03 December, 2012

Which Way Forward?

The liberal arts have fallen on hard times. We all know by now what the battlefield looks like. Consumerism in the "education marketplace" leads the charge, and then all the soldiers fall in line: the liberal arts are outmoded; the delivery system is antiquated; most students choose a college for its prestige, not the education it affords. On the left flank, we've got price tags that are far too high; on the right, the ages-old canard of the uselessness of liberal education.

Alexander Mosaic; Darius III, right, faces Alexander
Meanwhile, liberal arts colleges face the onslaught with all the hand-wringing of Darius III on the eve of Gaugamela. Darius' solution in the face of the tactically superior Macedonian forces was to overwhelm with numbers. He threw more of what didn't work at Issus at a problem that was the same as what he faced at Issus. It didn't work.

In his Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "When Trying Harder Doesn't Work," Dan Lundquist argues that the twenty-first century liberal arts colleges of the States are doing much the same thing as Darius: trying harder. But not necessarily smarter. And not with any apparent gains in withstanding the onslaught.

That's because, so Lundquist, there's been no real, wholesale re-thinking of the critical issues of access, affordability, curriculum, and pedagogy.

He's right. And part of that has to do with the fact historical perspective is lacking. As a result, the liberal arts colleges have had a difficult time articulating, extramurally, just what it is that they do and don't do; and internally, how the liberal arts at the center should drive decision making. 

So which way forward? Return the liberal arts to the center. Center curriculum on the liberal arts. Externally, make promises that can be kept and disabuse of misunderstood promises. Internally, make the education offered more affordable by reducing administrative costs, exiting the higher ed arms race, and making the teacherly task of the liberal arts college central once again. 

1 comment:

Steve Gehrke said...

Ran across the excerpt below in the New York TImes from 4/12/13. It prompted me to re-read this RenMus post:

By Jeffrey Selingo,

"The collapse of higher education’s business model has been predicted many times before. Yet more colleges have opened their doors than closed them in the past 50 years. Perhaps the continued financial struggles indicate that there are just too many colleges for the marketplace — or at least too many that, with their climbing walls, lazy rivers and five-star dormitories, look too much alike in the battle for prestige, and have lost sense of their mission. A thinning of the ranks might be long overdue."