Why the Liberal Arts are "Alive and Well."

Are the liberal arts in jeopardy during these tough economic times? Mary Marcy, the provost at Bard College, does not think so. In her Inside Higher Ed article, “Alive and Well,” Marcy writes:

As students swell the ranks of community colleges, the presumption is that readily identifiable and employable skills rather than broad and deep learning are the primary focus of their educational ambitions. But in the case of the liberal arts, conventional wisdom is at odds with what experience and current data suggest. For example, the benchmark freshmen surveys conducted each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show an increasing appetite for the kind of educational experience typically associated with the liberal arts. In 2008, for the first time since 1982, more than 50 percent of first year students identified “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an important or very important goal of their college experience.

Marcy offers two major reasons for the “gap between conventional wisdom and student decision making.First, more students are realizing that “the separation of liberal arts education from employment is simply unfounded.” She writes:

Employers consistently say that they want to hire graduates who can write and speak clearly, who are innovative and critical thinkers, and who are sophisticated and comfortable with diversity. While not exclusively the domain of liberal education, these traits are certainly cultivated in a liberal arts environment.

Second, college students are less materialistic:

Today’s traditional college age population is more globally-minded, less interested in work as a means only to material success, more willing to find middle ground on issues that typically lead to bi-modal responses (such as abortion), and entirely comfortable with differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Marcy concludes the piece by challenging liberal arts colleges to combine what they do well–teaching students to think critically and pursue a meaningful life–with the new changes in technology growing up around them.

Students expect fully contemporary technological resources, even as they seek the depth and meaning promised by a liberal arts education. The practical and financial challenge is to secure the necessary technological resources and fully integrate them into a sophisticated liberal arts education.

While I agree entirely with Marcy, I wonder how all of the benefits of a liberal arts education might be more effectively communicated to students and their parents. Most of the parents of potential college students who I talk to still want to know what their son or daughter might “do with” a liberal arts education. This is a fair question. With rising college tuition costs, it is logical for parents to wonder how their tuition money will contribute to the financial success of their child. The notion that a liberal arts education will allow their son or daughter to pursue a more meaningful life or develop solid writing, reading, and thinking skills, may not be enough.

All of this, of course, goes back to how we define “college.” Historically, the liberal arts college has been the place where a young man or woman has gone to learn how to live a life of meaning and develop the basic skills needed to function at most jobs. It has not been a place where one became a nurse or a businessperson. This is what professional and tech schools were for.

Granted, a liberal arts education has been associated with the children of the wealthy and privileged. But I see no reason why it could not and should not be beneficial to working class or lower-middle class kids as well. As the child of working class parents, the liberal arts changed my life.

While liberal arts colleges like Bard certainly understand the benefits of this type of education, there are many other colleges that either do not understand the liberal arts or else place liberal arts education on the back burner because pre-professional programs pay the bills. When a college like this needs to make cuts amid difficult economic times, it is the liberal arts core that takes all of the hits.

Marcy’s piece offers some hope amid this sad situation.