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The New Liberal Arts and the Old

As we continue to think about education — there’s so much more to explore — let’s take a look at this opinion piece by Michael Staton on the “new liberal arts”. Let’s look rather closely.

He begins by noting that many people are saying that the liberal arts are dead, and then goes on:

I want our so-called “soft” studies (humanities, social sciences) to show some spine and create a response. The typical defense of the status quo involves spinning the value of a liberal arts education, pitching the curriculum as promoting the ability to problem-solve, learn to learn, and thrive in a knowledge economy. If the curriculum is teaching such skills as adapting to a knowledge economy, why can’t the professors that teach such great skills to thrive in a changing world employ them with some grace and poise? How can the liberal arts, itself, adapt to a changing world?

Good question. But one thing: is there a “knowledge economy”? That is, are more jobs knowledge-based than in the past? Also, what kind of knowledge do you mean? It’s a rather broad category, you know. We need some clarifications, some distinctions, and some data here.

Simply put, we need to rethink what our students do to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching literature and history and economics and psychology – or that students stop majoring in these fields. But we need to ask students to create, to experiment, to be bold and possibly fail with projects and deliverables relevant in today’s world. We’re too limited by Blue Book short essays and term papers – in which success is easily measured and bell-curved.

Just out of curiosity: what percentage of assignments in “literature and history and economics and psychology” are “Blue Book short essays and term papers”? Do you think it’s the same in all those fields? And, if we assume that those are indeed the standard assignments, what makes them easy to measure?

Also, are you aware that grading curves and bell curves are not the same thing? Those who grade on curves rarely conform them to the bell-like shape of the normal distribution. In fact it is often in order to avoid the normal distribution that teachers curve their grades.

But moving on:

Common ways to communicate now include snappy blog entries, reports, collateral material, diagrams, visualizations, illustrations, and infographics. Even scholarly think tanks that discuss the unemployability of undergraduates, such as the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, publish white papers and reports with distinct efforts in graphic design to be distributed for free on the Internet. The Bain Report that famously said a third of all colleges are in poor financial health was released with an interactive website. The term paper should be a dying artifact, and I’m not sure that it is.

Can you explain how the last sentence in that paragraph follows from the rest of it? The term paper needs to go because people nowadays write “snappy blog entries” — is that it?

Let’s put it this way: as a businessman I wouldn’t pay anyone for a well-written literature review, but I would pay quite handsomely for a brochure that resonates with the audience I am trying to reach. I’d pay more for someone to code it up into a website. Presentations in the work world now model Steve Jobs’ keynotes and TED talks.

Okay … right, you’re a businessman. You wouldn’t pay for a “literature review,” whatever that is. (A review of the state of learning in a given field, maybe?) But see, when have businessmen ever paid for literature reviews? When have people expected them to? It is certainly true that academics do many, many things that businessmen don’t value; on the other hand, busiessmen do many, many things that academics don’t value. It has ever been, and shall ever be, thus. Business doesn’t automatically get to set the value parameters for the rest of the world — does it?

Also: it’s difficult to take seriously the assertion that the norm for business presentations is the fluency of Steve Jobs and the airy brightness of a TED talk. All over American tomorrow, millions of business workers will be rendered catatonic by project managers with Ben Stein-like voices reading their interminable PowerPoint slides.

There are broad advantages to people who can hold their own with math, and this is no longer just about understanding the basics behind a calculator and being able to do accounting. We need to face facts: we teach mathematics as if we’re preparing bookkeepers for the pre-computer world, analysts for big banks, or math and physics professors. But there’s an explosion of jobs that need advanced numeracy and data literacy, with data storage, management, analysis, and visualization techniques all as fundamental skills…. The new liberal arts should start with and continually ask students to acquire and practice mathematics as a form of analysis and knowledge creation.

There’s a lot of truth to this. Now explain to me how it applies to the study of literature. You said you want us literary types to defend ourselves, right? You’re on our side, right? Help us out here. If we’re not doing math, are we dead in the water? More so than we are already? Do a higher percentage of jobs today require math skills than at any given point in the past? If you have data on that I’d like to hear it.

Estonia just decided all of their first-graders are going to learn to code, and an article in Venture Beat claims that the country will as a result “win the Great Brain Race.”

Oh, well, if Venture Beat says so….

Look. I have a lot of sympathy for some versions of the New Liberal Arts idea — there’s some very useful thinking in the Snarkmarket anthology on the subject — but I’d like to make a case for the old liberal arts too. In fact, Michael Staton would have been better off had he drunk more deeply from the good old artes liberales fountain.

Had he had appropriate training, he would have learned that you don’t just make assumptions about the assignments teachers give in the various disciplines: instead, you do research to find out what they do. In fact, a good recent liberal arts education might have given him the online-search skills to discover a measure of information on this topic. He would have learned that strong arguments are based on solid research — which requires, among other things, that students develop the discernment to know which sources are trustworthy. A good researcher, trained in the liberal arts, might be suspicious that there even is such a thing as the “Great Brain Race,” but would certainly understand that Venture Beat is not an ideal authority on this subject.

Even a liberal-arts student not particularly knowledgeable about the nature of language might suspect that English and Spanish are not “languages” in the same sense that C++ and Python are. An above-average student would surely know that we make an essential distinction between a natural language and a formal language, and that the intellectual resources needed to master the former are typically rather different than those required to master the latter.

A student well-versed in the intellectual traditions of the liberal arts would also know better than to make a claim about the intellectual liveliness of the average business presentation that is belied by the constant complaints of people in the business world itself. Such a student would be self-critical, self-aware, and both willing and able to imagine how his or her arguments are likely to be received by an informed audience.

If the New Liberal Arts does not inculcate these skills, it won’t be worth much. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are people out there doing some far more serious thinking on the subject than Michael Staton has, including some strong advocates for the NLA. We’ll look at them another time.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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