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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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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; Ph.D.in 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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