Liberal Arts Versus Technical/Career Education

June 29, 2013

A recent New York Times column by Verlyn Klinkenborg lamenting the decline of English majors has reignited a long smouldering disagreement about what students should study in college. The disagreement has various faces but is usually posed as one between “the liberal arts” as a focus of study versus a view that urges a more technical or career focused education.

Periodically we read urgings that more young people should think about their job future when they pick a major. In 2011, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott urged the state stop funding the liberal arts and social sciences because “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”  On the other hand, the liberal arts have their sturdy proponents, and the case is ably marshaled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which relentlessly demonstrates that employers really want students who have the reading, writing and critical thinking that a liberal arts education engenders.

Against Klinkenborg’s lament, Nate Silver, the NYT’s skilled and resourceful blogger about politics (and formerly baseball) rejoins–as he often does in arguments–that Klinkenborg has misread the data: that there really isn’t any decline in English majors; it is only that more students are going to college.  I enjoy reading both Silver and Klinkenborg, and discussion between them is a rare treat.

Silver also takes Klinkenborg to task in part for paying too much attention to what is happening at a small number of prestigious, highly selective colleges and universities.  Hurray! I want to say. The higher education press (such as it is) always pays  too much attention to what happens at Harvard, Yale and its ilk; but what happens at these places bears no relationship whatsoever to what is happening at other colleges and universities.  None whatsoever.

Silver mounts his argument by computing how many students major in various fields relative to the number of total students or total potential students. (The federal government collects such data.) But this doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter, I want to say. It is not the title of the major that makes a field of student part of the liberal arts. It is the approach to education. To come back to Gov. Scott’s nemesis, an anthropology major might be taught in a fashion that made it a proper part of the liberal arts, or it might be taught in a more technical, narrow, career-preparing manner.

When I was Provost at Reed College, I came across an old admissions poster for Reed as “a college of liberal sciences and arts. “Sciences and arts” — a reversal of the usual order, “arts and sciences.” I think Reed was trying to emphasize that the sciences are fully a part of their education, which is certainly on the “liberal arts” side of the debate. When this debate catches fire, people are usually forgetting that mathematics, biology, chemistry, geology and physics are all majors to be found at nearly all liberal arts colleges.

When I was an American Council on Education Fellow in 1987-88, I was fortunate to have David Fraser, then President of Swarthmore as a mentor. David is a superb epidemiologist: at the Center for Disease Control he led the 1976 team that rapidly found the cause of Legionnaire’s Disease, for example. While at Swarthmore, he published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Epidemiology as a Liberal Art.He makes the case, but he makes the case as a ‘for instrance’ rather than as a stand alone case for the inclusion of one field of study.

This paragraph from the conclusion is worth quoting:

Perhaps there is no subject that cannot be fit material for liberal arts study. But surely that does not mean that selection is unimportant in designing an undergraduate program. The perspective from which the discipline is taught is important. A skilled teacher not only introduces students to the content and methods of a discipline, but also fosters in those students an inclination to use those methods to go further. Under a good teacher, students progress from simply taking in knowledge to questioning assumptions and arguments (their own or others’).

That’s the point: “the perspective from which the discipline is taught is important.”  Fraser makes case for both breadth and depth, and adds,

A student should study deeply enough in one area to develop real competence. Such depth gives a student an important sense of the construction of human knowledge and how to add to it. It opens to students the possibility of intellectual leadership.

“The possibility of intellectual leadership:” I like that way of putting it.

Klinkenborg wants students to read well, write clearly, and think critically. So do wise employers. Both should look deeper than the label on a major to find out whether a student has learned these things.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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