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How to End the Negativity Around Liberal Arts, For Good

The EvoLLLution | Keeping the Promise of the Liberal Arts
It’s critical to enrich liberal arts programming by not just focusing on the disciplines themselves, but by calling out and building transferable skills that help students live full, productive and engaged lives.

On any given week, a scan of headlines in the higher education periodicals and local and national newspapers yields several articles about the role and fate of the liberal arts. Some articles focus on the challenges and closures of small, liberal arts schools (e.g., Newbury College, Mount Ida College, Marylhurst University, etc.); other stories address curricular restructuring and elimination of liberal arts disciplines (e.g., University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point); and a third group of articles focuses on either criticizing the liberal arts or defending them.  

For those of us who work in higher education, and especially those with academic backgrounds in the liberal arts, this continuous stream of negative or defensive stories is unsettling and uncomfortable. After all, as Martha Nusbaum often argues, the social value of the liberal arts helps students build the capacity for critical thought, the ability to see oneself as a member of a heterogenous world, and the propensity for empathy, among other essential cognitive skills. These are essential skills in any healthy democracy, so why is a liberal education not valued more?  

The common, utilitarian answer to the question focuses on the lack of workforce skills: “We need people to build bridges, run IT networks, and keep people healthy. We don’t need a bunch of elites who only live in their heads.” The typical, academic response is to talk about the importance of curricular breadth, the need to educate “the whole person,” and the pleasure of intellectual exploration. Unfortunately, these responses are heard as only supporting the critics’ points: Intellectual drivel in an otherwise hard and pragmatic world. 

Perhaps if there was less at stake, liberal arts proponents and critics could agree to disagree. However, the liberal arts are central to how American higher education is structured, and the future of higher education is a central issue in the national dialogue. How can we move past the divide and come together around a joint understanding of the common good that is higher education? 

Bridging the Gap 

Most employers value the promised outcomes of a liberal arts education. For example, George Anders notes in You Can Do Anything that many employers “share a belief that business success hinges on the central elements of a liberal arts education: Wanting to work on the frontier, being able to find insights, choosing the right approach, reading the room and inspiring others.”  

In The Fuzzy and the Techie, Scott Hartley observes that “students who pursue degrees in the liberal arts disciplines tend to be particularly motivated to investigate what makes us human: How we behave and why we behave as we do.” And because “the greatest opportunities for innovation in the emerging era are in applying evolving technological capabilities to finding better ways to solve human problems” those with backgrounds in the liberal arts who also understand technology make especially powerful employees and change agents.  

Faculty are equally bullish on the outcomes of the liberal arts. According to the 2010-2011 HERI Faculty Survey, 99.5 percent of college and university faculty rate the ability to think critically as either essential or very important; 91.3 percent believe it critical or very important that students be able to write effectively, 95.7 percent rate the ability to evaluate the quality and reliability of information as essential or very important, and 78.3 percent believe that preparing students for employment after college is critical or very important.  

If employers want the outcomes that the liberal arts espouse, and if faculty nearly unanimously support the same, why the impassioned disagreements? The answer lies in the lack of evidence of the outcomes, especially in students’ inabilities to apply cognitive skills in practice.  

The Challenge 

Question: How do we know that a student who has gone through a liberal arts education is able to think critically?  

Answer: She has taken certain courses.  

Question: How do we know that the courses taught the student to think critically? 

Answer: She received good grades in those courses. 

This is where the trouble begins. No course title signals anything about learning outcomes, and few syllabi do. Traditional transcripts do nothing to convey information about what students learn or explain what students had to do to demonstrate mastery. Hence, grades are meaningless for conveying evidence of knowledge. This would be a relatively easy problem to solve if institutions themselves had clear evidence of how students achieve learning outcomes and could share authentic assessments that demonstrate mastery with employers and others. Unfortunately, very few institutions can do this within disciplines and almost none can do it holistically. 

As noted above, nearly all faculty believe critical thinking is an essential cognitive skill. Most institutions list critical thinking as one of the main learning outcomes of their curricula. Yet the process of ensuring students are critical thinkers by the time they graduate is troubled at best. Even the most conscientious institutions bury critical thinking, along with other key learning outcomes, deep into individual courses by asking faculty to identify exercises or tests that show some evidence of them. That evidence is seldom evaluated or verified and almost never combined to show evidence of a coherent learning process. A cognitive skill like critical thinking is a highly complex skill that requires the ability to apply it in multiple contexts and in various ways. Yet, individual exercises that purport to test a learner’s ability to think critically evaluate the application of critical thinking in very narrow contexts. How do we begin to solve this problem? 

An Uncomfortable Next Step 

One solution to the problem is to embrace institutionally identified learning outcomes as a truly collective responsibility of the entire university. If critical thinking or any other cognitive skill is a key learning outcome that an institution purports to engender in its students, then every course in every discipline should demonstrate how it helps students master that outcome.  

To put the matter differently, consider the following. Few (if any) faculty would disagree that critical thinking and communication are foundational and essential cognitive skills for success in any discipline. After all, if one cannot think critically and communicate effectively, in which discipline could that person succeed? Hence, critical thinking and communication are two cognitive skills that transcend all disciplinary boundaries. There are others as well but let us confine ourselves to these two for our purposes here. If higher education institutions approached essential cognitive skills as primary and the disciplines as examples of those cognitive skills in practice, then they would be much closer to helping students achieve their stated learning outcomes. Curricular development would not begin with disciplines first with hopes that learning outcomes will follow. Rather, curricular development would begin with learning outcomes and require the disciplines to teach students how to apply key cognitive skills in the disciplines directly as well as how to apply those skills beyond the classroom.  

Historians, literary theorists, philosophers and all other disciplinary faculty use critical thinking and communication skills when they do their disciplinary work. They also use the same skills when they go home, shopping and on vacation. Yet, I don’t recall every hearing a faculty member tell his students “this is what it means to think critically as a historian” or “this is how philosophers communicate” and “these skills are very important in history and philosophy and here is how you can use them in everyday life.” Nevertheless, this is exactly what students, parents, employers and politicians expect. They want to understand the practical applications of the theories and skills that students are learning. This is a perfectly reasonable request. After all, it is only a handful of students among the thousands who take history or philosophy or other liberal arts courses who become employed in those professions, yet we believe that those disciplines are worth learning broadly. Why? How will students use the knowledge they get in those disciplines and how are students being taught to do so? Those are critical questions that all higher education institutions should be able to answer directly, succinctly and clearly. Otherwise, statements of learning outcomes ring hollow and appear as little more than empty promises to students. 

We have gotten lazy in how we teach. It is easy to teach disciplinary facts and theories within the boundaries of the disciplines. It is much more difficult to teach the importance of those facts and theories in the broader context of everyday life. However, we owe it to our students to do both without skimping on the latter. That is the implicit promise that we make to our students—higher education’s version of the social contract: Come here to study, pay attention and we will teach you what you need to live a full, productive and engaged life. We must live up to that promise. 


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