How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

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Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.

 

The Death of Mind

Years ago, when I was hired to start a philosophy department and direct a required course titled “Ideas In Flux” at a new state college in Minnesota, I was struck by some of the jargon that passed as a “philosophical” statement of purpose for the college. There was much talk about the “psychic-emotional” complex of the student which was to be the focus of attention for those who taught. There was a great deal of experimentation going on — this was the late 1960s — and the brand-new college was supposed to combine the liberal arts and the technical in new and amazing ways. But the notion of the “psychic-emotional complex” was entirely new to me. And it remains a mystery to this day, since no one could really say what the hell it meant at the time. I came to suppose that the college was expected to focus attention on the “whole student” because that was the jargon that was in the air at the time and which I came to hear much about in later years.

The 1960s were troubled times in the fight of traditional liberal arts programs struggling to survive the attacks of the SDS and other outraged young people who targeted the “establishment” and pretty much all tradition, including history, they regarded as “irrelevant.” The liberal arts were presumed to be “elitist” and rejected by a host of those who were in the process of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Doubtless, there was much about what had been traditionally done in the name of education, and indeed much of what was referred to as the “establishment,” that deserved to be jettisoned. But the process was never really thought out and much damage resulted from what some convinced themselves were needed improvements in the bastion of the Ivory Tower and in society at large.

In a sense, the liberal arts are “elitist,” because they focus attention on the human mind and seek to help young people become as intelligent as possible. Some succeed and some fail. In a world that prized (and still prizes) the commonplace, the ordinary, the average — a society that seeks to leave no student behind– any process that seeks to help one person to rise above others is suspect (except in sports!).  Or so it was to a great many people who preferred instead to focus attention  on the “psychic-emotional complex.” At the time I thought if colleges and universities sought to develop the “whole student” they would fail. It made more sense to me to focus attention on what could be done and done well rather than to try to deal with the entire complex person, seeking not only to develop intelligence but help build moral character as well. I thought then, and I think now, that this cannot be done. Educators might succeed if they narrowed their focus, but if they took a shotgun approach to education they would miss all the targets and simply confuse the young who were supposed to leave college more intelligent than they were when they arrived. Most of the evidence I have seen since that time suggests that the shotgun approach has indeed failed. Students today leave the colleges and universities relatively unchanged by the experience which has been confusing and confused for more than a half-century.

At the time I thought, and said publicly, that the Church and the family were the two institutions that should focus attention on character, the emotional and moral  development of the child seeking to become an adult. Let the schools, said I, focus attention on the mind and on mind alone. That way something important might happen while the student passes through twelve or sixteen years of schooling. But it was not to be. The Church was, and is, too busy trying to repair the roof and keep the pews filled with satisfied customers, and the family has pretty much become dissolved into fragments that tear the young person in several different directions at once, leaving him or her bewildered and disappointed — even a bit frustrated.

In a word, the schools have killed the mind. Intelligence has disappeared behind the charge that any attempt to develop it is “elitist” and therefore not acceptable in an egalitarian society, a democratic society, in which no one is any better (or any worse) than anyone else — or dare not presume to be. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. It marks the end of any notion that intelligence matters and that in some sense we all ought to try to become as smart as we can in those few years we spend in school.

After discussing the problems I have touched on here, Lionel Trilling, in a 1972 essay, bemoans the fact that the professors in our colleges and universities have ignored their duties. As he notes:

“Surely it says much about the status of mind in our society that the profession which is consecrated to its protection and furtherance should stand silent under the assault, as if suddenly deprived of all right to use the powers of mind in its own defense.”

In the end, he worries that

“. . . .  mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself.”

Instead, we seek to develop the “whole person,” the “psychic-emotional complex” that which we take to be the whole person. And in the process we become care-givers rather than educators and fail to develop the minds of the young. In doing so we fail the young as whole persons and the society at large. Ironic.

Why The Humanities?

I have referred to a book by Anthony Kronman defending, if not in fact attempting to resurrect, the humanities. He fails to define quite what he means by the term, but it appears he means what I and others have meant by the liberal arts, namely, those studies that help us better understand what it means to be human and how it is that we are to make sense of a world that seems on its face to be meaningless. His book has the cumbersome title: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life. Kronman stepped down as Dean of the Yale Law School in order to teach in a Freshmen elective course “Directed Studies” that focuses attention of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

In his book Kronman makes a strong case that the study of such things as great literature, philosophy, history, and the fine arts can help is to gain a wider perspective on our own lives, a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. He is convinced, as am I, that in our frenzy to follow wherever science and technology (especially the latter) lead we have lost the better part of ourselves. The only alternative for many people is fundamentalist religion.

Those who teach the humanities in our colleges and universities have bought into such things as political correctness and the research ideal that places careers ahead of classroom teaching and this, according to Kronman, has cost the humanities their very soul. They are dying from self-inflicted wounds, society and the academic community both agree that they have passed their must-sell-by date, they are passé and not worth pursuing. While students need more than ever to wonder what great minds have had to say about the meaning of life, humanities teachers are busy trying to convince the world that they are as respectable as the hard sciences by devising schemes that provide them with spurious “theories” about truth and reality. The end result is postmodernism, with its rejection of Western ideas and ideals.

There is considerable data that suggest that Kronman is correct in his assessment as increasing numbers of students ignore the humanities altogether in their pursuit of a career — which, they and their parents, are convinced, is the sole purpose of a higher education. As Kronman himself puts it:

“However urgently students feel pressed to choose a career, to get in a groove and start moving along, the college years are their last chance to examine their lives from a wider perspective and to develop the habit, which they will need later on, of looking at things from a point of view outside the channels of their careers. This is precisely what [the humanities] encourage. In doing so, they run against the grain of the belief  most students share that there is no point of view outside those channels. That a life is a career is for them an article of faith. [The humanities] put this piety in doubt by insisting on the importance of the idea of life as a whole. For the young person on the threshold of a career, nothing could be more disturbing or helpful.”

In a word, we live at a time when we need to ask the deeper questions about the meaning of our own lives and we are wasting our time, and that of our children and students , in pushing them into narrow career paths from which they lose perspective and forget what is truly important.

Kronmen is a bit overwrought at times and I hesitate to embrace his claims all at once. But he makes a sound point: our confusing and confused times demand a way, other than religious fundamentalism, to escape from the narrow world of self and relish the past accomplishments of our fellow humans, their remarkable accomplishments in the arts, science, and the humanities. We are cutting ourselves off from the past to our own detriment, forgetting those on whose shoulders we must stand if we are ever to get some sort of idea who we are and why we are here.

The colleges and universities are especially to blame for holding the humanistic studies in low esteem, but this simply reflects a world in which the practical and immediate are all-important and the past and the truly remarkable are ignored in an attempt to make ourselves more comfortable and make sure we are up to speed with the latest invention or the latest gadget that we are confident will make our lives more pleasant, if not more meaningful.

Academic Priorities

On a recent trip to Minnesota’s North Shore I picked up a local paper in Duluth and was struck by the following headline: “UMD plans $2 M in academic program cuts.” Now, UMD is the large branch of the University of Minnesota in Duluth and the fact that it was facing financial hard times is not new. I taught in one of the universities in the same state and same athletic conference for years and all of the institutions in that group are increasingly facing financial struggles. It is a sign of our times when costs are skyrocketing and more and more students are “taking their degrees” online.

What was of greatest interest to me about that story (which I read hastily) was that the cuts will come in the academic programs. Not in the athletic program, of course. That never seems to be an option. Bear in mind that this university is considerably smaller than its fat cousin in the Twin Cities and except for ice hockey which is a NCAA Division I sport it is small potatoes as far as its athletics programs are concerned — NCAA Division II, the same as our small university in Marshall where I taught and coached tennis.  So, one would think, some cuts in the athletics programs when faced with a $2 million deficit would appear to be in order. Like so many other colleges Duluth (as we call it) has a plethora of athletics teams. Cuts in some of those programs would appear to make a certain amount of sense. But not so. The cuts will come by reducing faculty in the academic programs.

And guess which programs are to be cut? . . . . (wait for it). The liberal arts, the fine arts, and education. In each case it is because students are not enrolling in those programs as they did in the past. Education is on the block because there simply aren’t that many teaching jobs these days and public education is a political football. As is common around the country students are taking more practical courses of study where they think there is certainty of finding employment after graduation. The largest major program in our university, for example, is “Sports Science” which brags a successful placement strategy after graduation.

There are several problems with this scenario. To begin with, the successful placement of graduates in jobs after graduation is a bit of a farce. Many of the employment opportunities in Sports Science, for example, are minimum wage jobs handing out towels at the local athletic club: decidedly dead-end. Further, graduates of liberal arts programs with majors in such things as English, history, and philosophy are more successful in the long run than those who follow their practical instincts. That is to say, those graduates are able to change jobs more readily if they discover that they had been mislead as eighteen-tear-old Freshmen into thinking that the “sure thing” would make them rich and happy. Moreover, they make more money in their lifetimes than do those who major in the more practical fields. The figures don’t lie.

What is happening around the country is that parents have become convinced that their kids need to take the practical majors and avoid esoteric majors (as they see it) like art history or English literature, which they regard as a waste of time and money. And while it is true that those students will find it easier to find the initial job it is also true, as noted, that they often find themselves in dead-end jobs with no chance of making meaningful career changes later on. And, typically, they won’t make as much money in the long run. In a word, it is short-term thinking.

This type of thinking is typical in the business world where profit is placed highest in the list of priorities. Best Buy, for example, is making draconian cuts this month in order to convince share holders that they are serious about making huge profits. This reasoning is blind to the fact that those cuts will force remaining employees to work harder and less efficiently thereby providing their customers with poorer service and thus ultimately affecting the bottom line. But, more to the point, the fact that academic programs are being cut at UMD is simply more evidence that the business model is driving education as well as so many other human endeavors. And the business model has no business providing a paradigm in education where the focus ought to be on freeing young minds and putting young people in the best position to be successful and happy adults.

There are serious problems in our education system up and down the grades — just think about the thousands who follow Donnie the Trumpet! I write about those problems I know about first hand and as a result of the research I did in writing my book about education, Recalling Education.

Making Widgets (Once More)

We are having a hot, tropical summer here in Minnesota and I decided to repost a previous entry rather than simply repeat what I have already said in order to avoid getting even more overheated. This post deals with my favorite topic, the failure of our education system (which I think is at the root of many of our current difficulties and helps us to understand why a moron could be seriously considered for the highest office in the land.) Please note that I have made some subtle changes to update the entry.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when raising our kids, forming policies, or selling goods. In the latter case, for example, we are told that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product.m Or they may not even want it at all until an ad convinces them they do. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum and provide them with electronic toys until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. Sad to say, neither do many of their teachers and professors. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need are either unaware of what those needs are or fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fickle wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is widespread and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around. (Note the interesting parallel here with parenting.)

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed this confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious blunder, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because those folks are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the people hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place.

Thus the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask why they are making widgets. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated citizens, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

Priorities?

A recent news story tells us all we need to know (and then some) about what really matters in American higher education. Here’s how the story begins:

Proving it’s not only small, private, liberal-arts colleges that are susceptible to financial distress, Louisiana State University (LSU) announced that it’s in the midst of drawing up a financial exigency plan.

Bloomberg News, which reported the development, called the plan “equivalent to a college bankruptcy” and noted that it would let LSU fire tenured faculty and restructure its finances.

The Baton Rouge-based university with over 30,000 students is drafting the plan, in part, because the most recently proposed budgetary cuts by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal threaten to severely impact the higher-education system in the state. The governor’s plans would cut the budgets for Louisiana’s colleges and universities to the tune of 82%, according to Bloomberg.

The president and chancellor of LSU, F. King Alexander, stressed the bankruptcy plan was essential since there has been little movement in the state’s legislature to make updates to the budget.

“We don’t say that to scare people,” Alexander was quoted as saying in The Times-Picayune. “Basically, it is how we are going to survive.”

(Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/lsu-is-drafting-a-financial-exigency-plan-2015-4#ixzz3YKJHEFxy)

The economic struggles of small liberal arts colleges are well-known, but this is the first news regarding the financial struggles of a major university and the obvious fact that large universities have so much more fat to trim than do small colleges hardly needs to be mentioned. However, the news that L.S.U. may have to make draconian cut-backs, including the firing of tenured faculty, is a shocker. But it should be read in the context of several salient facts: Les Miles, the L.S.U. football coach makes $4.3 million a year and has 17 assistant coaches whose salaries are almost certainly higher than the tenured faculty who might be dismissed. In addition, like all other major Colleges, L.S.U. is allowed 85 “full-ride” athletic “scholarships.” Assuming that all of these are out-of-state students (which is a fair assumption) this amounts to $325,397.00 per year — just for football.

The “restructuring” may be a bluff on the part of the president, of course, to bring the legislature to heel. But a much bigger bluff would be the threat to drop L.S.U. football — or any of the sixteen sports teams. Now that would get their attention! But, come to think of it, the bluff almost certainly wouldn’t work: the legislators know that L.S.U. would never touch the athletic teams! Tenured faculty for sure, but don’t touch the coaches or the athletics program. They know what really matters in major American colleges and universities — and it’s not education.

Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.