Op-Ed: The Death of Liberal Arts in Higher Education

Shifting our Focus Towards Secondary Education

Astra Tucker, Senior

Liberal arts colleges are dying. Each passing semester brings about changes that reflect market-oriented goals and the hiring needs of corporations as opposed to goals historically attributed to the liberal arts. I would like to suggest, however, that this does not necessitate mourning the loss of liberal arts within higher education. Instead, it is a path towards valuing a liberal arts education enough to insist on its accessibility to all people regardless of the institutions to which they have access.


Liberal Art’s Death Within Higher Education

Why go to a liberal arts college? Scholars suggest many reasons: gaining the ability to practice learning for a lifetime, having conversations with peers for their intrinsic value, cultivating the self through a four-year interval before entering the job market and learning the skills of citizenship. The institutions that provide these virtues, however, are decreasing in number every year.

David Breneman, a professor of economics, conducted a study in 1990 to track the number of liberal arts institutions. He uses the criteria outlined by the Carnegie Foundation based on the percentage of degrees in the arts and sciences awarded to students as opposed to vocational degrees. Under these criteria, fields considered “traditional liberal arts” include history, psychology, the sciences (natural and social), foreign languages, religion, the arts and English. Professional fields include business/management, communications, education, engineering, nursing, and computer sciences. Based on a replication of the same study in 2008-2009, 130 institutions remain as “true liberal arts colleges” out of the 212 Breneman identified in 1990. The studies reflect the increasing professionalization of colleges and universities.


The Stakes in Losing the Liberal Arts

What gets scholars so worked up about the death of liberal arts? Defenses of the loss of the humanities at liberal arts institutions attack corporate partnerships within higher education and administrations’ increasing prioritization of profits. Writers focus on declining public support for higher education, the growth of academic capitalism (college and corporate brand marketing), and the rise of metrics (test scores, professor ratings) for increased accountability. For example, scholars Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes in their book “Academic Capitalism” focus their attention on how “colleges and universities are initiating marketlike and market practices, and forming partnerships with business to exploit the commercial potential of students.”

In these critiques, however, I have not found extensive acknowledgment or exploration of the fact that the benefits of a liberal arts education are only available to an elite subset of the population. America currently has a lack of adequate state funding for higher education and over a trillion dollars in collective student-loan debt. Any defense of the liberal arts without a discussion of accessibility may be…elitist? Race- and class-based privilege are certainly reproduced at elite liberal art colleges such as Whitman.

A defense of the liberal arts should justify its benefits for the majority, not only the elite. For those who have attended a liberal arts institution it is easy to identify the attributes that make them special: small classroom settings, exposure to a broad range of topics, and accessible professors. These factors produce the virtues identified by scholars that result in giving students a life of greater meaning after graduation. Higher education institutions, I argue, do not have a monopoly on these benefits.


Focus Instead on Secondary Education

I suggest a turn towards focusing on the improvement of secondary education in America instead of fretting over the professionalization of higher education. Across America there is vast inequality between school districts due to unequal funding, lack of respect for teaching as a career choice, and discouragement of highly educated students to go into teaching positions due to its lack of prestige. These are all factors that prevent students from accessing the benefits of a liberal arts education.

While some aspects of a liberal arts college setting may not be transferable to public high schools, taking steps towards improving our education system would bring about many of the liberal arts values that are being lost in higher education. Increasing high school quality through more adequate funding, valuing the profession of teaching, remodeling curriculums for greater class discussion, and adopting other liberal arts characteristics have the potential to ensure students develop into lifetime learners, engaged political participants, and happier people with lives of greater meaning and purpose.

We do not need to wait for higher education to return to an imagined golden-age. Instead, I would like to see a nation-wide push for improving the system of education that we all understand as a public good—secondary education. Enhance the quality of secondary education and we can then celebrate the widely received virtues of the liberal arts instead of mourning their loss for the elite.