Phi Beta Cons

Re: Can Liberal Arts Colleges Survive?

That’s a very interesting article, but I doubt his plan has much chance of succeeding — mainly for reasons he himself notes.
Demand for liberal-arts schools is falling, and the goal is to draw potential students and their parents. But today’s trends are the products of competition for students between the schools; therefore, he has to show that his strategy beats that of the free market.
Here are the three arguments he thinks schools should push forward:

  • It is the very “uselessness” of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill.
  • If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. . . . For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on.
  • Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.

The author notes the obvious problems here. Colleges are, first and foremost, in the business of peddling credentials. Most students go to college because it will help them get jobs — if you want to learn for the sake of learning, why not go to the library and save a few grand? Also, students (and for that matter, future employers) will appreciate big names more than an assertion of “teaching excellence.”
And really, what 18-year-old is going to recognize the importance of Aristotle, Descartes, and Rousseau? Most kids hate difficult reading to begin with — I coped with Heart of Darkness to get through college; I didn’t go to college for the purpose of having someone force me to slog through it and barely remember it a year later. Why would students seek it out, and in the process get a credential that’s less valuable in job-searching?
In marketing, you have to convince your target that you’re providing something they value. “Learning for the sake of learning” is a pretty small niche in high-schoolers. Maybe they could shift to an adult format, with weekend courses for learning general educated-person stuff.
The author concedes all these points, and offers some great reasons why kids should think differently (“By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.”). But he provides no convincing plan for achieving a state where they do think differently (I myself am not convinced by the preceding quote; of however “limited value” my journalism classes were, a journalism employer will value them more highly than other classes, and in order to get on-the-job training you need, well, a job). So his arguments won’t carry much weight.

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