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‘Life support’ for the liberal arts? Here’s why not

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There’s a scene in Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s remarkable short story collection Dear Life about a poet married to an engineer who studied business practices while she read Paradise Lost. She “avoided anything useful like the plague,” while the engineer never wanted to talk about the movies he’d seen.

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Click to read series

“He would say that it was good, or pretty good, or okay. He didn’t see the point in going further,” the poet says in “To Reach Japan.” She clearly longs for deeper, richer conversation—the kind in which one might engage after taking courses in philosophy or film studies.

Even though it’s the engineer who supports the family, it isn’t hard to see where Munro might come down in the debate over the value of the liberal arts, an issue that we at The Hechinger Report have been contemplating for the last few months.

The question of why the humanities matter has picked up steam since The New York Times published a piece last week suggesting that even some top institutions are increasingly anxious about the proliferation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors. Meanwhile, they report a declining interest in topics like French literature.

Only eight percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. The trend is worrisome, and plenty of college presidents have come to the defense of the humanities; views of all kinds have since been published.

“They [the humanities] are not on life support,” fired back Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College in Ohio, a leafy oasis that is home to white squirrels and courses like “Nature and Culture: Romanticism, Evolution, and Ecology in the British Imperial Age and “Avant-Garde in America: Golems, Anarchists & Dreamgirls of Popular Theater.”

Let’s take a look at some of the threats to the four-year college experience that The Hechinger Report has been following in our higher-education coverage. There are new ranking systems on the horizon to measure what students learn in college and what they can earn afterwards. Students and their families, we’ve reported, “are demanding to know what they’re getting for their mounting investments in higher education.”

“They are alive and well, and remain vitally important in preparing graduates to lead meaningful, considered lives, to flourish in multiple careers and to be informed, engaged citizens of our democracy and our rapidly evolving world,” Krislov wrote in a letter to The New York Times.

I couldn’t agree more, but let’s take a look at some of the threats to the four-year college experience that The Hechinger Report has been following in our higher-education coverage. There are new ranking systems on the horizon to measure what students learn in college and what they can earn afterwards. Students and their families, we’ve reported, “are demanding to know what they’re getting for their mounting investments in higher education.”

A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans think our higher-education system is doing only a fair or poor job of preparing graduates for the workforce; another poll found many parents believe a vocational, technical or professional certificate is more likely to lead to a good job than a liberal-arts education.

The graduating class of college seniors last spring averaged $35,200 in debt, and President Barack Obama is trying to rein in costs, under pressure from a fed-up public; recent research makes it clear that coders and scientists will earn more than their classmates.

Naturally, college presidents worry that their institutions could become irrelevant. Many heads of small New England colleges, for instance, in a survey by their own membership association, conceded that their schools are “threatened with becoming obsolete because of new kinds of competition and their own unsustainable financial model,” Hechinger Report higher-education editor Jon Marcus wrote recently.

Marcus also reported that colleges are fighting back. An association of liberal-arts colleges and universities recently released a survey showing that employers want graduates with precisely the kinds of education they offer. They also announced a compact with CEOs to ensure employers can continue to find, and hire, such graduates.

It saddens me to think of a world without literary references, of people who can make a living but come out of a movie theater with nothing to talk about.

College leaders argue that the best education provides individuals with the ability to do both; students “do not need to make a choice between humanities and more ‘useful’ or ‘professionally lucrative’ fields, like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” Lisa Dolling, an associate professor of philosophy and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, wrote recently.

Justin Snider

Justin Snider

A closer view comes from my colleague Justin Snider, an academic advising dean at Columbia University who contributes to The Hechinger Report but spends most of his time teaching and advising undergraduates from the moment they arrive on campus.

“Many enter college believing their only career options are in business, engineering, law or medicine,” Snider told me. “These are the professions they know—or think they know—and these are the professions their parents most often hope they’ll pursue.”

That’s not what usually happens, though.

“After a semester or a year, students discover fields they never even knew existed—anthropology, sociology, linguistics, sustainable development—and a good number change course,” Snider said. “They learn that success can take many shapes, not just in the form of initials (M.D., J.D. or M.B.A.) on their résumé. I tell them that what matters most in college is not what they major in, but that they find something they love—something they can imagine doing for a lifetime.”

That’s an excellent illustration of why colleges must not just be on the defensive, and why they must do a better job of reducing costs and offering aid to those who want to study the humanities, in addition to those who most need it. As we’ve reported, that is often not the case.

As a parent, I want my teenagers to study philosophy and poetry in college, but I can’t help fearing they will come home in debt and without job prospects. I’m encouraged when browsing the college catalogues that are piling up in my household with enticing course selections like “Literature and Film of the German Democratic Republic” or a first-year seminar with a reading list that includes the Bible and works by Plato, Mencius, Augustine, Descartes and Nietzsche.

Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen

I’m also a little bit scared. It was interesting to take part in a lengthy discussion at Time magazine’s Summit on Higher Education this fall, where experts from across the country joined college presidents to discuss the proliferation of MOOCS, or massive open online courses, and other innovations.

Threats to the very existence of higher-education institutions are taken seriously, as they should be.

“Traditional universities,” Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn wrote recently, “are showing the strains of a broken business model.”

Christensen and Horn predict that many colleges and universities “will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.”

At one point during the Time Summit, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who is also an accomplished pianist—made an impassioned plea for the humanities. “It may not be all bad that some students don’t study science and math,” said Rice, who now teaches political economy at Stanford University.

The college presidents sitting at my table were in the midst of a deep discussion about Leo Tolstoy, led by Drake University president David Maxwell, a scholar of Russian literature who once told Drake’s graduating class that nineteenth century Russian authors (Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy) “have had an immense influence on the way in which I see the world.”

Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.—where the curriculum revolves around the study of Great Books—described teaching a seminar on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, saying he couldn’t get over how fascinated he and his students were with its timeless themes of faith, fidelity, society and religion.

I asked Maxwell what I had missed by not reading it in Russian; he answered that it was far more important to have read Tolstoy at all.

Our discussion continued long after we heard more dire warnings about threats to American higher education.

Tolstoy endured. Will the liberal arts?

We’d like to continue the discussion at The Hechinger Report as well. Please weigh in below.

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Robin Hardman

This is such a sad state of affairs. As it happens, I had the luxury of being an English major/religion minor at Oberlin College, and I know with a certainty how richly that experience has informed my life. Because of the cost of college back then, and the state of the economy, I was able to graduate debt-free and find work almost immediately. I would like nothing more than for my children to be able to have the same experience, yet we can’t send them to college without burdening them with at least some debt and I can’t imagine how they would pay that debt back and support themselves with liberal arts degrees!

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