Fall Teaching 2: "What Am I Doing Here? The Value of a Liberal Arts Education"

It started happening here and there a few years ago, but recently became a regular phenomenon: I would get new first-year student advisees who, upon first meeting me, said they planned to immediately transfer out of the College of Arts and Sciences and into Lehigh's Business School (thereby rendering any "advising" I could give them immediately pointless). Usually the reasons were pretty straightforward and, unfortunately, overlapping: "I need to make sure I have a job when I graduate" and "My parents want me to." (Sadly, there's no arguing really with "My parents are making me do it"...)

Needless to say, I'm not thrilled when I get this request. Journalists and scholars have written about the changing culture of American higher education in recent years, and made many good points that I think these types of students ought to consider. One crucial point to be aware of is that English majors actually do just fine on the job market (we'll look at some statistics on humanities and social sciences majors on the job market). Secondly, while we have seen a slight decline in the number of majors in recent years, it's not true that humanities departments around the country are necessarily in crisis (though there seem to be a growing number of students who seem not to be able to appreciate it). Finally, I don't think enough students grasp that there's an intrinsic value in liberal arts education -- in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. 

So I designed a course to help them grasp it. 

Course Description: "What Am I Doing Here? The Value of a Liberal Arts Education" 

Since World War II, American colleges and universities have been engines of upward mobility for the vast American middle class; and they are widely seen around the world as excellent educational institutions. But in recent years -- with skyrocketing tuition and a growing concern about "return on investment" -- some of that luster seems to have worn off, at least if you read the debates in the media. Some of today's students enter college thinking of it more as a means to obtaining pre-professional credentials than as a site of actual learning and personal growth. So why are we all here? Is the traditional dream of a liberal arts education still alive, or is it a relic of a bygone era? This course aims to examine the fundamental values of the classic liberal arts education, conceived of not as an activity that leads to credentials that help young people find jobs, but rather as a gateway to becoming a fully-developed and multifaceted human being.

We will read a selection of nonfiction essays and books dealing with the state of higher education in the U.S. today, by authors like Jenny Stuber (“Inside the College Gates”), William Deresiewicz ("Excellent Sheep"), and Fareed Zakaria ("In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education")  In addition to reading some full-length accounts of some of the problems in higher education today, we’ll also read a series of shorter journalistic discussions and debates about what’s happening on college campuses today. I’ll ask you to write short responses to these various books and essays, and encourage you to have free and open debates about these issues in class. Finally we’ll spend a fair amount of time looking closely at a single work of fiction that is centrally focused on the idea of gaining a sense of one’s mission in life through unconventional education (i.e., the kind of education that happens outside of universities and schools): George Eliot’s classic Victorian masterpiece, Middlemarch.

Most abstractly and in an ideal form, this course is intended as a space to pause and reflect on what it is you as a student would like to get out of your experience at this university. At the end of four years here, what would you like to have done, to have learned, to have experienced? Unlike in a college application essay, where students have to approach this question in a very particular and scripted way, in this class I want to stress that there is no “right answer” to this question – that in the traditional vision of liberal arts education there could be many paths to an “education.” Now that you are here, what is your real vision of college life?

Somewhat more concretely, this course will leave students more confident taking on challenging arguments and articulating perspectives on claims and arguments put forward by others. (What is this person saying, and do I agree or disagree with it? What do we need to know to be able to test whether this is true or not?) By doing this, students should begin to feel more confident making claims and arguments that are derived from their own values and beliefs.

We will shortly have some readings that define just what exactly is meant by the phrase “liberal arts education.” (Many people use this phrase in a vague way without really considering what it means or where it comes from.) To jump start that conversation, it might be worth at least briefly defining the word “liberal” as we are using it. “Liberal” here does not refer to politics, but to the social disposition of the people involved. “Liberal” comes from a Latin word (with the same root as “liberty”); it refers to people who are free. (In ancient Rome and Greece, where the idea of liberal arts education was invented, only a portion of the population were free citizens; many people who lived in these societies were slaves.) Thus a liberal education is the education that citizens living in a free society receive. If we live in a society in which everyone is free (as I hope we are), then supporters of a liberal arts education would believe that everyone ought to receive a “liberal arts” education. Do you agree with that in principle? (There’s no right answer; it’s fair to disagree or only agree to this in part.) There’s still some ambiguity about exactly what ought to be contained in a liberal arts education – how “free” it should actually be. Some liberal arts colleges dispense with majors and the idea of a core curriculum entirely; others have some core requirements, but a good deal of flexibility. But there are also a few scattered colleges that focus on a collection of “Great Books” that every student has to read. (There will be more on these questions in the Zakaria readings for Thursday.)