You are not a Liberal Arts Institution

I’m currently reading “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz. I highly recommend it for my university-teaching colleagues and for any student deciding where to spend four years (and a whole lot of money). The book lays a convincing case for the value of a liberal arts education, making no connection to achieving a breadth of knowledge. Instead, Deresiewicz makes clear that a liberal arts education ought to develop students’ thinking abilities, most notably their ability to engage with and critique others’ arguments (as well as create your own). Although not explicitly stated, his end goal is to create subversive thinkers. I applaud this goal.

Deresiewicz defines the outcomes of the liberal arts as learning how knowledge is created, debating ideas, and that “there is no ‘information,’ strictly speaking; there are only arguments” (p. 150). Given these outcomes, I am uncertain any liberal arts institutions exist anymore (I suspect Deresiewicz would agree). Having completed my undergraduate degree at a supposed liberal arts institution and currently working for an institution that supposes to integrate the liberal arts with professional studies, I suspect the liberal arts have eroded under the guise of choice.

The supposed long-tail of the internet appeared long before in college catalogs. No longer are faculty trusted to make educational decisions for students. Instead, students must be offered choices in their education. While a system of choice appears on its face to be positive, the system (like all technologies) is not without trade-offs.

The choices students make are within a system that requires checking off certain boxes (e.g. history, science, arts, etc). This checkbox mentality results in seeking the path of least resistance and the path of most convenience. Sure, students get to take courses on topics that might interest them, but what guarantees are in place that students are required to engage with new ideas, to critique argument and to learn how to think. Too often, the checkbox courses are content focused (rather than thinking focused) and unlikely to engage students with worldviews they don’t already have.

Certainly, some courses on college campuses are deeply steeped in the liberal arts. However, what connections do these isolated experiences (if students actually take those notoriously difficult courses) have to students’ broader education? Bloated major programs and professional schools end up demanding so much of students’ attention, that little of what a college education is comprised of counts as education.

So, to those of use teaching in those checkbox courses, to what extent is your course truly designed with the liberal arts in mind? To those of us on curriculum committees, what are the supposed roadblocks to reinstating a liberal arts curriculum and how do we get around them?

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