Gina Barreca on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

Boyer Hall

What’s an education for?

University of Connecticut English professor Gina Barreca answers in her recent op-ed:

An education is about learning things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten before, we need to approach unfamiliar subjects. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.

Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing the notion of familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s T.V. Dinner.

Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: it is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.

This is one reason that students should be required to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. While they may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down through their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.

Read the entire piece here.

I appreciate Barreca’s point about students taking courses outside of their area of specialization.  At Messiah College, students are required to take a 100-level history course (a United States history survey course or a Western Civilization survey course) to fulfill their general education requirement in History.  But there are also other opportunities in the curriculum to take a history course.  A student can take World History to fulfill their Non-Western Cultures requirement.  Or they can take Native American History, African American History, the Historical Study of Peace, Immigrant America, Urban History, Women’s History, or Pennsylvania History  to fulfill their Pluralism requirement.  They can also take a history course to fulfill their Social Science requirement.  So, if I got this right, it is possible for a Messiah College business or nursing major to take four history courses to fulfill general education coursework.

But every now and then we have students who take history courses purely out of intellectual curiosity.  This semester in my colonial America course I have two students–an accounting major and a sustainability studies major–who are not required to take the course, but just find the subject interesting.  I applaud them and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them, but students like these are becoming increasingly rare in this age of specialization.

One thought on “Gina Barreca on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

  1. If it’s so important, why are you all doing it so badly?

    Here’s a suggestion: it’s not so important that you have to allocate all what we do on it. In secondary schools, allocate about 50% of your manpower to VoTech, about 20% to basic schooling and life-skills classes, and about 30% to academics and the arts. In tertiary schooling, allocate about 75% to occupational programs, about 25% to academics. Have about 1/2 your academic manpower devoted to the production of brief preparatory certificates that students would obtain in order to attend occupational schools. Allocate the other half to undergraduate study (which would be subject specific) and to degree-granting research institutes. About 12% of each youth cohort might follow a one-year course of study before pursuing other ventures, 8% a two year course of study, and 4% a three year course of study. NB, about 4% of each cohort was awarded an academic university degree in Britain 60 years ago and about 4% in this country receive some sort of post-baccalaureate degree in an academic subject. (IIRC > 80% of all graduate degrees are awarded in vocational subjects). While 55% of each youth cohort might obtain some tertiary schooling, such schooling would be briefer, more specialized, and more practical for most (with the implication that cross-sectional enrollments in tertiary institutions would decline by 45% or so).

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