Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why I've Grown to Devalue a Liberal Arts Education

A reader, John Taylor, asked me what I thought about liberal arts education today. I sent him a quick response, to which he said, "Great answer," so I'm posting it here.
I am concerned about four things regarding a liberal art education as dispensed today:
1. The absolute censorship of right-of-center thinking
2. How bad a job that university professors do of teaching. By talent, predilection, and reward,  most faculty are about research, scholarship, graduate students, and undergraduates, in that order.
3. The focus on theoretical models and creating liberal activists rather than on what should be the true purposes of a liberal arts education: actual critical thinking (not all wisdom resides left of center) and an exploration of life's universals: love, materialism, fear, work, beauty, the meaning of life, etc.
4. The near-open admission policy at the vast majority of colleges and universities that forces professors to dumb-down instruction. A college degree is now, in most institutions, evidence of very little.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, but the title says something other than the content of the post, I think. Perhaps, "My Concerns About the Devaluation of a Liberal Arts Education" might be more apt?

#2 really depends on the nature of the institution (e.g. community college, liberal arts college, or public university) and the internal culture of the institution. Generally, I found that large public universities have the scheme you outline, although (having been in classes for both) I might hedge on whether grad students or undergrads are the focus of greater attention, and might suggest that only certain doctoral students really receive much notice (for better or worse) among graduate students. IMHO in general community colleges focus most heavily on undergraduate teaching and have the least research.

#4 varies with the institution - certainly there are public and private colleges and universities that are highly selective, and where instruction has not been "dumbed down." Unfortunately these are not necessarily distinguished in the markets for their graduates - which are broadly painted as being just as idiotic, clueless, liberal, or stupid as any other graduate by our wonderful media, politicians, and employers (who, as it transpires, would rather hire South Asians who have to be instructed in the basics of their professions, just as Disney recently has).

#1 and #3 are on target as is, and would have been on-target over 20 years ago as well. It is refreshing to hear someone in the mainstream media not labelled as a "conservative crackpot" (or other derogatory label) point this out. I would go further and claim that liberal students have been more aggressively promoted in accordance with institutional and faculty values.

An additional concern that I would have articulated, is the *obvious and increasing willingness* to disavow the value in the abstract of a liberal arts education. We are in danger of dismissing a large swath of knowledge critical to the maintenance of not only American culture, but also our institutional structures, and the intellectual foundations upon which they rest - and indeed even civilization (Western *and* Eastern). This dismissal appears to be bipartisan and frighteningly ubiquitous.

Two related columns may be of interest to you -

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in your thoughts after reading this article.

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Responses:

1. I am devaluing the liberal arts education as proffered today. The title is accurate.

2. Yes, at community colleges and many small colleges, there is greater emphasis on teaching. #2 does apply mainly to public and private universities, which do, collectively educate, I believe the large majority of students seeking a bachelor's degree. That said, even at small colleges, I believe the gap between the intellectual ability and style of PhD-holding faculty and the typical undergraduate is so wide as to vitiate student growth.

4. Roughly 95% of colleges and universities, despite their efforts to obfuscate the fact, accept large numbers of remarkably weak students. Their reported averages hide that. Even if those students represent just a minority of the student body, there's great pressure in our egalitarian times for professors to reallocate effort and time to those weak students, boring the bright, while still leaving the dull confused and not particularly educated.

Your final point: If a liberal arts education were to focus on improving rigorous thinking, writing, oral communication, deep understanding of life's universals, and increased connoisseurship of the beauty of literature, art, music, and ideas, you'd have no stronger supporter of the liberal arts than me. But as my brief post implies, today's liberal arts education has strayed far from that.

Marty Nemko said...

Re the WaPo article, he creates a straw man. Of course, a college education shouldn't be valued only in economic terms. The problem is, even in the currency he values--learning how to think, write, mathematically reason, etc., the value-added of a college education for the millions of B students with sub 60%ile SAT scores is TERRIBLE. Perhaps worse, those students force the dumbing down of courses for students who are prepared for college-level instruction.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with your assessment of liberal arts degrees today. Sadly, I observe that even well established colleges have
discontinued traditional course work that stimulated my generation. I am reminded when I read American history around the turn of the twentieth century that vocabularies were superior and expansive in contrast to today's usage. I know that I have said enough because I am getting upset!

Anonymous said...

Having a rich vocabulary is today's booby prize.
There isn't an employer in America that hires people possessing an informed and extensive vocabulary - and in fact, there is some evidence that employers discriminate against such individuals.
The people they do hire can't spell, and cannot distinguish between basic homonyms. Furthermore the level of literacy displayed by these people is declining.
Many employers prefer to hire "skilled" immigrants that have issues with basic literacy and spoken English comprehension.
Not even newspapers hire proofreaders. Increasingly we have entities that don't hire the people trained to do the tasks that the entities are charged with.
The last paperbacks I read were rife with spelling errors probably introduced by automated software.
Acquiring an extensive vocabulary is the product of thousands of hours spent reading, listening, and occasionally using references. It requires an ear, some curiosity, significant cultural comprehension, an appreciation of context, and generally hones one's ability to express detailed, considered thoughts and arguments. This is worth $0.00. Personal satisfaction does not enter into it when the cost of your hard-won erudition is ostracization and poverty.


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