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Is there a future in (and for) Liberal Arts?

In the time since I last blogged here, I have been mulling over the idea that all of my previous posts must have had some common thread—albeit perhaps not an immediately obvious one. After some reflection, it became clear what that thread is: I, like the institution which employs me, am conflicted about what is my role in the social order.

I am a teacher; my employer is an accredited, degree-granting institution of higher education.  After 30-plus years in government and private enterprise, I took on the mantle of educator, naively believing that my role was going to be to contribute to producing the next generation of educated citizens.  Yet, if you poll our students, almost none of them will tell you that is why they are in college.  They are in college because they have been told—and they believe—that a college degree is a requirement for a good job (and there is some truth to that).  Yet, somewhere along the line, we forgot to explain the benefits of knowledge that is not uniquely career-building. Somewhere along the line, the focus shifted from them being “educated” to merely being “prepared.”

In a September 8th 2015 New York Times Magazine article entitled “What Is the Point of College?” Kwame Appiah posits there are “… two distinct visions of higher education [that] contend throughout our classrooms and campuses.”  He calls these two distinct visions “Utopia U.” and “Utility U.” In a poll I personally conducted, 72 of my 77 students categorically believed they were at Queens College as a Utility U to get the credentials that will eventually land them a job.  It is no fault of theirs that this is how a university education has been marketed to them.

Granted, a sample size of 77 may not be representative of the entire campus, and I am weary of reading too much into what is admittedly very unscientific polling. On the other hand, the classes I teach are all in the humanities (English Lit and European Culture) and, empirically at least, I would have expected a larger proportion of proponents of the “liberal arts” or “Utopia U.” However, given the less than buoyant economic outlook, it is easy to understand why that is not the case.

When I began teaching, I espoused the Utopia U weltanschauung and thought the question before me was how to best educate my students. Now, the question is evolving into “how do I help them become educated doctors, engineers, lawyers, research scientists … [fill in any professional title here]?”  In other words, in my new view, Utility U and Utopia U need to operate in parallel.

How does this affect my teaching philosophy or my teaching strategy?  Most of the students in my classes begin their semester thinking they are in college to learn “something,” to acquire some quantum of knowledge or—more prosaically—a marketable skill; by semester’s end, however, they realize that in my class they have mostly learned how to learn.

There are a few buzzwords circulating around campus these days; the ones I hear most often are “Experiential Learning” and “Internationalization.”  Future blogs could explore possible connections between teaching how to learn and using our students’ (and faculty’s) cultural diversity to experience the fusion of Utility U with the Utopia University.

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1 comment to Is there a future in (and for) Liberal Arts?

  • Yves, your post really gets to the heart of an important tension in higher ed (or, at least it’s something I have struggled with since I started working in the CUNY system, where I teach about language to people who want to be teachers or speech pathologists and not linguists like me). My experience as a college student was totally different (I was in it for all the Utopian reasons, my mother warned me that I would never get a job). Relating to my students and their “less lofty” goals was (still is!) hard.

    As you put it, teaching students how to learn is critical, but this involves faculty learning how their discipline is learned, and to design learning environments that maximize learning (both general and discipline-specific). Some of the workshops CTL organizes are centrally about how people learn and how to improve our teaching based on those principles.

    Another approach to the problem is through experiential education, particularly those experiences that link academics to work. At QC, all of the teacher certification programs do this, through student teaching and teaching observations. Some of our programs have structured internships or service learning activities that are directly tied back to things they’re studying as part of a major. Studying abroad can accomplish the same kind of feedback loop. But this kind of experiential education is hard for individual faculty to do alone: it has to be institutionalized, it requires connections to the community outside the college, and it is resource-heavy.

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