Episode 55: The Liberal Arts Debate

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As we said last week when we kicked off Series 5, it seems to me that we have been reading and hearing a lot about higher education in the news. So we are going to dedicate some weeks to looking at news stories that are inspiring, upsetting, or just plain surprising—either about specific colleges or about higher education more generally.

Episode 55: The Liberal Arts Debate on NYCollegeChat podcast http://usacollegechat.org/episode55 Listen on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn

Some of the stories might immediately influence your teenager’s decisions about where to apply or later about where to attend, and other stories might take longer to impact your family. Either way, we think these are things parents should know and even act on.

Today’s topic is the liberal arts. While some parents believe that their teenagers should major in a field that leads directly to a job after college graduation rather than in the liberal arts, some colleges—including some unexpected ones— are stepping forward to praise the value of studying the liberal arts.

Let’s start by saying that studying the “liberal arts” means that students take courses in a variety of academic subjects, typically including literature, history, mathematics, fine arts, philosophy, foreign languages, biological and/or physical sciences (also called the natural sciences), and one or more of the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. Sometimes these subjects as a group are also called the “liberal arts and sciences” or just “arts and sciences” or “humanities and sciences.”

Our new book (that’s How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available electronically and in print at Amazon.com) talks about choosing liberal arts study vs. technical study for a whole chapter. We explain the debate and give the pros and cons for having a student study or major in one or the other. So we won’t repeat all of that reasoning here.

However, before we talk about an article on this topic that I read in The Hechinger Report last October, I want to say in the interest of full disclosure that both Marie and I took the liberal arts route for our undergraduate degrees—mine in English literature and Marie’s in sociology. So, it is possible that we are a bit biased in favor of having a liberal arts foundation. In Marie’s case, she never would have known that the field of sociology existed had it not been for the distribution requirements mandated by her traditional liberal arts college, Barnard. All three of my own children were gently guided in the past 10 years—both by their father and me and by their own colleges’ distribution requirements—into getting a liberal arts grounding first, before they went on to study for quite specialized bachelor’s degrees (in music performance, in visual arts and media, and in dance). All of us would take the liberal arts route again if we had it to do over. But that’s enough about us.

1. Two Unexpected Cases

In his article “The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts,” Jon Marcus talks about two institutions that, by their very names, would appear to come down strongly on the side of technical study at the expense of liberal arts study. They are the United States Military Academy (commonly referred to as West Point) and the Culinary Institute of America—both located on the Hudson River a bit north of New York City. One produces soldiers, and one produces chefs—albeit some of the best soldiers and some of the best chefs anywhere.

Interestingly enough, however, West Point cadets choose from 40 academic majors that cover a broad array of disciplines—including American politics; art, philosophy and literature; foreign languages; history; sociology; and psychology; as well as management and the engineering and sciences you might expect. There are a lot of traditional liberal arts choices in that list. The Hechinger Report article quotes Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, the academic dean at West Point, on this subject:

It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers. What you’re trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground. (quoted from the article)

It is this critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, judgment, dealing with consequences, cultural sensitivity, and the sociology of their interactions with others that the proponents of the liberal arts claim can be taught most effectively through courses in liberal arts fields of study. And West Point seems to agree.

So does Michael Sperling, vice president for academic affairs at the private, nonprofit Culinary Institute of America, who is quoted in the article as saying this:

There’s a certain level of anti-intellectualism in the popular culture that inappropriately sees the pursuit of core disciplines as frivolous. And that’s unfortunate, because the kind of things you learn in philosophy courses and history courses deepens your ability to act in the world. (quoted from the article)

I think that “frivolous” is exactly the word that some parents would use to describe liberal arts study, and I hope that those parents are rethinking that position now.

Ted Russin, associate dean for culinary science, earned his degree in philosophy. He is quoted in the article as saying that Culinary Institute of America students “would definitely have technical skills. They could make a croissant and it would be exquisite. But there’s a difference between knowing how to do something and understanding what’s happening.” The bigger and broader understanding of what’s happening is what, some experts claim, the liberal arts provide.

2. Other Cases

Those of you who are faithful listeners to NYCollegeChat are likely to recall other higher education institutions we have talked about during our virtual college tour over the last few months—institutions that required more or offered more liberal arts courses and majors than you might have expected.

Let’s look at a few of our other military academies. We talked about the United States Naval Academy (commonly referred to as Annapolis). Young men and women at Annapolis graduate with Bachelor of Science degrees in a choice of about 25 majors—mostly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics related to their future careers. But they can major instead in Arabic, Chinese, economics, English, history, or political science (and minor in other foreign languages).

We talked about the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, located in Connecticut, where seven of 24 core curriculum courses are from its Humanities Department, so cadets are well versed in the liberal arts when they graduate. Cadets may major in government (about 25 percent typically do) in addition to marine and environmental sciences and majors more directly related to maritime studies.

We talked about the Military College of South Carolina, The Citadel. The Citadel offers 20 undergraduate majors—with mandatory leadership and ethics studies—in the schools of business, education, engineering, science and mathematics, and humanities and social sciences.

Let’s look at some arts institutions. We talked about the Curtis Institute of Music and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Rhode Island School of Design, where both the arts and the liberal arts are required parts of the curricula.

We talked about Berklee College of Music in Boston, which offers 12 different undergraduate music-related majors. But all Berklee students take both a core music curriculum (e.g., ear training, arranging, harmony) and a core liberal arts curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics.

We talked about one of our nation’s finest art colleges: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), located adjacent to the world-famous art museum in downtown Chicago. SAIC offers a wide variety of art and design majors—along with a full array of liberal arts courses.

We talked about Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), located in one of our nation’s prettiest towns. SCAD offers more than 40 undergraduate and graduate majors related to the arts and design, including writing. But, as part of the general education course requirements for undergraduates, students take liberal arts courses in the humanities and fine arts, natural sciences and mathematics, social and behavioral sciences, written and oral communication, and computer literacy.

Let’s look at a couple of Massachusetts colleges, which are known primarily as business colleges. We talked about Babson College, where at least half of students’ courses are in the liberal arts, including the study of a language that is useful in business dealings today—perhaps a bit surprising for a business-focused institution.

We talked about Bentley College, which offers its undergraduates 23 majors in 11 business fields and five arts and sciences disciplines. In fact, about 20 percent of undergraduates double major in business and Bentley’s Liberal Studies Major (which has eight interdisciplinary concentrations).

Let’s look at some high-tech institutions. We talked about Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, which comprises schools of Engineering and Science, Business, and Systems and Enterprises—as well as a College of Arts and Letters, where students can major in art, music, literature and communications, philosophy, history, and the social sciences and “benefit from pursuing these disciplines charged by the latest advances in technology, science, and innovation and the fundamental idea that science and technology can be used as intellectual tools of inquiry” (quoted from the website).

We talked about the Georgia Institute of Technology (commonly known as Georgia Tech), located in Atlanta. Georgia Tech provides a “focused, technologically based education” (taken from the website) and offers degrees in six colleges—Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Sciences, Business, and Liberal Arts—with “more than 100 centers focused on interdisciplinary research that consistently contribute vital research and innovation to American government, industry, and business” (taken from the website).

We talked about Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which offers 12 types of engineering and 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, technology, management, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. A Humanities and Arts requirement ensures that WPI students are well rounded; it consists of six courses of the student’s choosing, including courses from at least two different liberal arts disciplines, or a six-course sequence in Spanish, German, or Chinese—along with a final project.

We talked about the Colorado School of Mines, a highly selective and highly specialized engineering college. In addition to its applied science and mathematics majors, its geoscience and resource engineering majors, and a variety of other engineering majors, Mines requires a core curriculum, which includes humanities and social sciences courses.

We talked about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with its schools of Architecture and Planning, Engineering, Management, Science, and—last, but not least—the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. While we think of MIT as turning out first-rate engineers and scientists, students can also major in subjects in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. By the way, all undergraduates at MIT take eight courses in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (about 25 percent of their undergraduate program), so they truly become balanced students and informed citizens.

We talked about Columbia University’s well-known undergraduate Core Curriculum for Columbia College, its undergraduate liberal arts college. The Core Curriculum includes courses in literature, writing, art, music, civilization, science, and more. We said that the common texts that students read and discuss is like a greatest-hits list. But here is the remarkable statement from the website of Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities. (quoted from the website)

So, it is plain to see that specialized institutions—including institutions specializing in technical study—which seem unlikely champions of the liberal arts, are often, in fact, champions of the liberal arts.

3. What Some States Are Doing

Some states, however, have a different perspective. When dealing with financial cutbacks while trying to fund large public universities with taxpayers’ dollars, some states have questioned the value of the liberal arts—at least, some liberal arts fields anyway. Here are two ideas that have been proposed at the state level:

  • Charge students more tuition for liberal arts majors because the state does not believe that its economy needs them as much as it needs STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors and, thus, does not want to subsidize them to the same degree.
  • Encourage students who want to major in liberal arts fields to go to a private college to major in them and pay for that themselves—again, so the state does not have to subsidize those majors with public funds.

Some states have had their public universities cut back on some arts majors and some foreign language majors—not entire departments necessarily, but perhaps one language or one of the arts. Interestingly enough, these are the same two cuts that often get made at the high school level when public funds are tight. (Read Regina’s related blog post for more information.)

Maybe these states should have listened to what some colleges are saying—oh, and what employers are saying.

4. What Employers Are Saying

According to a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, about 75 percent of the 318 corporate leaders surveyed “want more emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge . . . exactly the kinds of skills advocates for the liberal arts say they teach. Ninety-three percent agree that ‘a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems’ is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major” (quoted from the article).

I am taking that to mean that a good job applicant who has an undergraduate liberal arts degree, who can speak and write and think and solve problems well, could be just as attractive to a corporation as a good job applicant who has an undergraduate business degree. So, parents, that is a viewpoint worth considering when it comes time for your teenager to choose a major for real as a college sophomore or junior or even to declare a tentative one on a college application.

5. A Few Practical Considerations

Let’s conclude with a few practical considerations. Marie and I have a preference for liberal arts study unless a student is absolutely dead certain that a technical field is his or her preference. That preference would have to be based on a long-time interest in that field, good grades in high school subjects that prepare a student for that field, discussions with people who work in that field, and some kind of internship or summer work experience in that field. All too often kids have an idea of a career they want to pursue without having any practical information about what that career is like in the real world.

And here’s one important thing to remember: Credits in liberal arts college courses (especially those taken in the first year of college) can be transferred far more easily among degree programs and even among colleges than credits in technical courses can. That means that a kid can change his or her mind after starting college (and many, many do) without losing too much time and, parents, too much of your money.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How all students get their vocational or technical education at some point in their lives
  • What other reasons some states have for not wanting to fund liberal arts studies
  • Whether foreign languages, a traditional liberal arts discipline, are actually a technical career skill

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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