At the Crossroads

The liberal arts, graduate education, and evolving academic infrastructures

David Nugent

The liberal arts have become something of a battleground between continuity and change. Powerful forces originating from beyond the academy are reshaping what transpires within traditional departments, compelling new kinds of scholarship and new directions in graduate training. These forces for change, however, are constrained by an academic structure that took shape at an earlier historical moment, in quite different sociocultural and political-economic circumstances. 

The future of the liberal arts is directly implicated. As new kinds of expertise seek to emerge from within the traditional structures of the academy, those responding to the forces for change find themselves in conflict with an established academic order—one that is skeptical of, at times even hostile to, the transformation of traditional knowledge structures. In this context, existing processes of academic legitimation, in which the liberal arts figure prominently, have become highly contested. 

Emory’s new Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) Program in the Laney Graduate School exemplifies many of the processes pushing graduate education and the liberal arts in new directions. Offered by a global network of research universities, the MDP is committed to training students to devise innovative solutions to the most important development problems facing the world today. Made up of twenty-three leading schools from every continent, the network is unusually well positioned to take on this task. The MDP draws on faculty from a wide array of disciplines—in the natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences and management. The program also involves students in field investigations of key development problems as a normal part of its operation. As a result, the MDP is in a position to generate new empirical findings about unfolding development problems on an ongoing basis. It is also able to provide aspiring professionals with a unique form of graduate training in development practice. 

The MDP was established in 2009 with funding provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation originally selected ten universities (out of a pool of 144) to launch the program. Since then, the number of schools offering the degree has more than doubled. There is also a waiting list of institutions that have petitioned to join the MDP.

And there is a large number of bright young women and men who regard the program as central to their career goals. The schools that offer MDP training every year must turn down a great many highly qualified candidates. Applicants are fully capable of joining PhD programs in the liberal arts, but despite the large financial burden involved, they prefer a master’s degree in development practice. They do so because a career in development allows them to have a direct impact on what they consider key social problems. 

What does the emergence of the Master’s in Development Practice suggest about the future of the liberal arts? Programs like the MDP are anything but the exception. Rather, due to student demand and unprecedented levels of institutional support (predominantly from the US government and foundations like MacArthur), they are growing rapidly. The emergence of programs such as ours is symptomatic of a broad process of restructuring currently taking place in university life, one that is redefining the kinds of expertise that graduate schools will seek to provide. 

Many academics view these changes as a threat to the integrity of academic research and the strength of the liberal arts in graduate training. A historical perspective, however, suggests a different interpretation. This is not the first era during which graduate education and scholarly activity have been restructured due to forces beyond the academy. The last one hundred years have seen two periods of large-scale restructuring resulting from evolving geopolitical concerns of the United States and the changing position of the university in the life of the nation. During both periods, the place of the liberal arts in graduate education was reinvented. 

The first of these periods of restructuring took place in the decades after 1900, and especially in the aftermath of World War I. At that time, as U.S. influence grew on the world stage, the great corporate foundations (in particular, the “philanthropies” associated with the Rockefeller and Carnegie fortunes) invested huge sums to restructure institutions of higher learning, including a wholesale reorganization of the professoriate and graduate training. The philanthropies created an entirely new social science infrastructure. They endowed sources of research funding, sponsored new journals and book series, created endowed chairs, and underwrote a major expansion of graduate education. Their goal was to get academics out of the classroom and the library and into the field and the laboratory, something that had never before been possible. Freed from their classroom duties, academics were to conduct research the foundations considered relevant to the most pressing social problems of the era. 

There is no question that the liberal arts benefited from this process. But their modest growth at this time was the by-product of more wide-ranging changes in the organization of the university. The liberal arts were secondary to the main thrust of philanthropic reform, which sought to remake the social sciences so that they would serve the goals of social reform and social engineering. 

A second period of restructuring occurred after World War II, when the position of the US in relation to the rest of the world underwent a second, seismic shift. This time the philanthropies and government expanded their support of the research university by embedding it within a new social science infrastructure that could address the security concerns of the Cold War era. Under the rubric of “area studies,” government and foundations made unprecedented sums of money available to universities. Some of these funds supported the research of individual scholars. Other monies established a nationwide network of research institutes and expanded the ranks of the professoriate. Still other funds created new journals and book series. A large percentage of the monies subsidized doctoral training for an entire generation of graduate scholars. 

During this period the liberal arts moved from what might be thought of as the semi-periphery closer to the core of the new academic infrastructure. As with the preceding period, however, this was not intentional. It was only because the liberal arts disciplines were seen as having much to contribute to the area studies framework, to which government and foundations alike were so deeply committed. 

The area studies framework is now in deep disarray. Severe strains were obvious as early as the 1980s, as first the foundations and later the government abandoned the infrastructure of research and training they had so lavishly supported for the previous three decades. With the end of the Cold War, traditional sponsors of the social sciences turned away from the security concerns of that era, and focused on a new set of problems, such as alleviating poverty, resolving conflict, empowering the disenfranchised. 

The foundations and government are now encouraging academics to do the same. They are doing so by constructing yet another social science infrastructure—one appropriate to the post-Cold War era—specifically designed to address the concerns of the present. It consists of a plethora of new interdisciplinary programs like the Master’s in Development Practice, many of which straddle the divide between the professions and the academy. The new infrastructure also includes a wide array of new journals and book series, endowed professorships, research opportunities, and training possibilities. This new set of institutional arrangements draws extensively on traditional academic expertise, but it focuses that expertise on non-academic kinds of problems. As with each of the previous periods, built into the new set of arrangements is also a powerful incentive structure for those who choose to investigate those problems. 

What, then, does the emergence of programs like the MDP suggest about the future of the liberal arts in graduate education? We appear to be living through the third major period of university restructuring within the last century. The signs, one might argue, are everywhere. On the one hand, we face dwindling numbers of positions in the traditional liberal arts disciplines, a widespread shortage of research funds (especially from traditional sources), shrinking departmental budgets and work speedups for faculty. On the other hand, there is the rapid expansion of interdisciplinary programs like the MDP, generously supported by the very corporate, philanthropic, and governmental sources that formerly sponsored the traditional disciplines. We may view these changes as positive or negative, but they are transforming the university as we speak. How we respond to these new forces will have much to do with the fate of the liberal arts in the years to come. 

Further Reading

Nugent, David. 2002. “Introduction,” in Locating Capitalism in Time and Space: Global Restructurings, Politics, and Identity, David Nugent, ed., Stanford University Press. 

--------------. 2008. “Social Science Knowledge and Military Intelligence: Global Conflict, Territorial Control and the Birth of Area Studies,” Anuário Antropológico