Sunday, May 29, 2011

On the value of liberal arts education

I find a recent opinion article on CNN by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, on the value of liberal arts education rather upsetting. I can understand that as the president of a liberal arts college he wants to defend this particular type of education. But his arguments ring particularly hollow, and I would have expected better from someone leading on of the best liberal arts colleges.

His selling points are the following. 1) A broadly-based education is better then professional or technical expertise. 2) Liberal arts develop critical thinking and creativity. 3) Focusing on science and engineering is a serious mistake. 4) Effective implementation of new technology requires social and economic understanding. 5) Scholarship in humanities increasingly requires scientists. 6) Flexibility is important on the job market.

I agree that an education can be too narrow. But the US liberal arts way of doing it is a waste. Undergraduate students spend less than two years worth in their chosen major, and most end up being functionally incompetent in their major as they graduate. I realize this is largely due to the fact that high schools failed to give them this broadly-based education as they water down requirements. But there has to be a better way. Send those who have not yet mastered the general education requirements to community colleges, for example.

If the US is the bastion of liberal arts, as Michael Roth claims, then he cannot claim it favors critical thinking. I am continually amazed how US students woefully lack in this regard, with few exceptions of course. They are not interested in what they are studying or the world outside. They are very passive and minimalist students. This is favored by the "anything goes" attitude that liberal arts favor.

The reason why the US is a world economic leader is that it has a scientific and technological edge, and that is has economic policies that provide good incentives, at least better than the rest of the world (and that Americans are obsessed with working). That edge is waning because other countries are catching up on the scientific and technological front and have already surpassed the US in several areas. Michael Roth apparently thinks it is wrong to try to keep that edge, and that one should focus more or social sciences, humanities and fine arts. He got the causation wrong. One can afford this when one is rich, but it does not make you rich.

I think he right on the fourth point. It is useless to engineer better crops if you cannot find a way for people to adopt them. But one does not need more liberal arts majors than scientists to achieve this. His fifth point actually shows liberal arts needs science, so science should not be discouraged.

I also agree with his sixth point. That is why one should have sufficient time to teach not just the recipes of a field, but also where they come from. This allows a student later to come up with new solutions to new problems. But the 3-4 semesters in a major do allow this. The result is that in fields where this is not sufficient students are not competent enough and end up with jobs outside their major and with low pay. Just look what pay is across majors. Liberal arts majors are consistently at the bottom, also due the fact that there are just too many of those students.

No, we should not encourage liberal arts education. This should be done in high school and community colleges. Let universities concentrate on the teaching of the core and produce truly competent professionals.


NormanB said...

Any discipline that allows a MAJOR in ethnic or gender studies is a basic fraud. Secondly, 'liberal' studies started with the Greeks and it meant not to be touchy-feely but was done to 'liberate the mind' and it included, if not was dominated by, science.

The current concept of liberal arts is anti real world, anti making a living. It is more anti- than pro-. As is with most politcal liberal thinking it is soft in nature, taking the easy way out.

If you doubt this see how grade inflation has occurred (+1 GPA point in 30 years) plus a recent study that shows the liberal profs do not give bad grades whereas the GOP leaning ones give many more low grades and, shocking as it may seem, many more high grades. Dems want to level things regardless of merit. Soft thinking.

Kansan said...

NormanB, I think you are confusing liberal (as in politics) with liberal (as in studies). Liberal arts is about focusing on a mix of fields (what an oxymoron) with a large dose of social sciences and humanities.

That said, EL should have mentioned that HR personnel should stop requiring college degrees for jobs that really do not need them. Why would a customs officer need a BA? Or a secretary?

Roth is just defending his university. Also, one could have mentioned that in liberal arts on usually needs at least a MA (or a poorly named MSc) to work in your feild, whereas an undergraduate degree is sufficient in most of sciences and engineering.

Anonymous said...


Thomas Huxley disagrees with you.