February 20 , 2006
The future of liberal arts education
Patrick Allitt is professor of history and director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum.
As part of Founders Week, Emory held a debate (see story, page 5) two weeks ago on “The Future of the Liberal Arts.” The subject has spurred some controversy because of a rumor that our business school is planning to admit its own undergraduate freshmen, who would follow a vocational program right from the beginning.
As a professor in Emory College, my first reaction on hearing this rumor was dismay, but I’ve since changed my mind.
If some 18-year-olds already know they want to concentrate on business, and if they can’t summon any enthusiasm for the liberal arts, perhaps we should just let them get on with it.
There is, in America, a long, strong, sentimental tradition in support of the liberal arts—a belief that we should encourage our children to discover more of their civilization and its heritage, art, philosophy and religions. We like the idea that they should be conversant with math, chemistry and a little astronomy, too. It’s a fine aspiration.
As active classroom professors, however, my faculty colleagues and I know the practical reality does not live up to the rosy ideal. “Liberal arts education” often means teaching undergraduates sitting in our classrooms not because they want to be there, but because they have to be. They regard general education requirement courses as a series of hoops through which they must jump before they can graduate.
Some, understandably, resent it. They are motivated not by love of the subjects we have to teach them, but by a burning desire for high grades that will help them along the road to business, law or medical school. Sorting out the difference between a Botticelli and a Titian might affect their ability to get into a good professional school, but it won’t make them love art history. The introductory history classes I teach are odd in precisely this way: full of highly gifted young people, many of whom would much rather not be there.
I was raised in England, where I do not ever remember hearing the phrase “liberal arts education.” As a student at Oxford in the mid-1970s, I did not have a “major” placed atop a bundle of irksome requirements. I simply studied the one subject I had chosen from the outset (history) and did so intensively for three years.
The downside of that approach was that some of my fellow students, still unsure of their direction, were forced to choose prematurely. The upside—and it was a huge one—was that students of my generation loved their work and learned their one subject in far greater depth than is possible under the current American system.
Did that early specialization make us intellectually narrow or philistine? I don’t think so, because we were free to read indiscriminately in all the other disciplines—and so we did. I read widely throughout college, guided by whim and enthusiasm rather than curriculum, and therefore loved it, happily throwing aside books and even entire disciplines that bored me. Best of all, I did not have to endure exams and grades in any but my one chosen subject.
At that time, only a small minority of British kids went to college, whereas American colleges today matriculate literally millions of freshmen. The American idea that advanced education should be for everyone is bracing, but it’s also utopian. The further idea that these millions should take an interest in everything is just nuts. No amount of pious hope will turn every child into a polymath. The ground-level reality for many is, accordingly, resentment, vexation and boredom.
We often read nowadays that American students are slipping behind their counterparts in other nations. An instant remedy lies ready: Let college students study solely the subjects they want to study. Let the physics wizard dedicate herself wholly to physics. Let the philosopher philosophize, and give the single-minded geologist nothing but rocks.
More to the point, let the aspiring businessman be a business student right from the outset. At the same time, we can still give students who want to study the liberal arts the chance to do so—and to the extent they want it. Let’s not force anyone to take math when they’ve already hated and dreaded it for more than a decade. Let us be calm at the prospect that millions of monoglots will never learn another language.
The advantages of this revolution will be immense. Suddenly, American colleges will be full of motivated students studying what they want to study—and doing it more energetically than ever before.