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How to talk about liberal education (if you must)

HANOVER, N.H. -- You'd be hard pressed to find a campus that evokes the liberal-arts tradition more than that of bucolic Dartmouth College, with its main quadrangle surrounded by cupola-topped buildings and, in the distance, the surrounding hills. But faculty members here are worried. Earlier this month, they gathered academic luminaries like Anthony Grafton, Steven Pinker, Louis Menand, Elaine Scarry, Nicholas Negroponte, and others for an intense, two-day discussion under the stark heading "The Liberal Education: Dead or Alive?"

While most of those who gathered here would answer "alive," some might add: "barely." The latter pointed to students who flock to business programs, administrators who evaluate courses based on how much tuition revenue they bring in, and a society as a whole that doesn't seem to much care. Some even argued that it is time for liberal-arts institutions to start doing what would have been unthinkable a short time ago: focus more on students' career needs.

The gathering was very much an elite one, with professors sharing knowing jokes about the curriculum at Harvard and Chicago. But for the bulk of higher education which has been dealing with these issues for some time, and without the resources or prestige of Ivy institutions it's not a matter of preserving a liberal-arts model, but of protecting enclaves of liberal education within large universities for which liberal education is but one, increasingly marginalized, goal.

Yet the fact that professors at Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth are worried about the health of liberal education is noteworthy. If the liberal arts are perceived to be struggling at these institutions, does liberal education stand a chance anywhere?

Keynote speaker Raimond Gaita, a philosopher at King's College London, kicked off the conference with an anecdote about a gathering of leading philosophers at Leeds early in the Thatcher years, when universities felt under siege from the market-oriented conservative government. If a university eliminated its philosophy department, they told a junior government minister they had invited, it couldn't be called a university. "That's OK," the minister replied. "We'll call it something else."

But for Gaita, it's not just budget-cutting conservatives who must be defended against. He reserves a special scorn for academic leaders who have "debased" the academy by pretending that fields like Hospitality and Gaming Studies have a place at a university. A true liberal education, he says one in which learning is pursued for its own sake, and is based on the idea that broad literacy prepares students to act as educated, enlightened citizens requires a "community of scholars" who are not worried about job-placement rates, or the relevance of their work to government officials, and who view a life of scholarship "as a vocation," not simply a career. "We couldn't well imagine Socrates taking early retirement," Gaita said.

Gaita's comments were met with nods of approval and strong applause. But privately, several scholars acknowledged that there are few places that even approach Gaita's criteria, and that few graduate students can hope to land jobs in such a "community of scholars."

The technologist Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the Media Lab at MIT, stood at the far end of the spectrum from Gaita. He offered a radical solution to the problem of liberal education: Get over it. He even suggested people stop using the phrase, asking "What the hell does this mean?"

A university's job, said Negroponte, is to "promote creativity." Traditional academics delude themselves when they say that they must be cut off from practical fields like engineering and the business world to do the best work. Corporations come to places like MIT's Media Lab to encourage "high risk" work, and that's where universities have the potential to make real breakthroughs. Negroponte argued that all universities should abolish traditional departments, group scholars together, and require industry collaboration.

But not all scientists at the meeting were as blithely unconcerned. Vernon Rosario, who teaches psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, said he worries that the next generation in his field is far too narrow, interested only in neuroscience and not the many other factors that go into psychiatry. He now assumes, he said, that his new residents in psychiatry have never read Freud.

So where does all this leave the liberal arts? Looking at the situation today, Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard and regular contributor to The New Yorker, asked whether the longstanding "firewall" between liberal education and a university's trade and professional schools is "sustainable or desirable."

Business has for many years been the top undergraduate degree nationwide, he said. And while the number of mathematics majors has fallen by half since 1970, the number of majors in Parks and Leisure Studies has increased by a factor of 10. "Pulling up the drawbridge to protect our virginity" won't really work," he said, but "perhaps we can become a little bit pregnant and still respect ourselves."

For example, Menand noted that many economics departments at liberal-arts institutions have historically resisted student demands that courses be added in practical subjects like accounting. But what about courses that put accounting in a broader historical and theoretical perspective? "Garbage is garbage," Menand said, "but the history of garbage can be scholarship."

Jonathan Crewe, a Shakespeare scholar at Dartmouth and the organizer of the conference, said that attitudes like Menand's may well be necessary. Dartmouth's English department, for example, just approved its first course in journalism. Crewe said students had been pushing for a course for years, and the proposal, which probably would have been rejected as inappropriately careerist 10 years ago, sailed through. The syllabus suggests that it will take the kind of approach Menand suggested: Practical assignments on various types of writing will be mixed with reading and analysis of journalism from different periods in American history, from muckraking to the Tom Wolfe-style "new journalism" of the 1960s.

Dartmouth's president, James Wright, also cautioned against the assumption that student demand for career-relevant education was cause for alarm. Wright reminded the audience that first-generation college students tend to want a practical education, and colleges need to think about their curriculum in light of these realities.

Indeed, if you look at the humanities today, there is considerable excitement and growth at places that don't look or feel anything like Dartmouth or Harvard or MIT, for that matter. Michael Bub, for example, a star in literary studies and a leader in the field of disability studies, is based at Penn State University the kind of place that Gaita might say isn't hospitable to serious scholars because it offers degrees in a range of decidedly non-liberal-arts fields. Or look at the development of a serious philosophy program at Texas A&M University, or at how H-NET, a series of websites and Internet-discussion groups created by Michigan State University, has created "communities of scholars" across the humanities and social sciences, and around the world.

Yet even when students seek out a liberal-arts institution, there's no guarantee that they share, or even grasp, its values. Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth, surveyed the students in his introductory course (which is for non-majors and attracts students from a range of disciplines) on the value of a liberal education. Asked whether marketplace demands should shape the curriculum, 38 percent of the students said yes.

That 38 percent of students at an avowed liberal-arts institution believe the market should shape the curriculum may be troubling enough for purists. But as I walked around the Dartmouth campus, I found that even those students who say they value liberal education don't necessarily know what it is. Asked if they like Dartmouth's liberal-arts orientation, all the students I spoke to said yes. But when I asked them what that means, two answers came up again and again: the classes are small and the professors really care about their students and reach out to them.

These are great qualities in an undergraduate college, but plenty of business schools boast of small classes and caring professors. If that's how students view liberal education, are they really getting one?

Lauren Maynard, a Dartmouth junior from Brookline, says that the older students get, the more likely they are to focus on career issues. When students start off, they want to take courses in diverse fields, to explore, to find themselves. "But at a certain point," she says, "it becomes less and less about learning and more about resume-building." Why? Well, Maynard replied, people don't want to graduate and end up as a Starbucks barrista. After she gets her degree in literary studies, she wants to pursue a career in branding.

Scott Jaschik is editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication that will debut next year

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