The Liberal Arts: From Minnesota to China

I try not to post too many posts defending the beleaguered liberal arts from assorted barbarians at their gates. I’m pretty sure my feelings on that model of education are well known, or could be predicted if you just knew my occupation, and the value of the liberal arts seems self-evident to me. But two articles from the past six weeks caught my attention: one because it hit close to home; one because it was set an ocean away.

St. Olaf Stained Glass
St. Olaf, at St. Olaf College - Creative Commons (Deb Nystrom)

First, an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune, profiling efforts of Minnesota liberal arts colleges (Bethel was not featured, but I pray that our admissions folks and administrators were reading it!) to survive in a market whose consumers may have similar attitudes to those of the respondents to this 2011 Gallup poll:

…half of those surveyed believe the main reason to seek higher education is to “earn more money.” About a third picked to “get a good job.” What about the classic liberal arts goals of becoming a better citizen? Learning how to learn?

Just 5 percent of those surveyed said “to become a well-rounded person.”

“To learn to think critically”? One percent.

To an extent, schools like St. Olaf College (the primary focus of the article) are learning to play the game on the “get a good job” field. St. Olaf has moved its Center for Experiential Learning to the center of campus (sparking a 69% increase in traffic) and is going to rename it the “Center for Career and Vocation.” And beginning in May with the class of 2011, the college will publish employment and salary data for its alumni — the first non-profit, private school to take that step, according to the Council of Independent Colleges.

At the very beginning of the piece, the president of St. Olaf (whose office now shares a building with the soon-to-be career center) tries to convince prospective students and their parents that investing in liberal arts is a good career move:

David Anderson knows that parents today are skeptical about the liberal arts. That they worry about their children graduating in a tough economy with a degree that doesn’t spell out that first job. That they’re weighing a hefty price tag against the possibility of unemployment.

So, in a quick talk to a ballroom full of high school juniors and their families, the president of St. Olaf College made the opposite argument. “If St. Olaf had given me an education that prepared me exactly for 1974,” Anderson said, “I would now be unemployed and irrelevant.”

Anderson — who, for the record, is a former English professor who majored in that field at St. Olaf — echoes an argument made elsewhere by former Duke and Wellesley president Nan Keohane, in a piece summarized here last month:

…if you only focus on learning specific materials that are pertinent in 2012, rather than learning about them in a broader context, you will soon find that your training will have become valueless. Most important, with a liberal education you will have learned how to learn, so that you will be able to do research to answer questions in your field that will come up years from now, questions that nobody could even have envisioned in 2012, much less taught you how to answer.

Of course, there’s much truth to this. And it’s an important argument to make in the face of surveys like the one by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, showing (as the Strib reporter summarized it) that “graduates with ‘soft’ majors in areas like fine arts are more likely to be unemployed and make less money.”* (see below for a more detailed analysis of this and a competing report)

But I resonated much more strongly with a different kind of argument, made by a St. Olaf faculty member as quoted near the end of the article:

Anne Groton, a classics professor, commanded the room with her theatrical delivery. “I think people ask the wrong question,” she pronounced. “People always say, ‘What can you do with a major from St. Olaf?’ The question should be, ‘What can you be with a major from St. Olaf?'”

It’s a small difference in word choice, but a significant one — “do” points to occupations and professions; “be” suggests that liberal education is about formation and vocation, two themes central to the revised objectives our department adopted last summer.

Sun Yat-sen University
North Square, Sun Yat-sen University - Creative Commons (AlexHe34)

Then briefly, let me highlight a February 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on another phenomenon mentioned by Keohane: the rise of liberal arts programs in Asian universities like Sun Yat-sen University (Guangzhou, China), Tsinghua University (Beijing, China), and Tunghai University (Taichung, Taiwan). The reporter also notes that all Hong Kong students will soon need to complete a fourth year focused on general education courses, and describes a similar interest in the humanities in South Korea.

While students in countries like China are still pushed into fairly narrow academic tracks even before starting high school (a phenomenon hardly unknown in the West — cf. Germany) and most students focus on sciences, engineering, and other professional fields, there is a growing recognition that an educational system geared to train “stellar test takers” (to the consternation of many in the West) might also produce precious “few innovators and inventors.”

Indeed, in Asia concerns about unemployment have only encouraged the growth of liberal arts, thanks to the pressures of globalization:

The global economy is placing new demands on international hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore and opening up China’s once-closed markets to overseas investment. Not only do new hires in these places have to collaborate with counterparts around the globe, they’re also competing for jobs. And they’re not faring well, dinged for inflexible thinking, inability to work in teams, and lack of creativity. A survey of Hong Kong employers rated local graduates far inferior to those educated abroad. In mainland China, more than one in 10 graduates have yet to find a job a year later, even in a booming economy.

Casting their eyes West, reformers have latched onto American-style liberal, or general, education as a way to foster more nimble and adaptable thinkers. “These countries realize that, in order to become a global leader, you need a creative class,” says Gerard A. Postiglione, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong.

As yet, most of these liberal arts programs are fledgling (click here to listen to reporter Karin Fischer discuss the challenges the liberal arts face in China), experimenting with a variety of “liberal” models. One of the chief challenges they face is how to overcome the impression that the liberal arts are a Western import. The reporter asks,

…is the very notion of liberal education compatible with China’s Communist government, or Japan’s emphasis on hierarchy, or, more broadly, regional norms that prize group cohesion over the development of the individual? Is it possible, or even appropriate, to graft a Western approach to learning onto a markedly different culture?

Boya College, the liberal arts program at Sun Yat-sen, features a multi-cultural Great Books curriculum that includes “Confucius and Plato, Xun Zi and Jacques Derrida.” The program’s founder traces the “notion of the broadly educated leader… back millennia in Chinese culture. After all, ancient Mandarin civil servants didn’t study public administration but were tutored in music, art, and philosophy.” And institutions like Tsinghua are returning to their original missions to form well-rounded graduates, a model that decayed after Communist Party-directed industrialization created enormous demand for engineers.

*The StarTribune article provides a marginally accurate summary of the Georgetown report (entitled “Hard Times”), which found that 11.1% of recent graduates in “Arts” and 9.4% of those from “Humanities and Liberal Arts” were unemployed, versus rates of 5-8% for health care, education, sciences, psychology, and business. However, professional degrees were also highly susceptible to market fluctuations: nearly 14% of Architecture majors and 9% of Hospitality Management majors were unemployed, owing to slumps in the construction and tourism sectors during the Great Recession.

Unemployment rates for humanities majors fall considerably with experience and further education. Only 6% of such majors who are 30-54 years of age are unemployed, roughly on par with communications/journalism, computer/mathematics, psychology/social work, social science, and business majors of similar ages. The unemployment rate drops below 5% for humanities majors with a graduate degree.

And salaries — once we’re past the “recent graduate” stage — are not exactly paltry. The average History major starts with only a $32,000 average salary, but that rises to an average of $54,000 in the 30-54 year old range and $75,000 for grad degree holders. The first two figures are similar to Biology majors, though the scientists get a much higher bump in pay for finishing graduate school: averaging $87,000 with that level of education completed.

The Star Tribune article also cited a January 2012 study by the Social Sciences Research Council that reached different conclusions. Looking at the cohort of college graduates made famous, or infamous, by the book Academically Adrift, the SSRC researchers found that students who scored well (top quintile) on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)— which seeks to measure skills like critical thinking, analysis, and writing — were much less likely to be unemployed (3.1%), go back home to live with their parents (18%), or accumulate significant credit card debt (37%) than their peers who scored near the bottom of the CLA. While the Business majors in the cohort were more likely to be employed out of college, they tended (as Academically Adrift argued) to have much more limited critical, analytical, and writing skills and were not nearly as likely as humanities and social sciences majors to continue their education.
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