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Whereforth Are Thou, Harvard?

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 4, 2010 Is liberal arts education in the United States doomed to be in a state of crisis perpetually? If it is, wouldn't it be best to end the crisis once and for all by shucking off liberal arts education in the United States in favor of exclusively professional training for college undergraduates? After all, wouldn't it suffice to consign liberal arts education to secondary education? But if it wouldn't suffice to consign liberal arts education to secondary education, what justification can there be for having liberal arts education for college undergraduates? I want to explore these questions and related issues in the present essay, with special attention to Harvard College because Harvard University is the best funded institution of higher education in the United States. As a result, I look to Harvard to lead American higher education by its example in liberal arts education.

The Problem. The crisis of liberal arts education in the United States today has been delineated by William M. Chace in the opening paragraph of his article "The Decline of the English Department" in the Autumn 2009 AMERICAN SCHOLAR:

"During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history."

Of course during the last four decades, conservative trends, political and cultural, have been in the ascendancy in the United States. But Chace, himself a conservative, does not even mention this important cultural background. Even though he adverts to the rise of liberal arts education earlier in the twentieth century, he does not advert to the fact that the earlier rise in liberal arts education accompanied the rise of political liberalism in the United States. To turn the terrible tide of conservatism that has plagued the United States during the last four decades, we need to renew our commitment not only to political liberalism, but also to liberal arts education.

Chace has further delineated the problem facing liberal arts education. Drawing on measures based on the academic years 1970-1971 and 2003-2004, he also notes that "[i]n one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent." He says that he is "dismayed by this shift," which he fears "is probably irreversible."

I am not going to make any predictions as to whether the 16 percent market share of undergraduate majors is irreversible or not, because the market share is not be the most important issue in my judgment. Regardless of what the market share of undergraduate majors in the liberal arts may be, the most important issue is to clarify the purposes of liberal arts education, even for people who do not become liberal arts majors.

The basic problem facing liberal arts education in the United States today is that there appears to be no widespread agreement about the purpose or purposes -- of liberal arts education. Indeed, there appear to be competing purposes for liberal arts education, but not much consensus about them.

Moreover, the teachers in the liberal arts fields are famously individualistic, which makes it hard to get two of them to agree on the purposes of liberal arts education. But how can the American public and American undergraduates ever come to support the liberal arts when there appears to be no consensus about what the purposes of liberal arts education are?

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The stated purpose of undergraduate professional education (e.g., teacher education, engineering education, business education) is that it is supposedly designed to prepare the students to make a living in the chosen professional field. As a statement of purpose, what could be clearer?

Background Information. Where does the liberal arts college in the United States come from?

Harvard College was founded in 1636 by people who had been educated at Cambridge University in England. Harvard College was founded by religious enthusiasts who wanted to have college-educated ministers. In its subsequent history, Harvard shucked off its religious affiliation and became a secular institution. But it does still have a graduate divinity school. When the German research university rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, Harvard was able to adapt to the spirit of the research university, and to this day Harvard is an exemplary research university. But to this day, the institutional structure known as Harvard College still exists within the behemoth known as Harvard University.

But there's the rub. Research universities are designed to turn out specialists. But HarvardCollege was not designed to turn out specialists. Instead, HarvardCollege was designed to be part of the larger educational movement that we refer to in hindsight as Renaissance humanism. In short, HarvardCollege was a liberal arts college, as were the various Protestant colleges and universities founded in the United States. Like Harvard, many of those Protestant colleges and universities shucked off their religious affiliations and became secular independent institutions of higher education.

In a similar way, all the newly founded colleges started by the early Jesuits were also part of the larger educational movement of Renaissance education. In the United States today, there are twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities that carry forward the educational tradition of Renaissance humanism, just as most other Catholic colleges and universities also do.

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Land-grant colleges and universities, teachers colleges and universities, and agriculture and mechanical colleges and universities in the United States tended not to favor the liberal arts college paradigm. Nevertheless, liberal arts education did find a home in many publicly supported colleges and universities.

Arguably one of the greatest blows to the old liberal arts approach to college education was struck by President Charles Eliot when he established the elective curriculum at HarvardCollege. To this day, the elective system dominates American undergraduate education.

As this example shows, no other American institution of higher education has influenced other American institutions of higher education as decisively as Harvard has. As a result, I say that the current crisis in liberal education in the United States will require the Harvard liberal arts faculty to lead by example and lead the country in clarifying the purposes of liberal arts education. But if the Harvard liberal arts faculty, under the leadership of President Drew Gilpin Faust, are not up to meeting this challenge, then shame on them!

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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