The Arizona Desert Lamp

Towards a new liberal arts

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 31 January 2009

BooksIf you care at all about the academy, you really should read Stanley Fish’s “The Last Professor” :

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the “higher learning.” John Sperling, founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense.

. . .

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”

Such arguments are not new, but that does not mean they are any less pertinent — anyone who has spent time around Eller can attest to this myopic employment-driven educational model. I am sure that the liberal arts students who read this blog can attest to the number of times that they’ve been asked, upon telling their family and friends what they’re majoring in, “And what you plan on doing with that?”

But I feel that this specific reaction — that the golden days are past us and filled with nothing but ‘practical’ sciences — is not thought through. First, it’s important to remember that, inherently, not everyone can, or should, have a liberal arts education. You can read various takes on this from John Stossel and Charles Murray, among others, but the current fetishism with the four-year degree is pretty nonsensical when you think about it.

The problem, however, lies in the labor market — increasingly, there is a fairly irrational demand for four-year college degrees in jobs where, really, no college degree should be required. Such policies are questionable in theory, but not in practice — if you want a job that doesn’t involve squeegees or beef tallow, you have to go to school. Thus, a good number (I can’t say with any degree of certainty if its a majority or not, but this varies from, say, an Oklahoma St. to a Yale) of students are in school specifically for employment purposes. This is a fine at a community college — and ideally, we’d start to see a decreasing of the stigmata towards these kinds of schools.

The other problem comes from the other side — that universities are being run like corporations, dropping “ineffective” units in favor of job-oriented majors and programs. But the problem lies not with the basic human instinct of the profit motive, but rather with the unnaturally large size of these universities — a direct result of the huge uptick in the demand for college graduates in the market. You simply cannot have a 20,000+ member school and act unconcerned about finances Any entity of that size must inherently be run like a corporate entity, unless you want to some serious recklessness and bankruptcy. This instinct also has a feedback, when it comes to student demands from the university. When the ‘university’ was simply a collection of professors, a small campus, and a few cots, the demand was simply knowledge — and, way back in the pre-Gutenburg days, access to the great texts, which pupils would diligently copy down, word for word, the great texts. Now, however, a university is not up to par unless  it has a $27.5 million recreation center, a health care system, an attorney for counseling, and multiple options for healthy eating.

All this is beside that point that, technically, there really isn’t a problem. If students really want a liberal arts education, properly understood, St. John’s College is still taking applications. If students want a purely professional degree, DeVry is always taking in new students.

The problem, for Finish and Donaghue, are the state universities, which occupy a hazardous median between these extremes. These schools also contain a great proportion of college students, and take up almost the entirety of media coverage. (I also think that college sports play a very large role in this predominance, or at the very least a larger role than any educational administrator would admit.) So how do we compromise these two impulses? How do we avoid being devouring by the School of Management, and how do we continue the school’s ostensible mission of providing publication to the citizens of its state (i.e. not reducing the UA down to 5,000 students and focusing entirely on the humanities)? Part of the answer, I think, reveals itself in this response, from the ISI’s First Principles:

The Fish-Donaghue thesis is not about what ought to happen but what has happened. Fish is resigned to the fact that the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that he followed in his academic career will no longer be given a place in academia. He is obsolete, the last. He is grateful that he entered academia when it was still possible to spend his life in learning things. This was a world in which students were excited not about what they could make, however valuable this was, but what they knew because reality contained things worth knowing, because truth was a real enterprise of the mind [Emphasis added — EML].

This brings us back, in a very convoluted way, to the module-based General Education. Part of the problem with this “wide-ranging” knowledge is that it used to be based in the Western Canon, which served us well until the rise of relativists, when dutiful Aeneas was ravaged by the vagaries of post-feminist defenders of Dido and the Enlightenment reduced to a fraud. Yet there’s no going back — like Adam, we know too much. The alternative is then a widening — trying to explore curiously the many wonders of this life — which really should  be the goal of the GenEd program, even if it isn’t. Instead, they’ve replaced one canon with another, “Individuals and Societies” replacing “Rhetoric” and “Diversity Studies” taking the place of “Logic.”

Again, this is a good aim — but if your goal really is to widen one’s interests, to expand a student’s intellectual strivings, the best way to do that is to make them study as many different things as possible, a goal more effectively accomplished through 30 1-unit classes than 10 3-unit classes. Some understanding will certainly be lost, but it’s hard to argue that the current GenEd system encourages deeper understanding of any kind. If we’re opting for foxes over hedgehogs, we might as well go the whole way with it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user vieux bandit

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5 Responses

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  1. Laura Donovan said, on 31 January 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Excellent blog. Like most people, I’m getting a college degree for professional purposes, but I’ve learned that it’s kind of unnecessary to major in writing/reading when I’d be doing both things anyway. Do you feel the same about your political science classes? Can’t you read history books and news stories on your own time?

    I don’t think my CW classes have improved my writing skills, and I would have read all my assigned novels regardless of my major. It doesn’t seem like a Humanities (or now known as College of Letters and Sciences) student really needs to go to school to understand such concepts, but college is essential these days, so we instead have to put up with all the condescending questions such as, “What the Hell do Creative Writing majors do after college?” It seems like there’s almost an assumption that the student will fail as a philosopher, political analyst, or creative writer.

    The Gen Ed program is kind of a waste of time and money. As I’ve said before, it’s helpful for students who start off at college with no clue what to major in. That way, they can take their first 1.5 years to mess around and possibly think about something they want to study. But if they’re in that position to begin with, they should save thousands of dollars by first going to a community college. (Then again, they’d be missing out on the “college experience”). Bottom line-Gen Eds don’t really help students decide what they want, however, so I’m not sure that the Gen Ed program serves a relevant purpose in that sense.

    I wish there was an alternative for students like me (and probably you, Evan) who knew what to major in at the beginning of freshman year. Instead of studying what I wanted to be studying for my first year and a half, I had to sit through countless large lectures with students who cheated on every exam and skipped class. Now that I’m done, I don’t think I got the diverse education that the university strives to provide through the program. The classes kind of blended together- Philosophy 101, Personal Morality, Many Nations of Native America, History of Non-Western Civilization, Physical Universe, Stars, Geological Perspective…

    Your last paragraph says it all. Nice blog, and sorry for going off on a tangent.

  2. Evan Lisull said, on 31 January 2009 at 5:03 pm

    “I wish there was an alternative for students like me (and probably you, Evan) who knew what to major in at the beginning of freshman year.”

    Mildly amusing personal anecdote: I actually had no idea what to major in. At orientation, though, I realized that the University College presentation would be absolutely useless; scrambling to choose something, I opted for political science, as I was reading “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” at the time. Good thing I wasn’t reading “Theory of Relativity” or something.

    “. . . I’ve learned that it’s kind of unnecessary to major in writing/reading when I’d be doing both things anyway. Do you feel the same about your political science classes? Can’t you read history books and news stories on your own time?”

    This, to me, underscores the importance of the General Education program. I am inclined towards current affairs — thus, my classes either are useless, or help me to sharpen my views. However, I am NOT generally inclined to read books about biology, psychology, computer science, etc. — yet I would hardly consider myself an ‘educated’ college graduate if I understood the ’06 midterm elections without knowing who Jung was, to give an example. College graduates should have a wide range of knowledge.

    Semantics also help this argument. When you and I graduate, we will earn “Bachelor’s of Arts” — a term implying a broad purview. We will each have different “majors” — not “entires” or “wholes” — within this bachelor’s, fields in which we have spent the majority of our education.

    The current GenEd consists almost exclusively of pabulum (“Dinosaurs” was a delightful exception). By specializing and condensing, and thus expanding the view, one-unit classes will invariably be forgotten; but at the same time, I can’t imagine forgetting “Tactics of Starcraft” or “Hip-Hop Epics and Americana.”

  3. Laura Donovan said, on 1 February 2009 at 12:39 am

    Sorry about the Poly-Sci assumption! I’m glad the major actually worked out for you. You raise a valid point about Jung and having universal knowledge, but I feel like college graduates learned a lot of history, math, and science in high school, or at least the basics. College should have a stronger focus on the intended path of study. Thankfully, there are specialized schools like the Academy of Art University (in San Francisco) for writers, actors, artists, etc. I still think the Gen Ed program is pretty ineffective, but it works for most universities.

  4. […] try and get a real post up here later today. Evan wrote a good piece the other day commenting on the role of academia in the future. I want to complement his piece with […]

  5. […] 19, 2009 · No Comments I found Evan’s post on Stanley Fish’s “The Last Professor” article quite interesting and, […]


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