the tenth year. College could then start earlier, at what is now the eleventh grade.

The defense of this argument is no longer purely theoretical, based on claims about the nature of adolescence in contemporary society or arguments rooted in developmental psychology. Since 2001, liberal arts early colleges have been established that teach students from the ninth to the twelfth grades. In these programs, college faculty have successfully led young people to complete high school and a two-year liberal arts degree centered on general education by the end of the twelfth year, two years earlier than usual.

Currently, there are nine public high school and liberal arts early college programs developed and run by Bard College in six cities: New York, Newark, Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. These programs have established a successful track record for students from diverse backgrounds in inner cities. These underserved and disadvantaged students have benefitted from access to the liberal arts at an earlier age. The early college graduates go on to a variety of bachelor’s programs, and more than 90 percent of the graduates finish the bachelor’s degree. Getting a larger percentage of the population to finish a two-year degree can be done better and more cheaply by ending college sooner and by creating early colleges rather than by expanding the community college system.

The imperative, therefore, is to start college early and take the opportunity to offer a genuine liberal education using teachers with expertise but committed to teaching, holders of doctorates in the arts and sciences, and not products of schools of education. We can establish a new structure that justifies the high-minded rhetoric about the liberal arts, which we have become accustomed to invoking thoughtlessly in a routine conventional manner. But there is no point to starting early if we fail to design a powerful and inspiring curricular realization of the ideals of liberal learning that adequately addresses contemporary politics and culture.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


LEON BOTSTEIN is president of Bard College.

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