Monday, January 21, 2019

Yet another post about the future of liberal arts education

For at least 15 years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in higher education about the impact of new technologies on education. I've written about it myself many times (see "For-profit schools take a hit from Frontline"). As online models disrupt traditional college education, there is another debate taking place about the value of a liberal arts education itself. That students, parents, and the business sector are questioning this shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the $50,-$75,000 "all-in" annual costs at many American colleges. What is surprising is the denial that proponents -- many of them academics -- continue to display. The January 2019 Seattle Times article titled "As STEM majors soar at UW, interest in humanities shrinks — a potentially costly loss" is a case in point:
"The swing to STEM is having unexpected consequences. With fewer students studying the humanities — history, philosophy, foreign languages and English — those departments are shrinking. Retiring professors aren’t replaced. Academics worry that the nation would be impoverished — both culturally and intellectually — if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers."

This type of thinking seems to harken back to the 1800s, when the only people who could afford a traditional liberal arts education were the elite. That changed with the introduction of public schools, state universities, and low-cost college programs that could be paid for with part-time work. Now the pendulum is swinging back to a high-cost model, and lots of students and parents are saying that a $200,000 - $300,000 undergraduate sociology degree is simply not worth it.

There's another problem with the argument put forth in the Seattle Times article, which seems to be trotted out in many articles about the future of liberal arts education. For decades many colleges have created core curriculums that require even the most hard-core STEM major to take a range of liberal arts classes. I experienced this myself 30 years ago at Boston University, and know that it's the same situation elsewhere. It's a good idea, and one that gives young students a truly well-rounded education.

That's not good enough to some academics, though. Quoting from the Seattle Times:
“The broad general education we want for all of our students is increasingly done at the high-school level,” said Robert Stacey, dean of the UW’s College of Arts & Sciences. “And with all due respect to a high-school history course, it’s not the same as a college history course.”
Is getting a broad general education in high school a bad thing? I think it's preferable to getting the basics covered in high school, not only because it frees up students to pursue professional and other interests in college, but also because it serves those students who will never attend college. Isn't that better for our society as a whole?

Here's another quote from the article:
Those introductory classes — refined over the years by some of the university’s best professors, and taught to several hundred students at a time in big lecture halls — are designed to inspire and delight, sparking an interest in literature, or history, or politics, that could lead a student to major in those fields.

The impacts of encouraging students to major in those fields has led to a vast skills imbalance in our workforce, and the sad situation of people with lit and history BAs taking unskilled jobs or jobs that are a poor fit for their skills (see "Fear of a College-Educated Barista").

Moreover, for those who graduate with PhDs in these fields, it's nearly impossible to get hired as a professor or researcher. There just aren't as many academic jobs available, and yet, amazingly, there are now more English and History PhDs awarded every year than 30 years ago:
Humanities programs awarded 5,891 doctoral degrees in 2015. That is the largest number recorded back to the start of collection of such information in 1987. The figure was 3,110 in 1988, then rose steadily to 4,994 in 2000, dipped to about 4,700 from 2002 to 2007, and then started going up again, year after year.

As that article notes, jobs in those fields "are increasingly hard to come by." Yet the universities keep churning out PhDs in these fields, to keep the tuition rolling in and as a source of cheap labor for undergraduate instruction.

I appreciate the value of including liberal arts in higher education, but only a cost that students can truly afford.

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