University Scholars Respond to Call to Limit the Liberal Arts

Released: 14-Jul-2014 4:00 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Penn State University Press
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Citations Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences

Newswise — Has the agitation of governors, legislators and even some educators to cut the cost of higher education by reducing liberal arts requirements and scaling tuition to favor majors that produce the greatest likelihood of post-graduate employment generated anything more than nervous shivers among those who view the content of undergraduate education as their legacy?

University chancellors, philosophers, historians, scientists and academic advisors in a recent issue of Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences have volunteered their collective educational rigor to sound a warning and to encourage action.

Stanford philosopher Nel Noddings believes the spirit of the liberal arts is often ignored. She lays the problem not at the feet of electioneering politicians, but in the classroom and lecture hall. Noddings, well known for an influential body of work on adolescence and caring, sees a too common failure among faculty to help students find the connections among what on the surface might otherwise seem to them to be unrelated disciplinary silos.

The problem, NYU historian Thomas Bender adds, is that "higher education is no longer considered a social good."

Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor and co-author and linguist Peter Englot, find many sets of university requirements unbalanced and thus incapable of restoring education’s public purpose. They argue for a restoration of the ‘balance of private and public purposes of general education.’

“The decision to focus an entire journal issue around a theme, Ferment in the Field, began with a question,” says editor Jeremy Cohen. “Is there ferment among those interested in liberal education? Given the cookie cutter similarity of so many programs the answer was not a forgone conclusion.”

The question is not a simple one. If there are stirrings of agitation for change to liberal education's status quo, what are they based upon? A belief in a golden age prescribed curriculum that would have been familiar to academics and undergraduates a century ago? A twenty-first century faith in the power of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to overcome economic and political barriers to access to higher education? A growing insistence (some would say, an intellectually smothering insistence) on quantifiable accountability under which liberal education outcomes should be subject to the same assessment criteria as more easily definable disciplinary and professional goals in engineering, business, math or chemistry?

“It has come as a relief to the editors of Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences,” Cohen says, “that this issue’s Ferment in the Field scholars—drawn from philosophy, history, earth sciences, academic advising, writing, 18th century British literature and other disciplines—are challenging faculty, administrative officers and their legacy - students - to bring increased levels of intellectual fervor to liberal education. The journal’s conclusion? There is considerable ferment in the field.”


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