The Lost Art of the Liberal Arts

BY NICOLE ROSS

Photo courtesy of Aman Bhargava

Photo courtesy of Aman Bhargava

A recent study follows up on a question first addressed by David Breneman 18 years earlier: What’s happening to liberal arts colleges?

In the original study conducted in 1994, Breneman determined that 212 institutions qualified as having a liberal arts focus, i.e. have few or no graduate programs and award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the fields of liberal arts and sciences. In 2012, Roger Baldwin, Vicky Baker and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that only 130 of the original 212 liberal arts institutions remained. This represents a 39 percent decrease.

A small number of schools closed or were merged into larger universities, but a larger number have redefined themselves into career-oriented institutions where students seek degrees in professions like nursing and business. The new study's authors argue that, despite the perceived diminishing value of a liberal arts education, leaders and policymakers must fight to retain it.

"We should renew and reinvigorate these valuable institutions before liberal arts colleges disappear from the higher education landscape or shrink to the status of a minor educational enclave that serves only the elite,” write the authors.

By definition, liberal arts are studies such as language, philosophy, literature and abstract science intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities, like reason and judgement, as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, founder of the National Center for Education Statistics and director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University, described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh asserted that students attending these institutions tended to not only gain new knowledge but also more “intellectual and personal development.” Kuh expressed that graduates of these institutions tended to be more civically engaged later in life, suggesting that liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person represents both an ideal and a reality.

 

Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao

Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao

THE TRUTH ABOUT STEM STUDIES

Conventional wisdom about 21st century education maintains that students need to master STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – because that’s what it takes to get a job. However, a recent study by a surprising source, Google, suggests that this is a gross oversimplification of what students need to know.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Therefore, Google originally set its hiring algorithms to search for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing and promotional data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked the system by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The top seven characteristics of success at Google are soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view), having empathy towards and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinking and problem solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Project Aristotle, a study released this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. The study analyzed data on inventive and productive teams, revealing that Google’s most important and productive new ideas came not from its A-teams – comprised of top scientists and innovators – but its B-teams, which possessed people demonstrating equality, generosity, curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence. Topping the list was emotional safety — to succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes.

A recent survey by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 260 employers, including behemoths like IBM and Chevron, also rank communication skills in the top three most sought after qualities by job recruiters. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Northern Michigan University, is proof of the power of a liberal arts degree. Beside him are other leaders like Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, who studied Philosophy and Religion at The University of Texas at Austin, and Graham Media CEO Emily Barr, who graduated from Carleton College with a degree in film studies.

“My purpose in going to a liberal arts school was to explore different disciplines and discover how they interconnected with each other,” says Barr.

In 2010, Steve Jobs famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EDUCATION

DePaul University Provost Marten denBoer says the shift in emphasis from liberal arts colleges to professional or vocational institutions stems from a shift in why society values education.

“We increasingly tend to see university education as a private good — you get a better job and earn more money and so on,” says denBoer. “But actually, I think it is a public good, because it benefits all of society when we have a more educated population. That comes largely from the liberal arts.”

Billionaire venture capitalist and Shark Tank TV personality Mark Cuban says he looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed. Ironically, this ideology stems back to the origins of education, when it was valued for it societal benefits rather than purely individual ones.

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In a western context, Greek philosophy begins a tradition of inquiry about fundamental experiences, morality, essence and nature, and so forth. The first recorded liberal artist, Socrates (469 b. c. to 399 b. c.), was condemned by Athenians for corrupting the youth, encouraging them to question the established answers of parental and ancestral authority and for undermining faith.

During the infancy of curriculum, the Socratic method was one in which a teacher guided students to discovery by asking a leading question — a dialectical tactic that employed critical inquiry. It maintained that practical knowledge attained by experts in their respective fields was trivial and unimportant to anyone but themselves. Therefore, embryonic schools of learning emphasized studies like philosophy and theology above astronomy and physiology — what the modern world considers the math and sciences.

Historian Matthew Maguire says there has been an inversion of the disciplinary hierarchy in western education over the last few hundred years.

“What you see in the late 19th century – really gathering increasing strength through the 20th century until the current hyper-space mode of the last 40 years – is the notion that disciplines that are directly connected with science, technology and making money are the most important disciplines,” says Maguire.

According to Maguire, there has been in increase in the belief that the material world – and the laws pertaining to the understanding of the material world – are real and provable, whereas things that are concerned with literature, history, philosophy or theology are subjective and therefore aren’t grounded in anything.

“This is certainly something that I would argue against, but it becomes the prevailing cultural assumption,” says Maguire. “Our educational priorities change to reflect the prevailing cultural assumption.”

Academics worry that attaining an education for private reasons is making society less knowledgeable as a whole and, in turn, narrower minded. “If it continues, I think we’ll be a poorer society,” says denBoer. “I don’t necessarily mean economically poor, but poorer in terms of our appreciation for what makes us human…”

 

CRITICAL THINKING, AN ART

“Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in — and even trained scientists can fail in,” says Daniel T. Willingham.

In his analysis, Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach, Willingham asserts that knowing one should think critically is not the same as being able to do so, and that to think critically requires domain knowledge and practice. Though difficult, these components can be taught within an educational institution that emphasizes context and reasoning.

In their essay, Liberal Arts Education and Brain Plasticity, Richard A. Smith and John R. Leach differentiate education from training, while acknowledging the importance of both. Training, they say, is about practice, skill and learning how to do things, whereas education is about fostering the mind by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world. Academics agree that critical thinking is a vital component of education proper.

Smith and Leach suggest that liberal education involves a combination of right-brain and left-brain thinking—stretching the mind and transforming the brain in areas such as sensory processing, language processing, memory, and social and emotional intelligence.

“Liberal education is advantageous for brain development because it gets individuals to think critically and creatively on a variety of subject matters, thereby strengthening a person’s mental capabilities,” write Smith and Leach. “More than equipping students with specialized knowledge and skills, liberal education is multi-dimensional and puts the brain to work doing multiple tasks.”

Maguire notes that engagement with science and technology doesn’t encourage the patience of long form reasoning as does reading philosophy, challenging poetry or novels, which requires critical thinking.

“I would encourage people to think about ways in which they can develop their powers of concentrating, reasoning and thinking in depth about difficult books, ideas and works of arts in free conversation,” says Maguire. “Courses that do that in a serious way are courses we need more of. I wouldn’t get rid of other courses, but those tend to teach things that can be learned on the job.”

Maguire argues that the connection between origin and originality is more complicated than society believes, so that the further it removes itself from culture’s memory the more difficult it is to be truly creative.

“There is a tendency in our culture to think that creativity comes from transgression – from making a break with the past,” says Maguire. “But in fact, I think the deepest sources of creativity tend to come from the past — in drawing something new.”