I have been teaching at Swarthmore College, one of the most distinguished liberal arts colleges in the world, for 42 years. Throughout that time, Swarthmore has attracted the very best (brightest, most committed) students that high schools have to offer. Though it has provided significant specialized training in the various scholarly disciplines, it has also insisted that such training be embedded in a broad general education. This is, after all, what “liberal arts education” is about.
Now, this model of liberal arts education is under threat. Students come to college hell-bent on learning something that will make them employable. At a place like Swarthmore, which doesn’t offer any professional degrees, this mostly means training in natural science, math, computer science, and economics (which is the closest we come to “business.”) This is an understandable response to the economic uncertainties of our age, and to the extraordinary cost of an education at a place like Swarthmore (the “sticker price” for a four-year degree is over $200,000). Whether eighteen-year-olds are experiencing this economic anxiety themselves, or whether it is being hammered into them by their parents, I don’t know. What I do know is that the humanities are struggling for students while classes in all the sciences are bursting at the seams. And President Obama’s recent announcement that he wants colleges and universities to be “accountable,” by making public such statistics as graduation rate, student debt, and post-graduate employment results, only enhances the growing perception that you go to college to learn a trade, and that the safest trades to learn involve training in math and science.
If this trend continues, the future of higher education—at least in the US—is clear. It will be training in various disciplines that lead to a professional credential and a secure job. If this happens, higher education in the US will come to look like higher education in the rest of the world already looks. The world somehow expects that by age eighteen, people will know enough about their talents and interests to walk confidently into the right silo and come out the other end to occupy a place in the professional class.
Though the impetus for this change in American education is clear enough, I regard it as a tragedy. In my view, higher education should be equipping students to answer these four questions:
- What is worth knowing?
- What is worth doing?
- What makes for a good human life?
- What are my responsibilities to other people?
College is not the only place in which answers to these questions can develop, but it is an important place. And siloed, specialized training in a discipline—any discipline—will answer none of them.
You often hear defenders of liberal arts education offer a platitude like “We’re not here just to teach the current understanding in physics, biology, psychology, or philosophy. We’re here to teach students how to think. Almost everything we think we know about almost everything we study is wrong, so if all we do is teach people the current best understanding that the disciplines have to offer, they will be completely unequipped to cope when these understandings change.”
Well, sure. It’s hard to quarrel with this sentiment, and it is echoed by those in the world of practical affairs who frequently intone about how fast the technological world is changing and how important it is to them to have a flexible and innovative workforce. They, too, want to hire people who know how to think. Hiring masters of a technology that will be obsolete in a decade is a bad business strategy.
The trouble with this sentiment is not that it’s false, but that it doesn’t say very much. What does it mean to “know how to think”? Is there one right way to think that applies to all the problems people will face in their professional and personal lives? If so, what is it? Is it being able to distinguish true from false, evidence from opinion? But is there only one kind of truth—one kind of evidence? Every educator wants their students to learn how to think. But nobody really knows what it means to know how to think.
Liberal arts training, done well, appreciates and exposes students to the many different forms that good thinking takes, that truth takes, and that evidence takes. It nurtures a kind of wise appreciation of the complexity of the world and it’s problems. It makes clear to students that not everything is a nail, awaiting their hammer. If you get specialized training, in anything, you will likely be good at solving the small problems that other people hand you. In the world of practical affairs, those “other people” will be bosses and supervisors. In the world of scholarly research, they will be senior scientists in your discipline. What you will not be able to do very well is decide for yourself what is a problem worth solving. You will not be very good at even recognizing the big problems, let alone solving them. Yes, we need people who are capable of having small ideas and developing them meticulously. Specialized training can teach that. But we also need people capable of recognizing big problems and articulating them in a way that can move scholarly disciplines and professional practices in a whole new direction. I’m pretty sure that specialized training will not teach that.
I can see the “fruits” of specialization in my own discipline of psychology. I have made a vow to stop attending professional meetings because my experience at them in the last few years has been so disappointing. As I listened to one technically proficient paper after another, I found myself asking, again and again, “why would anyone care about this?” I think that my question could be answered, at least most of the time, but none of the people giving the papers provided the answers. Perhaps this was because they thought the answers were self-evident, but I don’t think so. More likely, it was because this was a question these very smart and ambitious young psychologists had never asked themselves. They were simply doing the next small thing that research in their fields required.
It was an axiom of the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s that “you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s tools.” What this means to me in the context of higher education is that you can’t discover the deep limitations of economics by only studying economics. You can’t uncover the deep limitations of genetics or evolutionary biology by only studying genetics and evolutionary biology. To see the limitations of a discipline—any discipline—requires a perspective developed at least partly outside that discipline. General education is not a substitute for disciplinary expertise. What it is, however, is an essential ingredient to keep the disciplines from running around in circles, and swallowing their own tails.
So, do I think higher education will acknowledge the truth of what I have just said and assure the kind of education that will enable students to think broadly and deeply and differently, as befits the different problems they will face in their lives? Do I think higher education will enable students to answer the four questions I listed at the beginning of this piece? I’m not optimistic. The more costly higher education becomes—the more that colleges and universities see themselves as having to be summer camps with a library—the greater the pressure on them will be to make sure that their graduates get good jobs. And the more that people who run workplace organizations feel pressure to produce high returns on a quarter-by-quarter basis, to satisfy shareholders, the greater the pressure on them will be to hire people who can solve today’s problems and pass up people who might anticipate tomorrow’s. I don’t think that colleges and universities have done a very good job of defending themselves from assault and resisting the pressure to produce “practical” results, understood as high-paying jobs. If they don’t do a better job, higher education in the US as we have known it will disappear. And the world will become a much less imaginative, more impoverished place.