01 March, 2010


An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, "Saving the Life of the Mind," by Goldie Blumenstyk, once again raises the specter of the ugly e-word, elitism, an epithet that goes with "liberal education" like "swift-footed" goes with Achilles. Blumenstyk's article reports on how it is that certain institutions are trying to undercut the elitist epithet for "liberal education." The irony is, in the process, they are making liberal education even more elitist than before.

The argument goes something like this: liberal education has become the preserve of the few rich in the United States, and is represented at elite Top-50 or Top-100 liberal arts colleges. Meanwhile, other institutions that once had a strong liberal arts presence have, under perceive market pressures, etc., developed increasingly career-oriented curricula, where "liberal education" is represented by a weakening core of courses. The solution, according to this article, is to combine liberal education with career education. The trick is to redefine what liberal education is, and then say that what you have is liberal education. Consider this, for example:
liberal arts means not only a course of study featuring a rich mix of disciplines in the arts and sciences, but also an education that emphasizes skills such as complex problem solving and requirements that students learn to apply classroom curricula to real-world experiences
On the positive end of things, this is a frank realization of the vitality and centrality of liberal education to the higher education enterprise. As the article notes, students at career-oriented institutions like Hamline in St. Paul and LaGuardia Community College are getting some exposure to some elements of liberal education. And yet, it is difficult to understand in just what way this is not essentially a re-tread of the old approach that eroded liberal education in the first place.

This approach is problematic in other ways, too. Is a rhetorical composition class subsumed under a business program the same kind of rhetorical composition offered and exercised in a liberal education? The question is rhetorical. The answer is no. Such a course may have elements of its liberal self, but it is certainly not the same thing.

In the last analysis, in spite of such approaches, or perhaps even because of them, liberal education remains as elite as it ever was, the preserve of those 50 or 100 top liberal arts colleges in the country. This has been the approach of the Lutheran colleges in the confessional ambit, as well, as we have had ample opportunity to point out. But it certainly need not have been that way; nor must it persist.

1 comment:

Steve Gehrke said...

Jon, I'm not quite getting your point -

Doe you mean elite in the sense of the 'top most tier' or 'elite' in the sense of the highest quality?

If it is the former you seem to be saying that liberal education is to be reserved for only the select few. In this case, why does it matter if some institutions focus on career-oriented/"practical" education. Certainly we need vo-tech schools. But in this case you are defining liberal education as a niche.

On the other hand, if it is the latter, then you are arguing that because it is elite in the sense of the best form of education, then presumably you are making a case that all institutions should be adopting this educational system.

I think you're arguing the latter (elite in the sense of best) and that it is only circumstantial that it is elite in the sense of the few at the top of the heap.

In short, are you presenting a model of education for the masses (even if this is just a dream), or are you simply making the case that this is the best form of education for a confessional Lutheran?

Not sure I'm being very clear.

BTW, we have a proposal to our faculty to change our H&S requirements from the residual 'liberal arts' core we have in engineering (e.g. literature, ethics, and yes the classics) to something more directly addressing our need to prove to accreditors that we are preparing our students to face "Contemporary Issues" by taking a course like "Contemporary Politics in China" instead of a course on something ancient like Plato's Republic. How do you think engineers should use our 18-21 hours of humanities and social sciences? Is that too little to do anything of consequence? I could send you our accreditation committee's proposal if you wanted to suggest how I might respond to it.