Reclaim the Liberal Arts

Richard Ekman headshotWhy do the liberal arts not attract as many students now as in the past? No doubt the 2008 recession caused many students and their parents to view college mainly as a path to a good job after graduation. Colleges also faced financial challenges, which made it difficult to offer courses that students were not already inclined to take. Even so, employers have consistently said, then and now, that the skills that liberal arts graduates possess are the ones the employers need. Today, the economy is stronger, most colleges are financially resilient, and employment prospects for recent college graduates are good. There is a shortage of college graduates to fill large numbers of current and anticipated jobs. While many of these jobs also require minimal skills in the manipulation of data—easily acquired along with a major in another field—corporate CEOs remain outspoken about the liberal arts-based competencies that they want employees to have.

A recent survey concludes that the term “liberal arts” does not help colleges attract students and may even hurt recruitment—a problem that leaders of liberal arts colleges will readily recognize. When CIC launched its first public information campaign in 2013 to promote both the liberal arts and smaller private colleges, the planning discussion among college presidents revealed that fewer high school students who visited campus with their parents sought a liberal arts emphasis. One president said that his college had begun to refer to “liberal learning” as alternative terminology, while another said her enrollment staff preferred the “arts and sciences.” Still another noted that his college’s promotional materials refer to the advantages of a “small learning community” instead of a focus on the curriculum. Another president lamented that “small,” “private,” “liberal,” and “arts” are all terms that have negative connotations among some segments of the public. Therefore, she said, her enrollment staff now refer mainly to “the adventure of learning.” The CIC presidents who were charting the course of the campaign decided it was better to help the public understand what these terms actually mean than to invent alternative vocabulary.

That decision has proven to be successful in many respects. Press coverage that is favorable to the liberal arts has appeared more frequently in the past few years, and much of it has highlighted the affordability of small private colleges. CIC can take some of the credit for this turn in public opinion thanks to its research reports and public and media relations activities. CIC’s efforts were reinforced by nearly simultaneous campaigns undertaken by the Phi Beta Kappa Society (DC), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and by research by the Great Lakes Colleges Association (MI), among others—all of which were pulling in the same direction.

Terminology is less of a problem than the actual experiences of some students. While some colleges have given new names to liberal arts programs or created new programs in professional fields, a puzzle remains: Many parents of today’s high school seniors, often graduates of liberal arts colleges or liberal arts concentrators at larger institutions, seem reluctant for their children to obtain what they received in college. These parents are, by and large, successful, middle-class adults. Why do they not credit their own education’s role for much of their post-college success? Even the scholar Richard Arum, who blasted colleges in Academically Adrift (2011) for how little college graduates know, conceded in his next book, Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), that liberal arts graduates do better in life after college than others.

The answer may lie in the intellectual content of the college experiences of these parents. College in the period between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s was filled with much curricular experimentation. Thematic and problem-based majors, for example, which increased in popularity in this period, could capture a student’s interest in, say, the environment or world food supply. Interdisciplinary programs could play to the intellectual enjoyment of using more than one discipline to understand an event, book, or natural phenomenon. But some of the 1980s reforms of the curriculum lacked the rigor of traditional disciplines. Graduates of this period were exposed to a wide array of knowledge but sometimes were not prepared in a methodology that they could use on their own.

The goal of a liberal arts education is to be transformative. It first calls for a student to master one discipline, one way of knowing, one rigorous form of reasoning. If you are steeped, for example, in how a historian approaches a problem and can follow and use that methodology, you are empowered to make decisions about other aspects of your life. Or if you know how a chemist communicates the proof of a hypothesis in the best form of scientific discourse and use of experimental evidence, you can be entirely persuasive when arguing for causes beyond chemistry, in understanding the physical world, and in shaping your own philosophy of life. A liberal arts education, at its best, compels a student to learn one of these methodologies extremely well.

It also insists that you learn enough about several additional disciplines—modes of thought, if you will—to appreciate how they differ from the one you know best, to respect people who have become accomplished in these others, and to assure that you can use those methods to recognize flawed reasoning when you encounter it—in business propositions, political rhetoric, and civic causes. Mandatory exposure to fields beyond the major may provide a modicum of substantive knowledge about art, music, physics, and anthropology, but the greater value of requirements in other fields is for a student to learn how the best practitioners of these disciplines reason.

In 2016–2017, CIC took the lessons of its public information campaign directly to CIC members through eight workshops on campuses throughout the country. Five hundred faculty members and administrators from 121 colleges and universities participated. The participants discussed many innovative programs—with welcome candor about both successes and failures—and stimulated fresh thinking about new program ideas to take home to their own campuses. Faculty members found the trend data that was distributed to be largely new and appreciated the contextual patterns to the challenges their own colleges face. Many colleges are now better prepared to assess whether the major fields of study that are offered to students are authentic and rigorous, with workshop participants poised to propel that discussion back home.

Although CIC’s public information campaign was successful in many ways, even more must be done. The recent survey is correct about the limited appeal today of programs and institutions that are labeled “liberal arts.” The solution is not cosmetic, however. By keeping the ways we teach the liberal arts rigorous, we make it more likely that the next generation of graduates will view the education they received as useful. The biggest challenge for our colleges is to assure that a student who graduates with a major in a field of the liberal arts obtains skills that provide a powerful modus operandi in life after college.