Chapter 3: Liberal Arts Education: A Path Towards a More Thoughtful and Caring World
Posted on October 13, 2022Download as a PDF
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It is impossible to overstate the impact the past two years have had on higher education. As presidents, we have seen firsthand the challenges our students, faculty and staff weathered as campuses closed in March, 2020 – the uncertainty of how long the closures would last, in what ways technology might support anything approaching normal instruction and engagement for students, whether science would be able to address the novel Coronavirus with vaccination, and then, when it did, whether a large enough percentage of the population would avail themselves of the treatment to make an impact. When we consider the decisions that had to be made, often with little information on which to base them, or time to consider them, in the past two years, it is a wonder to be standing where we are. But the tail of this event is long and will continue to be with us likely for many years to come. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted on May 26, 2022, that data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that “undergraduate enrollment fell 4.7 percent from a year earlier, a shortfall of more than 662,000 students. Since the pandemic began, the undergraduate student body has dropped by almost 1.4 million students…and overall postsecondary enrollment, at 16-million students, fell by 4.1 percent from a year earlier.”1 This will have a critical impact not only on our own institutions, but on American society as a whole. Some of our peer institutions are no longer standing with us and we know that higher education faces increasing challenges in the next several years. I would venture to say that what we have all learned from this experience would fill volumes. And the lessons are far from over.
What I would like to suggest is that, despite pressures toward specialization at the undergraduate level, the last two years have demonstrated very clearly that college students need what a liberal arts foundation offers more than any time that I can recall. The evidence is clear that many people are tending to seek sources of information that affirm their beliefs. Sources are abundant that can validate whatever stance a person might choose to take, and social media and search engines have achieved massive success with “supercharging confirmation bias…the most reliable cure (for which) is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs” because, when you are confronted with counterevidence or a cogent counterargument, you are forced to consider an alternate perspective.2 The algorithms for conflict are woven into the system of social media, and we see the impact everywhere in society; all the more on our campuses, where the number of our students struggling with social-emotional issues has increased significantly.3 According to a Pew Research Center Poll, 64% of Americans believe that social media negatively affect the way things are going in the country today; and they specifically describe misinformation, hate and harassment promulgated by social media as problematic.4 Yet these sites persist as “news sources” for many Americans and it can be more difficult to find “balanced” sources that provide nuance in considering complicated topics.
If civility is genuinely a value that has resonance in today’s world, then the liberal arts mission has much to say about this. A liberal arts curriculum, meaningfully executed, offers students the opportunity to develop essential skills and habits of mind that serve them well on any path they may choose to take. It challenges them to navigate complex ethical, philosophical, and moral terrain, and it provides the particular analytical tools to successfully chart their course. These tools enhance the study of all disciplines. Being an effective thinker, leader, team member, writer or communicator generally enhances whatever professional field a student may pursue. Moreover, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that the average American will have twelve jobs in their lifetime and given recent data on job dissatisfaction and “the Great Resignation” that number is likely to grow. Critical liberal arts capacities are perhaps the very definition of “transferable skills.”5
I am also suggesting that by engaging with a variety of sources, in multiple disciplines, students can develop crucial habits of mind that will serve them and our society well.
But I am not merely arguing that the liberal arts provides essential critical thinking skills upon which other professional skills are built, I am also suggesting that by engaging with a variety of sources, in multiple disciplines, students can develop crucial habits of mind that will serve them and our society well. Matthew Moen argues that, at its core “liberal education consists of two contradictory yet complementary streams: the pursuit of truth and the creation of virtuous citizens in the community.”6 The past two years, and the social distancing required during the pandemic, have seen a coarsening of our American dialogue. The Pew Research center says that overwhelming majorities of the public say that the tone and nature of political debate has become more negative (85%), less respectful (85%) and less fact-based (76%) over the last several years.7 There does not seem to be the capacity for agreeing to disagree on any number of issues, from the personal to the political, and any topic can, at any moment, become the source of amplification and bifurcation. The basic concept of “truth” and what information is “true” has been deeply harmed and, even as Americans experience this degradation, they are aware that it is happening. Again, The Pew Research Center has found that 85% of adults say that Americans’ level of agreement on the basic facts about issues and events is at least a “moderately big problem.”8 Liberal arts institutions in particular, no matter what else they may do, are places where faculty, staff, and students are in constant search for truth – in history classrooms, in English seminars, in biology labs, and in computer science classrooms. Public perceptions of higher education have dipped in recent years, but the noise around colleges and universities, the controversies that blow up social media feeds, these are not what is important about higher education. What matters is what takes place in those classrooms, how students are challenged to consider and reconsider events or equations or global problems from a variety of perspectives, and the skills and lexicon they learn by doing this. Even the capacity to accurately articulate a perspective different from one’s own is a significant ability.
Beyond the variety of important literacies the liberal arts foster: informational and data literacy, cultural, critical, and digital literacy, as well as analytical, evaluative, research, and synthesis skills, the liberal arts also foster a rich capacity to acknowledge a variety of perspectives. To use a metaphor from the natural world: a healthy ecosystem functions when there exists a wide variety of elements that are interdependent and thrive. Too much of any one element, in this scenario, is not good and can disrupt the entire ecosystem. Monoculture can be problematic if it is practiced too long, because it can leach nutrients from the soil and disrupt this balance. Similarly, choosing to pursue one line of thinking, only listening to one particular source to inform your decisions, not being open to a diversity of viewpoints can be significantly intellectually limiting. By exposing students to many sources, classical and new, and by challenging their thinking, professors teach them how to consider and refine their views based on evidence. “Insofar as colleges and universities are sites for encountering divergent perspectives, assessing conflicting ideas, evaluating competing claims of truth, creating new knowledge, and upholding intellectual integrity, a liberal education is designed to develop students’ capacities to think critically and make themselves vulnerable to criticism by welcoming dissenting voices.”9
Finally, a primary objective of liberal education is to shape virtuous citizens. Democracy is dependent upon informed people who understand the political processes by which Americans are governed, and who take their roles as voters and citizens seriously. In April 2020, the American Association of Colleges and Universities released a document entitled What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, Who It’s For, and Where it Happens designed to provide a guide for higher education during this difficult and transformative time. One of its main points is that, by its very nature, a liberal arts education produces independent thinkers who seek the information unfettered by dogma, ideology, and preconceptions. And it also has the capacity to foster civility, promote dialogue across differences…and produce citizens who are less susceptible to manipulation and…more disposed to civic and democratic engagement.10 Philosopher Martha Nussbaum noted, “Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world by factual knowledge alone.”11 Liberal arts education equips students with the habits of mind and skills to question, contemplate, and understand the world around them from multiple perspectives. And this is a key to good citizenship.
We live in, and are educating students for, an increasingly complex and diverse world. Likely we cannot imagine what the most popular majors will be for the class of 2052. It is challenging to argue the merits of an education that cannot immediately translate into a high-paying career, particularly with an appropriate national spotlight on student debt. But I don’t believe that education must be a zero-sum game – that it is either vocational education or what some term a “highly theoretical and impractical” one. Indeed, a rigorous liberal arts curriculum is an intellectual boot camp from which students emerge competent and ready to take on any number of societal roles. This foundational knowledge and these skills add value.
My institution, a midwestern liberal arts college, affirms four guiding virtues that we believe promote a campus environment in which all constituents can thrive; but I also maintain that applying them on a societal level would achieve a positive impact. These four virtues are commitment, curiosity, clarity, and civility. Our “Affirmation of Community Responsibility” holds that “With commitment, we will work diligently to support our community and pursue excellence. With curiosity, we will be eager to learn, open to new information, ready to take risks, and earnest in our pursuit of growth. With clarity, we will be open and honest with each other, and act with integrity at all times. With civility, we will treat one another with respect and care, and seek justice and understanding within and beyond our community.”12 Simple, basic, and necessary, as so many of the most important lessons are. By embracing curiosity and openness to new information and the pursuit of growth, we truly embrace the spirit of the liberal arts mission on which our college was founded. These values are essential, teachable, and can have a profound impact on healing a divided society.
1. Drop in Spring-2022 Enrollment Is Worse Than Expected. https://www.chronicle.com/article/drop-in-spring-2022-enrollment-is-worse-than-expected
2. Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/
3. Technology and College Student Mental Health: Challenges and Opportunities. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00246/full
5. News Release, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, August 31, 2021 https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf
6. Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/12/17/how-liberal-education-has-exceptional-opportunity-help-fix-what-most-ails-our
7. Public Highly Critical of State of Political Discourse in the US. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/06/19/the-climate-for-discourse-around-the-country-on-campus-and-on-social-media/
8. Trust and Distrust in America. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/americans-struggles-with-truth-accuracy-and-accountability/
9. Lynn Cheryl Pasquerella, “On Snowflakes, Chilly Climates, and Shouting to Be Heard: The Role of Liberal Education in Weathering Campus Storms,” in What We Value: Public Health, Social Justice, and Educating for Democracy (Charlottesville ; London: University of Virginia Press, 2022), pp. 87
10. Liberal Education and Threats to Democracy. https://www.aacu.org/article/liberal-education-and-threats-to-democracy
11. Pasquarella, p. 88.