Taking the Long View on the Liberal Arts

A spate of recent articles and books on the relationship between a liberal arts education and, what we might call, “practicality” or, more specifically, “professional training,” have addressed what seems to be an endemic concern for liberal arts colleges: how to balance the primary tenets of your educational mission with the increasingly high demand for college graduates to have “practical skills” that can be “applied” in various contexts. Are liberal arts colleges compelled by market forces to relinquish the very things that make them who they are? Is this the death knell for liberal arts education as we’ve known it?

Lynn Pasquarella, cited in a recent Chronicle piece by Michael Anft, argues that “there’s been a large shift in thinking. It used to be enough that a liberal arts education allows people to develop as human beings, something we’ve traditionally seen as an intrinsic good. But,” she continues, “as student-loan debt has grown along with tuition costs, the benefits of a strong [liberal arts] education are less certain.” Moreover, there has been a persistent stigma amongst liberal arts colleges associated with discussing “vocationalism,” the idea that liberal arts colleges should offer career development training for students. Many liberal arts colleges worry that such training, which generally focuses on resume-building, networking, and other forms of professionalization, could usurp the preparation that students receive more generally for their lives as critical thinkers and citizens.

While many commentators argue that an increased emphasis on professional training will harm the core features of liberal arts education, others contend that the liberal arts are not only innately practical, but incredibly useful in our current industrial climate. Two recent books by George Anders (You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education) and Randall Stross (A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees) both assert that a rapidly changing occupational landscape, especially in tech fields, offers exceptional possibilities for college graduates in the humanities (the traditional backbone of the liberal arts). Effective communication, astute attention to detail, critical analysis skills, and the ability to adapt are all qualities honed in English, history, and philosophy classes, and that translate well to workplaces that constantly strive to innovate.

Perhaps opposed to the state-of-the-art, yet potentially classic, liberal arts skills noted above (flexibility, adaptability, etc.) is another that does not seem to make the list, but that is especially instructive here: the ability to approach subjects through the lens of the longue durée. Coined by French historians in the 19th-century, longue durée refers to an historical method that prioritizes long-term historical structures over micro-histories of specific moments, trends, objects, persons, or ideas. One of the hallmarks of a liberal-arts education is the broad study of events and forces over a long period of time and in many geographical areas, complemented by deeper and more specific studies as students move through their degree programs. The idea, here, is that liberal arts students leave college with an expansive understanding of history and culture. Why might this be instructive for the debate at hand?

If we use the lens of the longue durée to examine the relationship between liberal arts and practicality, the results are absolutely striking; for, almost as soon as the idea of modern American liberal arts education appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was promptly deemed out-of-touch. An education “for the common good,” as Charles Dorn titled his recent book on the subject, was absolutely essential for maintaining American democracy, but it necessarily needed to provide proper training for future teachers, lawyers, engineers, and doctors—that is, for essential professions. While many “institutions shared a central objective to advance the cause of the republic by privileging the common good over private advantage,” Dorn explains, “the nation’s social ethos [was] reorienting away from civic-mindedness and toward practicality.”

Americans certainly “express[ed] deep concerns over this change, especially as it related to higher education,” Dorn notes. In an address delivered at Georgetown in 1862, and cited by Dorn, John C.C. Hamilton remarked on his worry that “the [college] curriculum was becoming [much too] directed to the ‘practical purposes of life’”: while many citizens and institutions across the country “recognized” that the liberal arts were of great “value” to “the American people,”

It is surprising to see how great a prejudice exists against the liberal studies. The pursuit of them is regarded as a waste of time. We are told that they contribute nothing towards what are vaguely called the practical purposes of life; that they are too tedious to suit the active spirit of the American youth.

Furthermore, Hamilton claims, “education is looked upon as an end rather than as a means, and courses of study are laid out very much after the fashion of our railroads—the shortest possible routes are adopted, all of which have for their terminus the busy marts of the money-making world.” Hamilton’s angst over the state of affairs in American higher education was not unfounded; indeed, as Dorn demonstrates, major historical forces like the Civil War and the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided “federal support for institutions seeking to teach ‘such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts,’” had a momentous impact on the landscape of higher education. Dorn’s research tellingly reveals that, far from being a solely contemporary issue, the necessity of offering a college education that combines deep study of the liberal arts with career development is foundational to the original expansion of college accessibility. In other words, the dichotomy between the liberal arts and practicality is not only long-standing, it may even be inherent to the very structure of modern, American liberal arts education.

With this historical paradox in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that contemporary liberal arts colleges are often unable to describe who they are and what they ultimately provide to current and prospective students. In our work on college campuses nationwide, we often encounter institutions who poorly define the content or scope of the liberal arts and, subsequently, have difficulty articulating how their liberal arts foundations make them distinctive from their peers and competitors. We often hear phrases like: “a liberal arts education will teach you how to learn,” or “it will broaden your horizons,” or “you will be exposed to many different subjects,” or, perhaps most cryptically, “students here develop critical thinking skills.” Each of these sentiments is so vague that it’s no wonder that prospective students and families are unable to see distinct institutions as precisely that: distinct. None of the aforementioned statements adequately speak to the genuine needs of students and families, nor to specific learning or career outcomes. As a result of this unclear messaging, many liberal arts colleges fail to fully grasp their responsibility to students’ futures, especially in regards to the seemingly vulgar, and often taboo, subject of making a living. However, and as Dorn’s research shows, there has almost always been a significant tension at the heart of modern American liberal education between the value of broad exposure to multiple subjects and the necessity of training professionals who can live full lives. Indeed, the dialogue about this tension (both historical and contemporary) is dependent on an inability to concretely express what a liberal arts education is, how it should function, and what it is responsible for providing to students and communities. That is, this tension is a problem of language, specifically the language that we use to talk about higher education in America.

To return to Pasquarella’s quote above, the idea that “it used to be enough that a liberal arts education allows people to develop as human beings,” and that now, factors like student loan debt, rising tuition costs, and unstable job markets make “the benefits” of a liberal arts education “less certain,” relies on a false nostalgia for a golden age of American higher education that simply didn’t exist. Indeed, many commentators lament the loss of a “gold standard” for American higher ed, while simultaneously defending a core set of liberal arts values that are nearly impossible to define or measure. How do we know if students are learning if we can’t say with assurance what they are supposed to be learning? Moreover, the golden age to which some commentators refer was hardly golden: although higher ed expanded in the 19th century to regions of the US that had previously lacked access to postsecondary studies, that accessibility was still heavily conditioned by cultural and demographic factors like gender, race, and class—as it continues to be today. Who, exactly, were “develop[ping]” into “human beings” in the glorious olden days of the liberal arts? And, is it possible to objectively define what we mean by “human being?”

The point, here, is that liberal arts colleges should not be afraid of change; in fact, American higher education has never been static. But, the current stakes are, indeed, high: with closures for many colleges and universities on the horizon, your institution’s continued success is contingent upon your ability to tell your story authentically and coherently across multiple modalities. At RHB, we specialize in working with you to establish coherent messaging and positioning through our Diagnostic, Coherence Inventory, and Circles of Influence services. Learn more about how we can help you develop a plan for strategically communicating your distinctiveness to your key audiences at rhb.com.

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Amy Mallory-Kani

Amy is a Writer at RHB.