Readers Response: "Colleges and the Liberal Arts Ethos"

Last week I wrote a post titled “Colleges and the Liberal Arts Ethos.”  In this post I described what it has been like visiting colleges with my humanities-oriented daughter.  Several of you responded to the post through social media and some of you contacted me privately to guess which colleges and universities I was referencing in the post.

A commentator on my Facebook page responded with this:

Are you considering expanding on this post at some point? Our liberal arts college is going through an identity crisis because our director of admissions reports that high school kids these days don’t go for pure degrees (in the liberal arts) without a particular plan on how to use it. Is this true? Or, is this just true among the first generation college student crowd? I feel like someone who has recently done all these college visits would know….

Unfortunately, I think the director of admissions at this college is correct.  In my experience and reading, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a “hobby” than a legitimate subject of study.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: “I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents.” 

For the last several years I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people), that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace.  As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and non-profit sector not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  As many of you know, I have made these arguments in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home through our “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series.

When I speak to potential history majors, or even students in my general education courses who I am trying to “convert” to a history major, I stress not only the content that they will learn in history courses, but also these transferable skills.  I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers.

A move in this direction may also require curriculum changes or additions.  For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year “Introduction to History” course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers.  The students read Why Study History and they hear from people in the Career Center about how to sell themselves–as history majors–to potential employees.  Our department even added an “administrative studies” concentration to our curriculum.  Students take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics, and politics.

I have worked hard at trying to transform the department I lead along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction.  Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can “do” with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning’s sake.  We don’t spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people, better Christians, or better citizens.  I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I’m not so sure about the majority of the students I encounter.  I worry that the success of a particular discipline in the academy–even the Christian academy–is now being measured by utilitarian ends that are connected largely to jobs and careers.

Despite the labors of many of us in the humanities, including a Dean who understands all of this well, we still have a long way to go in creating a humanities or liberal arts “ethos.”  As some of you may have recognized, the last school I referenced in my original post was the school where I currently teach.  

For those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools that struggle every year to meet admissions goals, this is the new reality.  Administrators have to develop new programs and “what you do with this major” programs to attract students.  I get it.  I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors and continue to lose faculty lines in our departments.

I realize that my daughter’s interest in a school with a humanities “ethos” is probably unusual in today’s day and age.  She will need to decide whether she wants to bask intellectually in a college culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday semester life, or continually have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.