After reading William H. Gross’s blog on Global Public Square I realized that the attack on liberal arts education had reached a new level. Yes, recently, there has been a lot of talk about university education in general being overvalued and overpriced. At first, I thought that this was just another foray into what is really an attack from the right on academia in general.
This in itself is nothing new, I remember similar things being said during the 1980s recession when unemployment was hovering around a similar level, and university enrollments surged for similar reasons. However, the attack this time is more subtle. What those on the right seem to be saying is that it’s not university education or universities that are the problem, but liberal arts education specifically, for not sufficiently responding to the vagaries of the job market and ensuring that graduates are able to find jobs.
Let’s leave aside the implication that it is somehow central to a unversity’s purpose to churn out employable graduates in numbers that the economy can absorb, and to anticipate these needs and adjust their programming according to the demands of a fickle market (an assumption that I don’t accept).
Even if one were to assume that liberal arts education is really about preparing for the job market, why would North American society choose to abandon it just when it is paying dividends, and other countries around the world are adopting the liberal arts model, which includes inculcating critical thinking, reflection, historical knowledge, and self-awareness? Business schools around the world are encouraging their graduates to learn ethics, business history, and philosophy, in order to avoid another financial meltdown caused by irresponsible behaviour. Universities in China, tiring of the rote-learning and stilted memorization that instill monolithic and narrowly-focused skill sets, are turning to the freer-thinking models of Western universities to ensure their graduates are more flexible and globally-focused. Western educational experiences based on liberal arts models are in high demand around the world (one of the things that permits universities to charge such high tuition!)
Finally, although I agree that technical, apprenticeship and skills training are important and I agree that more needs to be done to ensure that students have access to these programs and training, without a corresponding push from governments to invest in public infrastructure, building projects, and non-military industrial development, it may well be that these graduates find themselves out of work and heavily laden with debt. Without the ability to communicate and think clearly, and to be flexible and adaptable, it may be more difficult for such graduates to adjust to a changing economy in the long run.
Let’s stop bashing liberal arts education, and start a conversation about the content and purpose of education in society. Such a conversation should not exclude economic considerations, but it should begin with the idea that education should ensure accessibility, instill the values of good citizenship, and ensure that students leave university more empowered than they were when they entered.