“Increasing the Value of a Liberal Education”

There are times when I weary of having to defend the value of a liberal arts education — to prospective students and their parents, to history majors about to graduate and dreading the prospect of working at Starbucks, and perhaps even to administrators and trustees (not yet ours, thank God). But fortunately the case is being well articulated already by people like William G. Bowen, an economist who served as president of Princeton University and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. (He also helped to birth the unwieldly arts and humanities database JSTOR — the bane of my students’ research lives, but let us speak no more of that…)

William G. BowenSome highlights from Bowen’s argument for “Increasing the Value of a Liberal Education,” as it was posted at The Atlantic website yesterday:

First, in light of the fact that most institutions are having to tighten their belts and make choices about where (and where not) to spend money, he suggested the following priorities: (some of which are clearly aimed more at schools with the size and resources of Princeton than at the Bethels of the world)

  • Recruit “exceptional faculty leaders in key disciplines — even if this means bruising the sensibilities of some current faculty by recruiting from outside at senior levels”
  • Invest in courses and programs that teach students about other cultures, especially those that “emphasize real educational values and not just the pleasures of brief sojourns abroad”
  • Teach students “basic science and its ramifications,” but choose to invest in laboratories and expensive equipment in collaboration with other institutions (and consider “virtual laboratories”)
  • Help students understand how to use technology, and take advantage of the resources available from research universities and foundations, “But neither liberal arts colleges nor even most universities should invest in expensive interactive online platforms of their own”
  • Use financial aid to invest in students (particularly to the end of increasing diversity), not as a weapon in “bidding wars”
  • “A reasonable amount of educational debt is not a bad thing” — in particular, he’s dubious about giving middle-class students grants rather than asking them (or their parents) to invest in their education by taking on some level of indebtedness
  • Don’t overreact to furors over the cost of tuition

All of which, he says, is predicated on the belief that liberal arts engages in education not training. From his own student experience, he stresses the ways that education shapes students to think clearly before they express themselves (but also to express themselves well) and to persevere in the face of challenging problems. While much teaching ideally would have a “one-on-one character,” he encourages a “portfolio” approach to developing curricula that “provides a carefully calibrated mix of learning styles,” including some degree of online learning, but for liberal arts colleges focusing on seminars/discussion groups and directed study.

He closes by underscoring the unique ability of liberal arts to inculcate three valuable qualities in students. First, the ability to embrace complexity:

Liberal arts colleges should do all in their power to encourage students to avoid the polarized thinking that is, sad to say, becoming the standard of our day. Einstein was right in asserting that “everything should be made as simple as possible … but not more so!” Dilemmas are real and should be acknowledged, not dismissed by sloganeering. In his famous book Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin wrote of 19th century Russian writers who sought to balance a yearning for absolutes with the complex visions that they simply could not push from their minds. Berlin writes with special empathy about those “who see, and cannot help seeing, many sides of a case… The middle ground,” he wrote, “is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.” So it is. Nonetheless, students need to be both thoughtful enough and courageous enough to occupy it when that is where hard thought takes them.

Second, the ability to recognize what one does not know, and to “buy time” if you don’t have an immediate answer to a problem. And third, it teaches values: in particular (and here he quotes from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), students — especially those who are gifted with cleverness — should learnhow to be kind.

In a Christian context, I would prefer to say that liberal arts can teach students something far deeper than kindness: love (first, that they are loved by God; second, what it means to love others). But I appreciate how the seeming crisis about the value of the liberal arts is inspiring leaders like Bowen to rise to their defense.

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