Liberal Education

The Rigidness of Academic Routine

In 1943, fresh off an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey was hired to teach political science at Macalester College. He stayed for only a year before jumping back into electoral politics. Within five years, he had won election as mayor, delivered a landmark speech at the Democratic National Convention (“The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”),1 and won election to the US Senate.

Humphrey also left behind a letter to the chair of the Macalester College board of trustees in which he reflected upon his time in academia. That letter is filled with astute observations, one of which came to mind as I read the articles collected in this issue and thought about the current state of liberal arts education. Here is Humphrey in 1944: “Possibly the greatest error committed by members of the academic profession is that of being too timid. I have not been in the teaching profession long enough to become thoroughly indoctrinated with the rigidness of academic routine. . . . The smaller college and the independent college can perform its greatest service by having a school administration and a faculty that is fearless in the search for truth and courageous in experimentation for new teaching techniques and educational procedures.”2

Innumerable things have changed inside and outside academia since 1944, but the essential conservatism of the academy has not. This might seem like a peculiar observation since college professors skew overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, but it is necessary to distinguish between how people approach issues in a broad sense and how they approach the nature of their own work. When it comes to examining their own practices and assumptions, colleges and universities tend to be highly resistant to change and powerfully attached to whatever their current way of doing things happens to be. At the risk of overgeneralizing, and with a willingness to be provocative, I would posit that many faculty members are more amenable to overthrowing the capitalist system than to changing the way their own institutions handle the distribution of administrative assistants. After all, even as neoliberalism collapses, someone needs to prepare those letters of recommendation and manage the work-study students.

There is little about the governance structure or reward system in higher education that encourages substantial change. The careers of presidents and provosts are briefer, more tenuous, and more stressful than (maybe) ever before. About the best way for an academic leader to guarantee a tumultuous tenure is to try to shake things up. And it is the nature of shared governance, faced with competing and argumentative constituencies, to revert to the strategic plans and institutional priorities that will be least offensive to the greatest number of people: unobjectionable and uninteresting.

Higher education is also inclined to be inward rather than outward looking: that is, to focus on the priorities and preferences of internal audiences—administrators, faculty members, trustees—rather than external audiences like prospective students and their families. This is not unlike the situation in American health care. I sit on the board of a large nonprofit health-care provider in Minnesota, and it is clear that—out of necessity—the central question is shifting from “What do the physicians want?” to “What do the patients want?” (Hint: not to receive ten incomprehensible bills from ten different sources for the same medical procedure.) One question I almost never hear asked at faculty meetings is, “What do the students want?” This may not always be the most important question, but in most cases it should at least have some relevance.

I have no particular quarrel with any of the articles in this issue. I also feel neither a deep sense of excitement nor the kind of creative discomfort that can be caused by truly disruptive ideas. For the most part, these are clear explanations by presidents and others of steps being taken to strengthen or even save their institutions. This is what we all do, and the pride and optimism they feel about their new programming or organizational structures is appropriate.

Are these changes—more than tinkering but less than revolutionary—sufficient to keep liberal education viable and relevant over the next twenty years? I am not sure. I am perhaps overly fond of saying that colleges are like zombies—extremely difficult to kill—and the number that have vanished has not increased dramatically in recent years, despite repeated predictions of doom. On the other hand, and as Nathan Grawe reminds us in his article in this issue, the number of colleges that offer what might be described as a traditional liberal arts curriculum has shrunk considerably over the past three decades and is likely to continue to shrink. And I am inclined to agree with Rebecca Chopp’s observation that we are in or entering a time of “epochal change” in higher education that is perhaps different from all the other times of change that have previously been called out.3 This time, maybe, the boy has actually seen the wolf.

I would highlight at least four major challenges to the current model of liberal education, most of which are addressed at least briefly in one or more of these articles and none of which will be surprising to the readers of a magazine titled Liberal Education.

Cost. The majority of college presidents and CFOs acknowledge that the current business model is unsustainable for all but the most wealthy and selective institutions. They also acknowledge that there is no obvious alternative model that produces comparably strong educational outcomes. If there is a single existential threat to liberal education as we know it, this is it. The demographic changes Grawe outlines will make this problem worse. The choices being made by our government, which seem designed to concentrate even more wealth in the hands of a few, to reduce the ability of most people to afford college, and to discourage or openly ban the entry of international students into the country, will make it worse still.

Inequality of access. A corollary of the cost problem is ongoing inequality of access to higher education that is tied both to income level and to race. This is a profound problem for our society and a problem for colleges, given that the largest growth in high school–aged students is projected to occur among those segments of the population most poorly served by the current system. In his article, Ronald Crutcher underscores this point through both data and personal experience.

The flight from the humanities. Across all kinds of institutions and in unprecedented numbers, students are moving away from the humanities and the humanistic social sciences and toward the STEM disciplines, economics, and business. This trend seems to be neither short-term nor easily reversible, and it poses a threat to liberal education as it is traditionally conceived. Several of the articles in this collection touch upon this challenge, with the idea of “humanics” described by Joseph Aoun and Stephen Kosslyn perhaps the most intriguing response.

The flight to cities. A large number of liberal arts colleges in the United States are small and located in rural areas or small towns. Most of these colleges rely on tuition for the bulk of their revenue. Increasingly, students, not to mention the general population, are being drawn to urban areas, putting enormous enrollment and financial pressure on hundreds of rural institutions. Hiram College, the focus of an article in this issue by its president, Lori Varlotta, is a school of 1,100 located in a town of 1,200. I commend its attempt to attract students by introducing the “New Liberal Arts.” Many institutions are adopting similar strategies to attract students and overcome the disadvantages of size and location. I am rooting for their success but uncertain about its likelihood.

This sounds like a daunting set of challenges because, in fact, it is. Throw in additional factors like a thoroughly dysfunctional national government indifferent to the importance of education and a decline in public confidence in the educational system, and it is enough to make people like me glad that we are far closer to the end than to the beginning of our careers.

And yet—and yet—there is still no system of education whose outcomes are as good and whose core principles are as sound as the American system of liberal education. For all its self-inflicted wounds and externally inflicted challenges, this is a system whose central goals are worth fighting for and preserving. Here, I think, we find an important difference between our endangered system of health care and our endangered system of liberal education. Evidence suggests that the outcomes of our health-care system are, relative to those in other developed countries and despite our enormous expenditures, poor: the infant mortality rate in the United States, for instance, is higher than in several dozen countries including Switzerland, France, Germany, and Portugal, not to mention most of Eastern Europe. It would be difficult to find similar evidence of the poor outcomes of US liberal education, and in fact the career paths and satisfaction levels of the people who have benefitted from that education would suggest the opposite. Many Americans might trade the outcomes of our health care system for those of the system in Switzerland. Would they make the same trade when it comes to higher education?

The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines liberal education as:

an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.4

These are the right goals. They are and long have been essential to the health of a multicultural, pluralistic, democratic society. They suggest the inseparability of individual and collective benefit. Yet, for a wide variety of reasons, we have boxed ourselves into a situation in which an education of this kind is becoming available to a smaller and smaller and wealthier and wealthier portion of the population and is decreasingly valued and understood by our political—as distinguished from business—leaders.

We can, it seems to me, follow one of two paths. We can continue to do things more or less as we always have and concede that a liberal education will gradually become a valuable and attractive luxury good, available to the fortunate few. For example, Amherst College—which has received anonymous gifts of $100 million and $50 million within the past year or two—will have no trouble staying the course and serving its 1,800 students. Or we can acknowledge that fundamental changes to our economic and pedagogical models are necessary if a liberal education is to remain available to a meaningfully large and diverse portion of the American population.

I wish I could conclude these observations by stating exactly what those fundamental changes should be. I suspect that evolving technologies will play a central role and that—as is so often the case with change—we will have to reach a state of deep and obvious crisis before we are moved to act. About the best I can do is take us back to Hubert Humphrey and insist that “the rigidness of academic routine” will serve us less well than a willingness to be “fearless in the search for truth and courageous in experimentation.”

The initiatives described in this issue are a start: a tentative one, perhaps, but we do have to start somewhere.

NOTES

1. James Traub, “The Party of Hubert Humphrey,” Atlantic, April 7, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/04/did-hubert-humphrey....

2. Hubert Humphrey, unpublished letter to Macalester College board of trustees, DeWitt Wallace Library archives, August 7, 1944.

3. The death of the liberal arts college has been predicted virtually since its creation. For an example, see Paul Neely, “The Threats to Liberal Arts Colleges,” in Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges, ed. Steven Koblik and Stephen R. Graubard (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2000), 27–45.

4. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “What Is a Liberal Education?,” https://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education.

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


BRIAN ROSENBERG is president of Macalester College.

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