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.