CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Since the inception of the university as an idea, whether one goes back 2,400 years to Plato's Academy or 1,000 years to the first European universities, the central basis for a college education has been a liberal arts one. The liberal arts, broadly considered, would be a core education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, a general education offering that any college student would take regardless of major.
From its origins in Greek and Roman civilization, liberally educated students would then become active citizens in the republic, a model of civic engagement that still carries on to this day. In a liberal arts college, classes are small, perhaps with fewer than 20 students, interactions with professors happen regularly in and out of the classroom, the university is residential rather than commuter, and guided classroom discussion is emphasized over lecture.
However brief the above sketch is, I can say with little doubt that this type of curriculum is under severe duress in contemporary society, whether in the form of a traditional liberal arts college philosophy, much as the University of Charleston is modeled after, or with the liberal arts basis that undergirds any undergraduate education, whether at a private or public institution. Part of the problem is an institutional one that has been compounded by the recent economic recession, as Columbia English professor Andrew Delbanco notes "Even the wealthiest institutions now find themselves straining for the resources they need, while public institutions are reeling from the loss of tax revenue on which they still depend."
Students no longer primarily see college as designed for a broadly educated civic individual but instead are increasingly interested in what former Beloit College President Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. identifies as the vocational model of education. Ferrall, author of "Liberal Arts at the Brink," found that in a 20-year span in the late 20th century, "the number of colleges with 90 percent or more liberal arts completions had dropped by half." The curricula have been replaced by jobs-oriented college programs, where the general education offerings are watered down in lieu of an emphasis on the students vocationally centered major courses. Moreover, the liberal arts are threatened because of a perceived lack of available jobs in fields such as history, English, and the visual arts, even if students majoring in those fields go on to productive work in completely different ones. Finally, if one doubts that the arts, broadly speaking, are threatened in contemporary American society, consider that the Republican-led Congress recently voted to cut in half the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Even at public universities such as West Virginia State and West Virginia Tech, college students must take an allotted amount of courses in liberal arts fields, including history, literature, the sciences, and mathematics. But the temptation to rein back on the general education offerings at public and private universities is rather strong right now, as there is a demand for fewer course requirements and a faster degree track, much like the popular, but controversial, three-year graduation track rather than a four-year track at several universities. Again, the "vocationalization" of higher education is mostly to blame here, as Ferrall suggests, tongue firmly in cheek: "If, for example, students want to become law enforcement officers, and the courses needed to obtain certification for law enforcement requires [a certain short time] to complete, why should they keep on trucking for another two to three-quarter years, studying subject matter that has little or nothing to do with law enforcement?"
The problem here is that a student's career field may change with the times, and their vocational training may not be an effective way to adjust to a changing economy and society. The answer lies, then and now, with requiring that all students take a broad range of liberal arts courses in fields outside of their major. The law enforcement major, for example, may need the critical thinking skills acquired from a world history course at some point in her career, while the deep analytic skills obtained from a close reading of books in a 'Survey of American Literature' course may help with certain cases or even the skills involved in a completely different field. In an attempt to articulate the philosophy behind and skills attained through a liberal arts education, the University of Charleston has implemented "liberal learning outcomes." These are competency-centered outcomes, such as citizenship and its relation to global awareness, and reading skills and relation to the overall communication process.
Now more than ever, students need the reflective and critical thinking skills offered from a broad liberal arts curriculum, particularly when sorting through the merit, or lack thereof, of modern forms of media, electronic and print. As Pomona College Economics professor Fernando Lozano puts it in "The Meaning of a Liberal Arts Education," "a liberally educated student learns the importance of good writing and active engagement ... as a tool of inquiry used to gather and synthesize [their] learning." The more that students can synthesize their learning experiences, to use Lozano's words, the more that their education subsequently becomes a means for reflective consideration and active societal engagement. Finally, Plato's dream of an ideal citizen-subject is best actualized through the means of a robust liberal arts education, where the student is grounded in multiple fields and can therefore contribute to the well-being and functioning of a democratic society.
Martin is an assistant professor of humanities and English at the University of Charleston.