I’ve previously written about the value of a liberal arts degree, and I’ve highlighted some of the ways in which the traditional classroom experience is superior to online courses, particularly MOOCs. Tom Hilpert’s request for academics to make their case for why the liberal arts degree is important in the face of the challenge presented by MOOCs led me to revisit this issue and articulate more completely why I think a liberal arts education is not only valuable but necessary.

First, I agree with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who recently recently emphasized the civic value of the liberal arts. A liberal arts degree exposes one to different perspectives, not only an essential stage in intellectual maturity but also a necessary requirement for understanding other people. Civic responsibility requires us, I think, to try to understand (not necessarily accept, but understand) other people’s viewpoints, and the only way to do that is to have a broad foundation of knowledge about the world and how it has operated and continues to operate.

Lasch-Quinn makes another point: Scholarship may not produce immediate results, but it will pay off at some point in some way. I’m guilty of making utilitarian arguments about the liberal arts education that focus on concrete outcomes, and I appreciate her point that focusing too much on the outcomes detracts from the way one learns in a liberal arts environment.

But there is a utilitarian emphasis, especially in higher education, and it affects the liberal arts. As Tom Hilpert noted, parents and students are rightly concerned about the cost of higher education. The answer, though, isn’t to gut the liberal arts faculty who can help students become better citizens and who can teach them skills that they can use both in their careers and in their personal lives. At the same time, liberal arts faculty should understand and accept that it is incumbent upon them to acquaint students with how they can use their education in a way that provides financial stability. In other words, to help students broaden their perspective beyond being a high school coach who also happens to teach history, a stereotype that is all too often accurate.

Even with the acknowledgement that education and career are often inseparable in U.S. society, I can’t help but go back to Bill Cronon’s list of the traits and values of liberally educated individuals (condensed and paraphrased):

  1. Liberally educated people listen and hear. They pay close attention to others and show empathy.
  2. Liberally educated people read and understand. They possess the ability to read not only the written word but also the visual world that surrounds them.
  3. Liberally educated people can converse with anyone. They are able to speak on many topics and are interested in listening as well.
  4. Liberally educated people can write clearly, persuasively, and movingly. They are able to express themselves in writing,  not just in the technical sense of correct grammar and syntax but in conveying their inner selves.
  5. Liberally educated people can solve problems of various kinds. They can deconstruct complicated problems and reconstruct them into something meaningful.
  6. Liberally educated people respect rigor as a way of seeking truth. They value wisdom and seek to combine knowledge and values.
  7. Liberally educated people are humble, tolerant, and self-critical. They recognize and value different perspectives.
  8. Liberally educated people accomplish something with their lives. They see a higher purpose in their time on earth and do something to improve it before they die.
  9. Liberally educated people understand the power of community. They acknowledge that individuals cannot operate outside of communities and that communities do not exist without individuals. Cronon adds later in his essay, “Education for human freedom [i.e., individualism] is also education for human community” (5).
  10. Liberally educated people connect. As Cronon puts it, a liberal education “means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. . . . [It] is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.” (3-5)

One of the reasons I don’t see MOOCs (the starting point for my response to Tom) as valuable or even necessary for the liberal arts is because they do not provide the environment in which the above values and traits can be encouraged and developed. In fact, I would argue that the only places in higher education that provide that environment structurally are honors programs and small liberal arts colleges or universities. In both places, the faculty-student relationship is valued, and the implicit (and, hopefully, explicit) contract between them is the faculty’s mentorship as students seek to become liberally educated. I have yet to read a compelling argument explaining how MOOCs will, or even can, encourage this journey.

Where does that leave the discipline of history? As John Fea noted yesterday, President Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this week was disappointing in its failure to acknowledge the importance of historical understanding. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising. Politicians on both sides of the aisle seem perfectly comfortable with a citizenry that lacks historical context for understanding contemporary challenges, and their actions strongly suggest that a liberally educated citizenry is not their priority.

So, academic historians can throw up their hands and concede defeat in the face of the MOOC onslaught and the other challenges that higher education faces, or they can do what they hopefully set out to accomplish when they entered the profession: Help students become liberally educated.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of the Liberal Arts

  1. I’m not clear on your argument: that the MOOCs have a negative impact on liberal arts education. Isn’t that like saying that gay marriage has a negative impact on straight marriage. I definitely agree with your thinking re liberally educated people. Why can that only occur within the environs of the traditional classroom?

    1. MOOCs certainly aren’t structured to include the liberal arts. I am also convinced that they pose a threat to our conception of the liberal arts specifically and higher education generally. If elite universities (the only ones with the resources to maintain MOOCs) are able to streamline all learning to that platform, what happens to students at my university, who need the personal attention provided by a liberal arts environment to succeed?

      I’m not saying that one can’t be liberally educated outside of the classroom. Two points, though: 1) What other environment provides the opportunity for the personal mentoring that accompanies liberal arts education; and 2) who besides the independently wealthy has time to pursue a liberal arts education outside of the college classroom?

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. “One set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in human thought.” G.K. Chesterton.
    This is why the liberal arts education must be defended.

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