On liberal education surviving the 21st century

Over the past week many people have asked me to comment on Adam Harris’ recent Atlantic article, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century.”  Often they asked me to respond to the title or the conclusions they drew from the piece, rather than to what Harris actually wrote.

So let me explain.

(And let me also preface this with a confession of bias.  I like Adam Harris’ writing, especially because he conducted a very generous interview with me.)

First, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” is a strange title, and one I’d bet applied by an Atlantic editor, rather than Harris.  The article isn’t about the liberal arts per se but about the case of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus and its decision to end some majors.  This may seem familiar to you, dear readers, as I’ve been writing about it from time to time.  Liberal education appears as one theme, but we only leave this Wisconsin case for a single, final sentence:

The national conversation around higher education is shifting, raising doubts about whether the liberal arts—as we have come to know them—are built to survive a tech-hungry economy.

And that’s a great question.  However, it brings me to a second point.  Much depends on what we mean by “liberal arts” or “liberal education.”

I don’t mean to be pedantic.  I mean that people have very different models of higher education based on what they have in mind when they say “liberal arts” or “liberal education.”  You can tease out those models with a few questions.  And now we must digress.  We’ll return to Harris, I promise.

So what is liberal education? Back in 2006 my colleague, friend, and heroine Jo Ellen Parker outlined those models with typical clarity and nuance.  She gave a talk on this topic, based on her experience working throughout liberal education, then published an article at the Academic Commons.  Let me summarize quickly – but I strongly recommend her article.

Learning for its own sake: this is an undergraduate experience free of professional expectations.  Students (and faculty members) follow their curiosity where it leads them without worrying if a new topic will cost them a job.  They are like the inquiring reader using Vannevar Bush’s Memex (also published in the Atlantic, back in 1945), moving from topic to topic depending on the unique contours and contents of their mind.

A kind of pedagogy: liberal education involves a certain way of teaching.  Parker describes it as “operating from a pedagogical methodology that emphasizes active learning, faculty/student collaboration, independent inquiry, and critical thinking.”  More,

The defining characteristics of liberal education in this logic are not disciplines but practices — practices like group study, undergraduate research, faculty mentoring, student presentations, and other forms of active learning…

Civic engagement and political activism: this is the liberal arts as school for intervening in a society, or for becoming a well prepared member of the polis.  Jo Ellen Parker finds this to be in part a curricular style:

In terms of curriculum, this approach tends to value the development of skills specifically believed to be central to effective citizenship — literacy, numeracy, sometimes public speaking, scientific and statistical literacy, familiarity with social and political science, and critical thinking. It tends to value curricular engagement with current social and political issues alongside the extracurricular development of ethical reflection and socially responsible character traits in students, seeing student life as an educational sphere in its own right in which leadership, rhetorical, and community-building skills can be practiced.

The liberal arts college: now we’re talking about a very specific sort of American campus, one of maybe 80 to 300 or so, depending on one’s criteria and attachment to rankings.  These are the Bryn Mawrs and Vassars, the Williamses and Middleburies.  

Sometimes this model can include other institutions that do liberal education.  Think about how large universities can set up small mini-colleges on campus that aim to function like liberal arts colleges.  My own alma mater offers a good example of this.  The University of Michigan is a massive, public research university, but for decades it has maintained its Residential College as an internal liberal arts entity.  Or consider West Point, which teaches in some of the ways outlined above.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities has hundreds of member institutions, each joining to proclaim their support of liberal education.

Let me add two more senses to the list.

Interdisciplinary study: the term “liberal arts” is inherently plural.  It does not lodge in a single academic department or major, but instead assumes a multiplicity of fields.  There’s a hint of learning for its own sake here, as it allows students to trace ideas across intellectual boundaries.  There’s also the acknowledgement that students are better prepared for the world once they learn how to navigate across those boundaries, especially as workers are increasingly likely to have two or more very different jobs in the course of adult life.  This sense of liberal education opposes itself to the preprofessional degree or the shaping of an undergraduate experience so that it largely focuses on a single major.

The humanities: listen carefully to the academic fields a speaker mentions when they refer to liberal education.  They will usually mention humanistic fields.  Do they then add the sciences?  Do they include the quantitatively intensive social sciences, such as economics?  Oftentimes they will not, and you can deduce that for the speaker the liberal arts, or liberal education, means the humanities.  (You can press this still more closely to get a sense of which humanities, and then the speaker’s politics usually appear quite clearly, especially given their tone.  Conservatives will often praise history and religion but disdain women’s studies, for example.)

We can go further and tease out still more meanings and variations.  We could talk about the role of religion, for example, or delve into the history of how America invented the liberal arts college.  I’m always fond of the Latin roots for liberal arts, as in the arts (skills, knowledge) needed by a free person.  But let’s pause there.

I find that outside the academy the humanities sense is a popular one.  Within the academy, we’re all over the map, including within liberal arts colleges and universities.

Now we can at last loop back to the Adam Harris article.  The Stevens Point campus is not a classic liberal arts college in the usual sense, but is an AAC&U member.  It may teach according to Parker’s pedagogical models; the Atlantic article doesn’t address these.

Instead, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” seems to be about mostly interdisciplinary study and the humanities.  Those are the majors to be cut: “six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history…”    The last four are humanities, and the first one – geography – might tread in that domain to the extent classes involve cultural geography.  

The article goes on to focus on history, and in opposition appears the sciences.  For example, “[b]y that point, administrators had already broken down the number of students enrolled as majors in each department—at least those aside from the STEM fields, Willis said.”  Added to the sciences are professional tracks.  The two combine in opposition to the liberal arts – i.e., the humanities:

The changes would reflect “a national move among students towards career pathways,” administrators argued. The proposal planned to add majors in chemical engineering, computer-information systems, conservation-law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management, and marketing. By focusing more on fields that led directly to careers, the school could better provide what businesses wanted—and students, in theory, would have an easier time finding jobs and career success.

To be fair, the administration wasn’t talking about ending humanities instruction, but canceling several majors.  Those units – history, geography, etc. – would still teach.  Indeed, the strategic language framed the Stevens Point shift as a synthesis rather than deletion:

“We remain committed to ensuring every student who graduates from UW-Stevens Point is thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, as well as prepared for a successful career path,” Bernie Patterson, the institution’s chancellor, said in a message to the campus. 

So will liberal education in the Stevens Point sense survive the 21st century?

If the core sense here is “the humanities,” then it seems likely it will do so.  The humanities seems likely to keep shrinking in terms of student interest for a variety of reasons, as I’ve noted.  Adam Harris mentions the perception that the humanities have little economic benefit, which is certainly one major rationale for enrollment decline.  I’m not sure how much farther these “liberal arts” will shrink before the year 2100.  We can imagine different forms of consolidation, some already practiced, such as merging English and comparative literature.

Personally, I have a hard time shaking the idea that the humanities will in many instances become service departments.  That is, they won’t offer as many majors as they used to, but will instead devote themselves to general education, to the core curriculum.  Harris’ article references this at one point:

even if the state were to miraculously open the coffers for state institutions, [Greg Summers, the provost and vice chancellor at Stevens Point] said he would likely still eliminate the history major and others in favor of more focus on stem fields bolstered by a broader general-education curriculum.

This is an important distinction.  It doesn’t mean colleges won’t teach history.  It means they will teach it entirely to nonmajors.  Students will be exposed to the topics, if somewhat less often in the aggregate, depending on how a given institution structures its core curriculum.

A “liberal education” bounceback for the humanities is possible if some of the fields can change their reputation.  This may require a massive increase in public intellectual work, a political shift, and a cultural transformation.  

As for the other senses of “liberal education,” as Joe Ellen Parker laid them out?  There are so many factors driving these changes – and such a long time remaining in this century!  I can offer a few thoughts.

The pedagogical model is very powerful.  It is, however, expensive to offer as it typically does not scale well.  The ideal is a seminar, not a lecture hall.  This is one reason for its scarcity.  Now, adjuncts – the majority of American instructors – can teach this way, if their institutions support them.  Down the road is the possibility (perhaps not too likely, pace the historical work of Audrey Watters) that we can automate such pedagogy.  Unless we realize that, it will be hard to scale up this pedagogy beyond where it is now.

The politically engaged model is, of course, controversial.  Many campuses I’ve worked with are increasingly interested in offering social justice programs, while the American right wing fulminates against the very idea.  This model may persist as long as Generation Z continues its activist turn, and perhaps longer.  The idea that dealing with climate change requires unusually high levels of political knowledge and practice may also drive this educational model into greater practice as the planet heats and the waters rise.

The liberal arts college model: the common wisdom I’ve heard from public and private conversations is that the top tier of such colleges – Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Bowdoin, Carleton et al, according to the widely disliked and universally attended US News ranking – are invincible, given their endowments ($2.7 billion for Williams; $2.248 billion for Amherst), reputation, and alumni networks.  However, lower tier liberal arts colleges may face closure, merger, or transformation into a very different type of campus.   Geography may inflect this sharply, as those that are regional in the range of students they draw, rather than national or international, can get hit badly by demographic changes.  Similarly, the general turn towards cities and away from the countryside will not help most rurally-based campuses. 

Interdisciplinary studies: currently this academic mode is controversial.  On the one hand we have many academic leaders, funders, and researchers who celebrate the benefits of crossing between departments.  Indeed, many new departments emerge from such intersections.  On the other, academic disciplines remain strong, even fierce social constructs.  They are the training beds of faculty-to-be in graduate school and the departments that dispense promotions and punishments in employment.  They are the primary professional publication and development channels.  Disciplines, well, discipline.  I am not sure how the balance will tip over the next 71 years, but I would not be surprised to see the struggle persist, even as we develop new disciplines.

As for learning for its own sake?  I fear my answer may be darker than usual.  I am typing this under the influence of a battery of medications as my body struggles with a ferocious cold/sinus infection/some kind of rhinitis.  It is also just about the longest night of the year, up here in the colder parts of the northern hemisphere.  Darkness and gloom are, shall we say, very accessible moods for me.  So perhaps take this with a grain of salt, but: I think macroeconomics will take this kind of liberal education to the elite and restrict it there.

Consider that income and wealth inequality are rising, as my listeners and readers know well.  Gilens and Page helped usher in the return of the Gilded Age term oligarchy, and a general sense that American society’s inequalities are rising seems widespread, if unmet by mitigating policies.  At the same time our culture has deeply embraced market logic in much of life, viewing ourselves as our own CEOs engaged in continuous transactions with customers and other businesses.  As long as these two trends continue to flourish learning for its own sake will become scarce.  Increasingly only those who can afford to clear out several years purely for the free play of intellectual exploration will be able to do so.  The rest of the student body will have other priorities and options.

My thanks to Adam Harris for offering a provocative article.  It’s a fine historical document of this moment in American academic history.

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6 Responses to On liberal education surviving the 21st century

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Jeff Selingo and EY have a list of about 800 schools that face merger or closure. Some are probably the lower tier liberal arts schools you mention. Besides the small number of schools on Heightened Cash Monitoring or that are losing accreditation, it’s difficult to know who is next in line. Only people on the inside (including EY and Moody’s) know which schools are in trouble.


  2. sibyledu says:

    This is a rich response to a useful article. I have many thoughts, but I’ll try to be brief.

    1. Thanks for the taxonomy, which is helpful in itself and in structuring this discussion.

    2. In the sense of “the humanities,” the liberal arts will be around as long as humans are. If we are still here in 2068 and 2608 and 2806, we will be thinking and reading and talking about philosophy, history, and literature.

    3. I agree with your concern about restricting the liberal arts, in multiple senses, to affluent elites. In the near term, the rising price of education, and the increasingly precarious nature of employment, will combine to make most students averse to investing in liberal learning, even among the affluent. To be sure, for most of a millennium the liberal arts were a luxury reserved for elites. But those of us who grew up during the American Age, when the United States was sufficiently motivated and prosperous to offer liberal education to the masses, were lucky to see a different set of circumstances.

    4. I think you are right to combine “civic engagement and political activism,” although I think you overemphasize the “activism” part. Parker highlights the sense of “education for citizenship,” which I think is valued by a great many colleges. Activism per se is not. That said, we would be much poorer if liberal education in this sense becomes the sole property of the elite. Again.

    5. Finally, I am intrigued by your suggestion that place may be important in determining whether marginal liberal arts colleges will survive. I suspect endowment will matter more. Elites don’t, and won’t, mind sending their children to spend a few years in Williamstown, MA or Grinnell, IA before moving on to San Francisco or Washington. And I also doubt that an urban location will be enough to preserve under-endowed colleges like Chestnut Hill or Holy Family in Philadelphia, although those colleges do have options that places like Bethel College in Indiana do not. Much depends on how the urban colleges leverage their locations.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      sibyledu, thank you very much for your thoughtful responses.

      The American age – do you mean the middle of the 20th century?

      ” If we are still here in 2068 and 2608 and 2806, we will be thinking and reading and talking about philosophy, history, and literature” – I agree, especially outside the academy. Within the academy, I’m just not sure we’ll keep doing it in the same way. Shrinkage seems to be the order of the day.

      Place and liberal learning: I certainly agree about the importance of endowment, and agree about the challenges some urban schools face (again, especially in areas hit by demographic shifts). But I would distinguish between areas. Rural Mass is very different from rural Ohio, for example; the former remains a blue state.

      • sibyledu says:

        1945-1975 is the peak of what I mean as the American Age, although it’s possible to extend that to 1915-2016 — and who knows, maybe it’s not quite over yet. But it was the time when the United States was both prosperous and invested in strengthening the common good, as opposed to its traditional goals of providing for the national defense and facilitating commerce.

        I agree that there are differences between rural areas. But there are strong commonalities, too; when I took my daughters on college-visit road trips in 2016, we saw just as many Trump signs in Massachusetts as we did in Ohio (and blue Massachusetts just reelected a Republican governor). I am convinced by the argument that the US is increasingly divided into two types of places: one is educated, connected to the global economy, predominantly urban and mobile, and comfortable with ethnic diversity; the other is less educated, rooted in the industrial economy, predominantly rural and immobile, and suspicious of people “not like us.” As with any generalization, there are exceptions; rural Williamstown is basically part of the educated/global/urban world. But it may be significant that Stevens Point is essentially saying that people around here don’t want to major in history, and the ones who do should go off to Oshkosh or Green Bay… or Madison, where the rich kids go.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          I think that’s right about Stevens Point. It’s really a system strategy.

          Agreed on the American period. Something deep changed circa 1975-1985 – that’s when gender relations started going backwards (think marketing, as well as the decline in women in STEM) and when income and wealth inequality started ratcheting up again.

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