Is a Liberal Arts Education Necessary?

When I was a school counselor, I can’t begin to tell you how many times parents would adamantly let me know that I was not allowed to recommend a liberal arts college to their teen. That career spanned 1982-2012; however, the message was more forceful during 2006-2010.  You can imagine how tense our college meetings were in 2008.

In 2010, I was asked by a faculty member to speak to one of the school’s clubs about liberal arts colleges, due to an article I had shared with our community newsgroup about its value.  Additional articles presented an interesting perspective…in 2008, many jobs were favoring liberal arts grads over designated majors because of their skill diversity. This was definitely a perk for the LA grads since jobs were a scarce commodity at that time.

The concern about its value as a curriculum necessity, K-12, or a worthy college major will always be an interesting dinner discussion.  The article below, Making the Case for Liberal Arts, by Colleen Flaherty, allows doubting Thomases  to scratch their head.


June 19, 2013 - Colleen  Flaherty

From states considering differential tuition that would be punitive toward the  humanities to talk of tying state funding to the production of “high-demand” degrees,  there’s a general sense that the humanities and social sciences are under  attack. But a new  report out today argues that they play a vital role in growing an  informed, career-oriented population equipped for leadership in an increasingly  interconnected world.

“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to  replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences and  natural sciences as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion,”  the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ “The Heart of the Matter” report  reads, “we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what  education has been and should continue to be – our sense of what makes America  great.”

The report notes the challenges facing the humanities and social sciences –  including decreased funding and a lack of integration between K-12 and higher  education – in the United States, and makes recommendations for overcoming them,  in both education and the broader culture. The report seeks to advance three  goals: educating Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they’ll  need to thrive in 21st-century democracy; fostering a society that is  innovative, competitive and strong; and readying the nation for global  leadership.

Recommendations for higher education include making the case for the liberal  arts, especially as doubts about its value grow. “[C]olleges must do their part  to control costs and assure that resources are aligned with their fundamental  mission,” the report reads. “But even as they do so, colleges have important  work to do in explaining what the value of their education consists of, and  assuring that they are living up to this promise.” The central message must be  that thriving long-term in the job market depends on developing “qualities of  mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a  new purpose, and the ability to share and build ideas with a diverse world of  others.”

Faculty, as guardians of the curriculum, are particularly responsible for  “assessing offerings in light of high liberal arts ideals,” the report says.  Research-oriented course offerings are valuable, but “college and university  curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal  education can be grounded, and such foundations need to be offered by compelling  teachers.” That means a curriculum that meets students’ needs broadly and  prepares them for the lives that await them, the report states, “not one that  simply mirrors the map of current faculty specializations.”

The commission applauds the efforts of some colleges and universities that  already have created strategic planning groups and reform measures to invigorate  liberal arts instruction, and encourages dialogue across campuses to share best  practices. It also praises efforts to promote greater integration across  curricular domains. “Interdisciplinary research centers, which often stand at  the crossroads of the arts and sciences, offer opportunities for undergraduates  to take a direct role in exploration, and to bring the parts of their study into  a coherent whole,” says the report, which also encourages the increasing  diversity of online course offerings in the humanities.

The study’s recommendations for K-12 education also have implications for  academe. Citing a disconnect between primary, secondary and higher education, it  calls for college and university faculty “to reach out to their teaching  colleagues in K-12 schools, and teachers should be encouraged to participate in  the broader intellectual exchanges that has been, for decades, the purview  solely of higher education.” That means lifting the professional status of  teachers, as well as their professional qualifications. Fewer than 30 percent of  public high school teachers are taught by a history teacher with a degree and  certification in history, for example, and this may be reflected in student  learning outcomes: In 2010, just 45 percent of high school students demonstrated  at least a basic understanding of U.S. history, according to one cited study. The commission encourages states and school  districts to facilitate the entry of advanced degree-holders into K-12 teaching  through revised certification procedures and fellowships, as well as federal  loan forgiveness programs.

It also recommends the creation of a humanities-focused national initiative  similar to the STEM Master Teacher Corps proposed by President Obama last year  to attract and retain talent and encourage teacher cooperation to advance  discipline education across the country.

The academy assembled a 41-member, blue-ribbon Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2011 to  complete the report, following a request from Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)  and Mark Warner (D-Va.), as well as Representatives Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) and  David Price (D-N.C.) to identify top actions that Congress, state governments,  universities, educators and others should take to “maintain national excellence  in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve  long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a  stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy  in the 21st century.” It also meant to serve as a counterpoint to a similar  research effort on the future of the sciences by the National Academy of  Sciences.  Members included college and university presidents, former governors,  corporate heavyweights and celebrities, some of whom contributed to the  report’s accompanying film of the same name by Ken Burns.

The academy, which is currently without a president, referred questions to Richard Brodhead,  commission co-chair and president of Duke University. Brodhead said the  commission met several times as a group and as subgroups, and held forums  throughout the country to gather data and opinions for the report. Although the  commission included people from careers as varied as politics and engineering,  he said, “When asked if you’d like to be part of something to lift up the value  of the humanities and social sciences, everybody instantly said yes.” The  enthusiasm continued throughout the project, he added.

“Many of us felt that we’re living in a time when education is more important  than ever, and the public discussion is quite narrow in focus,” he said.  “Various people have advocated shortsighted ways of measuring the value of an  education, but the main thing about education is that, when it’s done right, it  sets you up for life.”

Other key recommendations include supporting full literacy as the foundation  for all learning; increased investment in research and discovery, both from the  federal government (which has been reduced disproportionately in recent years;  the humanities and law were the only research fields in which the federal share  of academic research expenditures were appreciably smaller in 2011 than six  years earlier, according to the report) and through public private partnerships;  and encouraging all disciplines to address global “Grand Challenges”  together.

To compete on an international platform, the commission recommends promoting  language learning at the K-12 and college levels; expanding education in  international affairs and transnational studies through the creation of a new  “National Competitiveness Act” which, similar to the National Defense Act, would  include funding for education in international affairs and transnational  studies; encouraging all students to study abroad, in part by increasing support  for the Fulbright Program and the Education Department’s Title VI international  and language programs; and developing a “Culture Corps” to match veterans,  artists, library and museum personnel, among others, with schools and community  centers to share humanistic and social science expertise from one generation to  the next.

Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University and a member of the  commission, said the report aimed not to diminish the so-called STEM (science,  technology, engineering and math) fields, but rather to ensure that the  humanities and social sciences don’t get “neglected” in higher education  discussions that increasingly are focused on immediate, practical goals.

“The main thing about this is to start a conversation and a national dialogue  about the possibility of losing something that’s really critical to the health  of our nation here,” said Knapp, who has testified before Congress as to the  value of the humanities. “It’s about keeping alive and present all those sources  knowledge of that are perceived by other nations as something to emulate.”

Asked about the commission’s next steps, Brodhead echoed  Knapp. “We’ve always understood that the publication of this report is just  the beginning of a long process,” he said — one that will involve persuading  the federal government, private and public institutions and the general public  to “pull together in the name of the overriding value of the humanities and  social sciences.” He noted that the America COMPETES Act promoting excellence in  science, education and technology, wasn’t passed until 2007, several years after  the publication of the report that inspired it, “Rising Above the Gathering  Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” In that  report by National Academies, author Norman Augustine argued that said  if the U.S. didn’t advance its math and science education, it would  fall behind in global competitiveness. (Augustine, retired chairman and chief  executive of Lockheed Martin Corporation, also served on the humanities and  social sciences committee.)

Warner said he commended the commissioners for the work. “Having a strong  knowledge of civics, comprehensive reading and writing skills, and an  appreciation of history are important for a well-rounded member of the  21st-century world,” he said. “We must use this report as a foundation to  continue to engage with the public on how best to keep our humanities and social  sciences robust.”

The report has earned early praise from leaders in the humanities and social  sciences. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association,  called the report “spot-on”  in its recognition of the centrality of  language study in education and the need to support language teachers.

“The report provides sound documentation for the value of the humanities and  I hope that administrators, government agencies and private citizens will take  the recommendations seriously and cooperate in a broad effort” to reach its  identified goals, Feal said. “If people read the report carefully, I don’t see  how they can disagree with the goals or ignore its recommendations.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association,  said the report succeeding in making the critical point that the humanities  aren’t at odds with career-oriented education, but rather underpin them.

By fostering a deep appreciation for the past and contextualization, “what  the humanities prepares you for is a trajectory,” he said. “Humanities education  may not prepare you for a job, but humanities education prepares you for a  career.”

Additionally, he said he agreed with the report’s support emphasis on having  trained historians teaching history in U.S. schools. “A teacher cannot properly  convey content knowledge unless a teacher has an understanding of the  discipline.”

In a statement, Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent  Colleges, also praised the commission’s work. “The goals and recommendations  offered in the report certainly will spark a much-needed, national conversation  about the imperative to foster the critical thinking, complex, problem-solving,  and written and oral communication skills of all Americans,” he  said.



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