Harnessing the Winds of Change

The liberal arts in times of transformation

Allison Adams

Editor, The Academic Exchange

future of liberal artsIn a 2010 New York Times column defending the humanities, David Brooks wrote, “when the going gets tough, the tough take accounting.” That is, in times of high anxiety in the face of rapid change and increasingly scarce resources, the broader social impulse is to fixate on the most obviously practical and utilitarian notions of higher education and to dismiss the rest as an intellectual luxury.

What is the future of the liberal arts? Across Emory’s intellectual landscape over the past year, conversations about the central and critical role of the liberal arts have been springing up almost organically, as well as independently of one another—in the Gustafson seminar, amongst a group of faculty in the Academic Leadership Program, via different examinations of the undergraduate and medical curricula, with new graduate programs taking shape, through emerging collaborations and interdisciplinary projects, around new uses of digital technology in both research and teaching.

Technology, globalization, the job market, the knowledge economy—they are a mere few of the powerful forces transforming academe today. In particular, the disciplines and inter-disciplines that constitute the liberal arts, including the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, have been buffeted and shaped in a rapidly evolving environment. But other fields of study are not immune. The health sciences and professions are also responding to what some scholars have labeled “disruptive innovations” that suddenly change the dynamics and values of a particular milieu.

Over this academic year, Provost Earl Lewis has spoken frequently and passionately to many different Emory constituencies, including faculty, students, and trustees, about these issues. In a talk he gave to the Emory College faculty in September 2011, he described these questions in terms of a “whiteboard exercise”:

The chief opportunity for us at Emory is how we will own the liberal arts over the next half-century. How do we begin talking about the future of the liberal arts and liberal education? . . . Who are the designers of change in the ways we think about, present, and structure the liberal arts—Faculty? Students? Alumni? External stakeholders? Administrators? All? 

Lewis, who even questioned the practicality of the traditional fall/spring academic calendar, went on to ask, “What should a liberal arts education look like at Emory in 25 years?” 

What should be included in liberal education going forward? Arts? Sciences? Humanities? Social Sciences? . . . A study of the created world? What about study of the professions? Writing and speaking, well and critically? Critical engagement with the digital world?

As these and other major themes and questions have emerged, so has a growing sense of urgency that the university community must engage in a sustained, systematic inquiry to define the liberal arts for its own future. In March of this year, Provost Lewis charged a twenty-eight-member Commission on the Liberal Arts to lead our community in asking precisely that question: “I would like you to take a broad and deep look at the liberal arts education at Emory over the next quarter century,” he said in his charge. Over the next eighteen months, the commission will imagine and inquire, producing a set of recommendations to define the future of the liberal arts—in terms of content, structure, form, schedule, and innovation.

As this endeavor begins, this issue of the Academic Exchange sets out to capture the growing energy and excitement around these questions on our campus and examine the forces influencing the conversations. In the first two essays, David Nugent and Kevin Corrigan examine both the ancient and modern history of the liberal arts tradition, and they outline some contemporary responses to the forces of change in their own programs. Howard Kushner then uses his own current work to demonstrate the rich possibilities of bringing the liberal arts into conversation with medical research. 

The next three essays, by Harvey Klehr, Nitya Jacob and Andrea Heisel of Oxford, and Brian Croxall, take a close look at undergraduate liberal arts curricula and teaching in light of questions of content, collaboration, and tools. Two interviews, with trustee Chilton Varner and art historian Sarah McPhee, explore the value and potential of the liberal arts undergraduate education from different perspectives. Then Steve Kraftchick, Jill Perry-Smith, Bill Eley and Carolyn Clevenger, and Robert Ahdieh, from the realms of theology, business, health sciences, and law, respectively, each examine the ways the liberal arts have historically shaped and are now shaping anew their own professional fields.

The Commission on the Liberal Arts

Steve Everett, Professor of Music, Director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, Commission Co-Chair

Claire Sterk, Candler Professor of Behavioral Science and Health Education, Public Health; Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs; Commission Co-Chair

Meggan Arp, Assistant Dean, Emory College Office of Undergraduate Education

Deborah Bruner, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Nursing

Kenneth Carter, Associate Professor of Psychology, Oxford College 

Kevin Corrigan, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Director, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Alexander Escobar, Assistant Dean and Director of the Pre-Health Mentoring Office, Emory College 

Brett Gadsden, Assistant Professor, African-American Studies

Jeff Galle, Director of the Center for Academic Excellence, Oxford College

Brooks Holifield, Candler Professor of American Church History, Candler School of Theology 

Jonathan Layne, Alumnus, Business and Law, and Emory University Trustee 

Frank Lechner, Professor of Sociology 

Lanny Liebeskind, Professor of Chemistry and Director of University Science Strategies 

Rick Luce, Vice Provost and Director of University Libraries 

Adam McCall, Emory College Student, President of Student Government Association 

Rich Mendola, Vice President for Information Technology 

Laura Otis, Professor of English 

Astrid Prinz, Associate Professor of Biology 

Caroline Schaumann, Associate Professor of German Studies 

Pamela Scully, Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies 

Ira Schwartz, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Admissions, School of Medicine 

Joanna Shepherd Bailey, Assistant Professor of Law 

Holly Sommers, Director of Pre-Award Grants Administration, Office of Sponsored Programs 

Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History

Chilton Varner, Alumna, Law, and Emory University Trustee 

Debra Vidali, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Steve Walton, Associate Dean of Executive MBA Programs; Associate Professor in the Practice of Information Systems and Operations Management, Goizueta Business School 

Kevin Young, Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing, Curator, Literary Collections and Raymond Danowski Poetry Library

Follow the Work of the Commission

The Commission on the Liberal Arts will be circulating periodic electronic updates on its work and progress. To receive Liberal Arts Forward, a one-page .pdf briefing from the commission, send an email to LISTSERV@listserv.emory.edu. In the text of the email, write SUBSCRIBE LIBERALARTSFORWARD [your first name] [your last name]. For example, SUBSCRIBE LIBERALARTSFORWARD John Smith. 

Liberal Arts Forward, as well as additional materials and opportunities to comment, is available at the Commission’s blog, liberalartsforwardemory.com