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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Decline of Liberal Arts Education

Reading this piece in Project Syndicate about the future of European universities reminded me of discussions about the decline of classic liberal arts education in the U.S. Let's start with this essay by Warren Goldstein, chair of the History Department at the University of Hartford, appearing in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

This echoes my own experience. When I was Department Head, I began bringing back former students who had found success in the business world to talk to our undergraduate majors about how best to prepare for the working ("real") world. Time and again I heard the view expressed in this article, that businesses want people who can think, write, analyze, develop persuasive arguments, they want the type of skills a liberal arts education is intended to promote. With that foundation, they would tell me, they can teach the people the skills needed to do the job effectively. Some were adamant in their refusal to hire business school graduates, preferring instead to hire people with the broad set of skills acquired with a broader education. Economics generally received praise, not so much for specific theoretical tools we teach, but rather for the way it taught students to think about the world and approach problems:

What would Plato do? A (semi-)careerist defense of the liberal arts, by Warren Goldstein, Yale Alumni Magazine:

Nahh, don't tell me -- I bet I can guess your major: art history, right? -- Tom or Ray Magliozzi

If you're an NPR listener, you've probably heard some version of this line on Car Talk. Usually the hapless college student on the phone is female, and Tom and Ray (aka Click and Clack...) are showing their avuncular concern for her employment prospects. ...[L]iberal arts-bashing is one of their favorite sports. As far as I can tell, from my turret in the besieged educational outpost of the liberal arts, nearly all parents of college-age students agree with them. ...

Degrees in history and English, not to mention philosophy, French, and art history, scare parents who worry about whether their investment in their child's college education will ever pay off. In part, they are responding -- understandably -- to the tidal wave of cultural interest in matters of business and technology, globalization and innovation. In what possible way can the study of John Milton, Immanuel Kant, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton prepare young people for this rapid-fire, information-glutted, globally interconnected, BlackBerried world?

The last 20 years have witnessed the dominance of the undergraduate business degree. Thirty-five years ago, business accounted for 13.6 percent of the nation's bachelor's degrees. ... in 2002 (the last year for which government statistics are available), just under 22 percent. That's right: between a fifth and a quarter of all American bachelor's degrees -- around 250,000 per year -- are in business.

And what of the liberal arts -- humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences? Most, in the same period, simply tanked. English accounted for almost 8 percent of degrees in 1971, but had sunk to 4 percent by 2002; history had 5 percent back then but now gets 2 percent. Even as globalization has exploded, the number of degrees in foreign languages and literatures has been cut in half, from 2.4 percent to 1.2 percent.

At our "college preview days" in the University of Hartford, ... I remember in particular the conversation I had with Robert and his parents ... "Robert's going to be a lawyer. So, what's the best degree to get into law school?" Any liberal arts degree that emphasizes reading and writing, I told them. "No, really, we don't want him wasting his time in something that won't get him into law school. History will help, right?"...

I went looking for Yale graduates who've had extremely successful careers in the business world. Some of them have made fortunes; some have already given away more money than I will make, cumulatively, in my lifetime. All but one inhabit worlds that are utterly nonacademic. They have ... not the slightest material incentive to promote the values of academia. But all of them recommend the liberal arts for those concerned with prospering in their world.

Harris Ashton '54, CEO of General Host Corporation ... points to essential skills. Majoring in sociology, he says, "taught me how to write and demanded that you write all the time." Susan Crown '80 -- a principal of the Chicago investment firm Henry Crown and Company ... elaborates: "A liberal arts education teaches you how to think: how to analyze, how to read, how to write, how to develop a persuasive argument. These skills are used every day in business."...

Many of these businesspeople say that the liberal arts, humanities in particular, prepared them to interact with others as sophisticated adults. At the most basic level, this means making credible conversation at a cocktail party or giving a persuasive speech. .... Robert M. Rubin '74 majored in history before becoming a commodities and currency trader at Drexel Burnham. (He was known on Wall Street as "the other Bob Rubin," as opposed to Robert E. Rubin '64LLB, Bill Clinton's treasury secretary.) "Because I was a well-educated person, I was able to use that education in the forging of relationships," he says. "I did a lot of business abroad, in cultures where being liberally educated matters more than it does here." ...

Almost all the people I interviewed spoke of learning, as undergraduates, a mode of analysis deeper and ultimately more reliable and more creative than what they learned in business school. Donna Dubinsky '77, CEO of Numenta, was the business brains behind the PalmPilot and the newer Handspring Visor. At Yale she majored in modern American political history... She sees a strong analogy between history and business. "Business is a giant jigsaw puzzle, with the market, product, right financial and people resources, understanding of the environment," she reflects. "If all those pieces fit together, you do well in business. If you focus on just some of the pieces, you won't succeed. History is a lot like that; you have to look at environment and technological development and philosophy and competition with neighboring countries. You learn to understand how critical context and complex systems are."

Richard Franke '53, retired CEO of the investment firm John Nuveen & Co., adds, "Whatever has made you good and your firm a success is probably going to change within five years or so. You have to recreate the firm through an orderly process every five years. If you hired only on the strength of the technical training a person has -- well, you need someone who can think through a set of issues and come out the other side with a practical set of conclusions. ... I was CEO of our company for 24 years... I looked for a liberal arts background."

Hire liberal arts majors in preference to business majors? Can Franke be serious? Yes, if the opinions of his peers are any evidence. Says Dubinsky, "I am not wild about business degrees for undergraduates; that's a vocational-school sort of thing. I would say, for an entry-level job, if I'm hiring people I would absolutely prefer a liberal arts degree to a business degree." Charles Ellis is still more emphatic: "For leaders and managers, an undergraduate degree in business is a genuine, serious mistake. What you're going to learn is an advanced version of bookkeeping... I don't know anybody who recommends undergraduate study in business, certainly not over liberal arts, and I include science."

Yet this past April, Princeton historian Stanley Katz wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, in the modern research university, "liberal education for undergraduates . . . is in ruins." Katz ... argues that the major universities "have reversed our priorities and now give precedence to research and graduate and professional training -- in the kind of faculty members we recruit, in the incentives (light or nil teaching loads) we offer them, and even in the teaching we value (graduate over undergraduate students)."

Katz makes a complex argument about causes. One of his points is that inside the research university, graduate and professional research and education attract much more funding and many more professional accolades for faculty than undergraduate teaching. He also cites a state of affairs every humanities scholar knows intimately: "the difficulty of financing the humanities and soft social sciences." Scholars in these fields "teach more, get paid less, and have fewer resources for research than their colleagues in the natural sciences and hard social sciences. They have less leverage in the institution to get what they want, from secretarial services and office space to computers." ...

Finally, Katz has some blame for liberal arts scholars themselves. The explosion of knowledge in the past 50 years, he writes, has made faculties, now more specialized than ever before, unwilling to "identify an essential core of knowledge" for students. Where once most institutions required every undergraduate to take a "core curriculum" of philosophy, history, English, foreign language, mathematics, and science -- so that even physics majors were obliged to read some literature and philosophy -- that practice has now all but disappeared. ...

A liberal arts education, even vaguely defined and "core"-less, is the only intellectual antidote to the overwhelming flood of information and genuine technological change we are experiencing. A liberal arts education that works teaches students to read and to reason; to learn something about the range of human expression and experience; to consider the great literature and contending ideas of Western and world civilization; to recognize and construct arguments; and to have a sense of humility about the lives and minds that have gone before. It also makes possible a kind of citizenship without which democracy crumbles. Thomas Jefferson argued that education should "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."

The most serious danger in the rise of pre-professional education in American society -- especially when combined with a long-term decline in spending for public education -- is that the electorate no longer learns to think for itself, that it learns by rote, and relies far too heavily on "training" rather than "education." ...

Or, as Charles Ellis puts it, "Freedom to have doubt is the first step toward creativity, and it's very hard to get to a constructive kind of doubt without a liberal education." ... I wish more people in the business world would make these points: publicly, loudly, in newspapers and magazines and in speeches and when they receive honorary degrees. ...

I disagree with Katz about the difficulty in funding the social sciences and humanities as a cause of the decline in liberal arts. If you look at the numbers, sociology, economics, political science, languages, etc., the general education service courses are cash cows compared to the sciences. They teach a lot of students in very large classes and the cost per student credit hour is relatively low. On a cash flow basis, they generate income for the university and subsidize other units, something that is often a source of contention between these departments and the administration since they often don't feel they get a fair share of the "profits" they generate. But the points about grants and contracts, prestige in the academy, and difficulties in funding smaller humanities and social science courses have validity, especially when these courses are evaluated by administrators using a cash flow basis rather than on the long-term benefits that accrue to the student and, by extension, to the larger community, and when students do not see the connection between the courses and their future employment opportunities.

I had a recent example of the benefits of a well-rounded education. I was talking about the Great Depression with a student and he told me it was interesting because he had covered the same topic in economics, political science, and history and each had their own perspective. For instance, the historian talked about how the Depression emasculated males who could no longer provide for their families and how that led into the societal changes that allowed social insurance programs to emerge. If it's not your fault - if it's the economic system rather than your own individual failings - then males could stop blaming themselves for not providing adequately for their families. And if it was the system that was at fault, then fix the system through insurance for the individual. As an economist, that's not something I would have thought about in the same terms, but right or wrong it's an interesting point to think about, and one that comes with well-rounded education.

I think there is a reason for the shift away from broad based liberal arts education to more focused training for specific careers that isn't always mentioned in these discussions and it has to do with the changing funding for higher education. There has been a shift away from state funded education towards students paying more of the costs individually through tuition and this has caused universities to become more consumer driven (even the federal aid formulas have been adjusted so that work study and student loans are a larger share of the package). State support here has fallen from 32% in 1990 to just 13% in 2004, and tuition's share has increased from 23% to 33% of the total. In this sense, universities have been privatized to a greater extent (the indiviual's contributuion in tuition payments, 33% is nearly triple the state's share at 13%; more than 2/3 of the instructional budget is tuition and fees).

Pressures on universities to attract students have increased substantially and as tuition has become more and more important in overall funding, universities have redesigned curricula, programs, and recruiting strategies to attract students as a matter of financial survival. In the process, there has been a shift away from broad based liberal arts education toward more specific individualized education focused on career objectives in an attempt to satisfy student/parent demands ( In some cases students can even design their own interdisciplinary major).

Increasingly I encounter the attitude of the parents in the article above. How will this help me get into law school or some other narrow objective? The attitude is that since the student is paying for this course through tuition, the course, programs, and degree need to be individualized to meet their needs, to maximize their individual prospects for employment after graduation. And funding pressures - competition for student credit hours - has forced universities and to acquiesce.

The best solution I can think of is to try and make clear that in a dynamic, global economy, specializing in a narrow skill set may not be the best strategy for success, and more generally that businesses want people who are intelligent, people who are clear thinkers and communicators and that, more than anything else, is the key to success. I don't it is very well understood that a broad based education is the best preparation for many if not most careers.

I haven't talked about positive externalities related to education and how that relates to state funding of education, nor on the role of universities in equalizing opportunity, but this is long enough already so those will have to wait for another day.

Update: Results may vary.

    Posted by on Tuesday, June 27, 2006 at 11:55 AM in Economics, Universities, University of Oregon | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)


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