A Possible Future for Liberal Arts Education

outdoor classroom

Those of us who teach in the various areas of the liberal arts are aware that the kind of instruction we offer is severely under siege.  Governors and legislatures are trying to condense the time it takes to get through college.  They aren’t calling for smaller majors.  Rather, the jaundiced eye of educational compression rests squarely upon courses in fields such as history, literature, philosophy, art, and music.  It would not be outrageous to predict that in either the near or intermediate term we will see a substantial reduction in the requirements for core curricula.  We have already seen institutional cores jumbled up into salad bowls of options as opposed to a coherent set of offerings which would help anyone to become a well-educated person.  The next step is certainly less of the required courses and maybe even less of the optional ones.

The standard response has been to conduct a public campaign in favor of the liberal arts.  We argue for their necessity in producing graduates who have the kind of broad understanding and perspective that makes further learning more fruitful.  We point to liberal arts majors who have gone on to great successes.  Every now and then we have an ally heading up a company in the Fortune 500 who declares that he or she would rather hire a truly excellent English major than any number of blinkered MBA careerists.  (Forgive the broad brush.  I have a couple of professional degrees, myself!)  Regardless, the current is running against us.

In response to this adversity, I suggest that we consider gearing up efforts to teach the liberal arts to the audience which tends to appreciate them.  The audience of which I speak is adults over 30.  As people age, especially intellectually curious people, they have an increasing desire to learn the things they know they missed.  And when they do learn those things, such as history, they often find the experience deeply satisfying.  Part of the reason why this learning can occur better at a later time is because the student is no longer obsessing over getting a job, earning money, and finding a mate or running with a pack of friends as is often the case in college.   Age provides knowledge of what is missing, the desire to learn, and perhaps greater perspective to aid understanding.

What is the right way to provide this liberal arts education for adults?  I would suggest week long retreats.  For a reasonable sum, say $1500 to $2000 per person it would be possible to provide lodging, meals, and instruction/conversation in the liberal arts.  No big administrative team.  No large physical plant to maintain.  And the employees would all essentially work on fees from each event.  Many adults would pay for this kind of instruction.  It is possible that some corporations and non-profits would even pay for team members to attend.    The best thing of all?  It would be learning for its intrinsic value rather than learning for the sake of credentialing.

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6 thoughts on “A Possible Future for Liberal Arts Education

  1. sign me up to each art and i have the perfect locale, golden eagle ranch, hard scrabble mountain co. 10,000 feet and just a tad outside of heaven!!!

  2. Perhaps I am the outlier to the movement, but I would love to be able to see less pressure for students to be pushed through their undergraduate studies. Far too often the push to get the students in and out of their studies leaves them like tea bags that haven’t steeped enough, the juices aren’t quite brewed. I really believe that at such a time in people’s lives, they should take an extra semester or year rather than fast-tracking through the university experience. Looking back, it’s one of the few times in a person’s life where they can have the freedom to be exposed to a learning experience that can honestly change one’s life forever.

    I am not saying those experiences cannot happen at other times, it’s just easier during those precious years.

    I love the idea that people could come back to the joys of discovery after their careers and lives have started to blossom. You are correct that people at that stage in life rarely have the ability to set aside enough time to pursue a degree. I would love the opportunity to invest that type of time in learning for learning’s sake, but it’s isn’t feasible without significant upheaval in my life. Sign me up, as it were. But, if I decide to learn, I want to dive deeply. There is nothing more satisfying than really sucking the marrow out of a learning experience.

    What an interesting concept and a change in perspective to what seems like a significant paradigm shift in education nowadays….

    • I agree that students should take more time — our education students, in particular, have such a full schedule because of state requirements that they never have time to reflect on what they are learning. I encourage anyone who can to take an extra semester and smaller loads so that they are able to immerse themselves in the subject matter and get more out of it than mere credits on a transcript.

  3. Dr Baker
    It seems to me that the educational process has been and is being shaped to create ‘specialists’ rather than thinkers. The less thinking that the ‘new worker’ does, the fewer problems there will be for the managers — so, I believe, the thinking goes. The less tied to Western culture and the faith which formed it are the students, the more easily that they will be led to do things which are not really in their own best interests.
    Although your idea is unquestionably helpful towards fostering an educated and thinking populace, I am afraid that it is quite simply not enough to save us from the ‘specialists’ with which our Brave New World is and will be populated.
    It might also help you in the post-secondary educational world to do more educating with fewer resources if the students coming out of our high schools were better educated.
    MIke

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