Traditional liberal arts courses were the cornerstone of Western Civilization curricula but have fallen out of favor in American academia, where they have been gradually replaced by progressive ideologies. Political considerations in administrative and faculty hiring make it highly unlikely that this will be easily reversed.
For those who consider a liberal arts background a foundational imperative, and its legitimacy justified, planned remediation is required to restore it in higher education curricula. It should be possible to obtain that body of knowledge either within or outside of our current institutional paradigm.
Reasons for Curricular Decline
Although traditional liberal arts education at American institutions of higher learning has not completely disappeared, it has undergone significant changes in recent years. The underlying reasons include a growing emphasis on preparing students for specific careers. This leads many students and their families to choose more career-oriented majors and programs. Further, the increasing cost of higher education has led many students and families to prioritize programs that offer a clear return on investment, such as those in STEM fields or business.
The rapid pace of technological change and the evolving job market have made it difficult for many liberal arts programs to keep up. This has led to the perception that liberal arts degrees are not as valuable as technical degrees. Many institutions have faced declining government support for their programs, leading to budget cuts and a decrease in resources available for liberal arts programs.
Despite these challenges, the skills learned through studying the liberal arts are considered valuable by many educators and employers. The critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that students gain are highly sought after in many professions and careers. However, there is a growing recognition that institutions need to adapt their programs to better prepare students for the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Currently, opportunities for obtaining a traditional liberal arts education are limited, as more and more institutions change it beyond recognition, redefine it, and phase it out.
Strategies for Reversal: Institutional Approach
Strategies to reverse this shortage could begin with an existing institutional approach emphasizing the value of a traditional liberal arts education. Institutions and educators can work to promote liberal arts education by highlighting the content and its value.
Curricula can incorporate more technology and practical skills into their liberal arts programs to make them more relevant and appealing to students. This could include offering courses in areas such as data analysis, coding, or design thinking.
Institutions can collaborate with businesses and organizations to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities and real-world experiences. This can help to demonstrate the practical applications of a liberal arts education and make it more relevant to students.
Flexible and customizable programs could allow students to tailor their education to their individual needs and interests. This could include options for dual degrees, interdisciplinary studies, or other flexible programs. For example, programs could allow for the completion of a bachelor’s degree in a shorter time, two to three years, by taking a heavier course load or using transfer credit. Online programs could allow students to complete their degree from anywhere and at their own pace.
Institutions can provide financial support to students to help make a liberal arts education more accessible, such as scholarships, grants, or other forms of financial aid. Clear vocal and financial support from potential employers seeking these skills would encourage students.
Institutions can encourage interdisciplinary study and collaboration, as this can help to provide a more well-rounded and comprehensive education.
Finally, institutions involved in offering a traditional liberal arts education can form a consortium in order to share constructive, successful strategies that increase student participation.
Dual-degree programs allow students to earn two degrees simultaneously, such as a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in a related field. Joint-degree programs allow students to earn two degrees from two different institutions, often by completing a set number of credits at each institution.
Institutions may offer master’s degree programs in liberal arts that provide students with a more advanced and specialized education in their chosen field. They may also offer certificate programs in specific subjects within the liberal arts, such as creative writing or philosophy, that allow students to focus their studies and demonstrate mastery in a specific area.
By implementing these strategies, institutions can help revive the traditional liberal arts education and make it more relevant and appealing to students in the twenty-first century.
Alternate Pathways Approach
The cost-effectiveness of alternate pathways varies depending on several factors, including the institution offering the program, the type of program, and the location. In general, the cost of alternative pathways can be less or more expensive than a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Alternative pathways are subject to certification and accreditation, just like traditional four-year bachelor’s degree programs. Institutions must meet certain standards and criteria, as set by accrediting agencies, to be considered legitimate and to ensure that students receive a high-quality education that prepares them for a variety of careers and personal pursuits.
Traditional liberal arts education emphasizes a broad range of subjects, including literature, philosophy, history, and the natural sciences. These subjects can be studied independently through various means, such as online courses, self-directed study, or workshops and seminars.
There are many resources available for those seeking a liberal arts education outside of traditional institutions. For example, many universities now offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) in a variety of subjects, and there are numerous online resources and platforms that provide access to books, articles, and other materials on a wide range of subjects.
[Related: “Reimagining College: Three New Schools”]
Additionally, there are many organizations and institutes dedicated to providing a liberal arts education, such as the Great Books Program, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Foundation for Economic Education.
It is important to note that an independent pathway of obtaining a liberal arts education may not provide the same level of structure and support as a traditional program, and it may not lead to a formal degree or credential. However, for those who are self-motivated and disciplined, an independent pathway can provide a flexible and cost-effective way to pursue a liberal arts education.
Independent study can be much less expensive than traditional programs, as students are not required to pay for on-campus housing, meals, or other associated costs. It allows students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule, which can be particularly beneficial for those who have work or family obligations.
Independent study allows students to tailor their education to their individual needs and interests, which can result in a more meaningful and engaging learning experience. It can make a traditional liberal arts education more accessible, as students can learn from anywhere with an internet connection. They can also take full advantage of distance learning.
Independent study has the potential to be a catalyst for innovation in higher education, as it can provide institutions with an opportunity to explore new approaches to teaching and learning.
While the cost-effectiveness of independent study is certainly a key advantage, it is important to note that there are also some potential drawbacks. For example, students may miss out on the community and support that can be gained from a traditional on-campus experience. Additionally, independent study may not be suitable for all students, particularly those who are not self-motivated or disciplined.
Despite these challenges, the concept of independent study to obtain a traditional liberal arts education is gaining popularity as a cost-effective alternative to traditional programs. It has the potential to provide individuals with greater control over their own learning experiences. In considering an independent study, the good cannot be made the enemy of the perfect.
There are government entities and private foundations that provide support for alternative pathways to achieving competence in the liberal arts. These include government entities, such as the Federal Student Aid program, which offers grants, loans, and work-study opportunities to help students pay for their education. This financial aid can be applied to a wide range of alternative pathways, including online programs, dual-degree programs, and certificate programs.
Both government entities and private foundations offer scholarships to students pursuing a liberal arts education. Scholarships can be based on academic merit, financial need, or a specific area of study, and they can help offset the cost of tuition and fees.
Some employers offer tuition-assistance programs that help employees pay for their education, including alternative pathways to a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree.
Private foundations, such as those established by corporations or wealthy individuals, also provide support for students pursuing a liberal arts education. This support can come in the form of scholarships, grants, or loan-forgiveness programs.
It’s important to note that the availability of support from government entities and private foundations can vary based on several factors, including location, the type of program, and the institution offering the program. Students should research and compare the available options to determine the best source of support for their specific needs.
In an independent learning environment, faculty can be recruited from a variety of sources. For example, universities and colleges can provide faculty members who are trained in the liberal arts and who can bring a wealth of experience and expertise to an independent learning environment.
Industry experts can also provide practical, real-world perspectives on the subjects being studied, and they can offer insights into the skills and knowledge that are most relevant to specific careers.
Freelance instructors can provide specialized knowledge and skills in specific areas of the liberal arts. These instructors can be recruited from a variety of sources, including online marketplaces and professional networks.
Retired educators can provide a wealth of knowledge and experience, and they can be a valuable resource for an independent learning environment.
Autodidacts are individuals who have pursued their own education and who have expertise in specific areas of the liberal arts. These individuals can be valuable contributors to an independent learning environment, as they can provide unique perspectives and insights.
Regardless of the source of the faculty, it is important to ensure that they have the necessary training and experience to provide high-quality instruction and to support students in their learning. This may involve conducting background checks, reviewing their qualifications and experience, and seeking feedback from previous students or employers.
Additionally, it may be necessary to provide training and support to ensure that faculty are well-equipped to teach in an independent learning environment.
Financial Assistance: Faculty
The financial assistance for recruited faculty in an independent learning environment can come from several sources, such as tuition fees paid by students. As students enroll in courses and pay tuition, these funds can be used to compensate the faculty for their work.
Foundations and philanthropic organizations may provide grants and funding to support the development of independent learning environments, including support for faculty.
Companies and corporations may do much of the same. This type of funding can be an effective way for companies to invest in the development of their employees and to ensure that they have access to high-quality training and education.
Governments may provide funding to support the development of independent learning environments, including support for faculty. This type of funding can be an effective way for governments to invest in the education and training of their citizens, and to support the development of a highly skilled workforce.
Regardless of the source of funding, it is important to ensure that the funding is allocated in a transparent and accountable manner, and that the faculty are fairly compensated for their work. Additionally, it is important to ensure that the funding is used to support the ongoing development and improvement of the independent learning environment, so that students can receive the best possible education and training.
Having some form of oversight for the effectiveness of alternate pathways to a liberal arts education serves several purposes. Oversight can help ensure that the programs and institutions offering alternate pathways are of high quality and provide students with a rigorous and well-rounded education. It can protect students by ensuring that they are not misled or taken advantage of by institutions or programs that do not meet minimum standards or make false claims about their offerings.
Oversight can ensure that programs and institutions are held to consistent standards, allowing for meaningful comparison between different programs and institutions. This can help students make informed decisions about their education and ensure that the value of their degree is recognized by employers and other stakeholders.
[Related: “Columbia’s Crumbling Core”]
Oversight can also hold institutions and programs accountable for providing a quality education and preparing students for the workforce. This can help improve the reputation and credibility of alternative pathways to a liberal arts education.
Overall, oversight can assist in maintaining the quality, consistency, and credibility of alternate pathways to a liberal arts education, and in ensuring that students receive the benefits they seek from their education.
An Independent Track
It is a matter of debate whether it is in the national interest to have an independent track for the creation of a traditional liberal arts education; some argue that it is. Here are some reasons for a national program.
An independent track for the creation of a traditional liberal arts education can make this type of education more accessible to individuals who may not have the resources or opportunities to pursue it through traditional means.
Independent study can be much less expensive than traditional programs, which can be particularly beneficial for students from lower-income backgrounds.
An independent track for the creation of a traditional liberal arts education can allow individuals to tailor their education to their specific needs and interests, resulting in a more engaging and meaningful learning experience.
An opportunity for innovation in higher education can be opened, allowing new approaches to teaching and learning that can be explored and tested.
Exposure to a liberal arts education emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills, which are essential for a well-functioning democracy and a strong economy.
On the other hand, some argue that an independent track for the creation of a traditional liberal arts education may not provide the same level of structure and support as a traditional program, and it may not lead to a formal degree or credential that is recognized by employers.
Additionally, some students may struggle with the self-directed nature of independent study.
Whether it is in the national interest to have an independent track for the creation of a traditional liberal arts education depends on a variety of factors and is subject to ongoing debate and discussion. However, proponents of an independent track argue that it has the potential to provide individuals with greater access to a high-quality education, as well as opportunities for innovation and cost savings.
A National Leader
To initiate and direct a systemic effort to push for independent study as an alternate pathway for the return of the traditional liberal arts education, it would be highly desirable that a national leader oversee and monitor the project.
Ideally, such a leader would develop a clear vision for the future of education and a deep understanding of the value and importance of a liberal arts education.
Also, this leader should effectively communicate a vision to a wide range of stakeholders, including educators, policymakers, and the general public.
The leader needs to be able to work effectively to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for promoting independent study. He needs to possess an understanding of the political landscape and the ability to navigate the complex landscape of education policy and funding.
The leader should foster a commitment to the program’s long-term success and have the persistence to overcome the many challenges that will inevitably arise along the way.
Additionally, the leader should be aware of the potential of technology and innovation in education and be able to leverage these tools to support his efforts.
The leader should demonstrate an ability to motivate and inspire others, build consensus, and drive change.
By possessing these attributes, a national leader would be well positioned to initiate and direct a systemic effort to push for independent study as an alternate pathway for the return of the traditional liberal arts education.
The intent of this essay is to address those who value a liberal arts education and are concerned about its subsequent absence from curricula in schools across the country. Perhaps the suggestions and strategies presented here will motivate interested parties in the academy to participate in developing an accommodation for its return in one form or another.
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2 thoughts on “Reassessing Liberal Arts Teaching”
Engineering majors learn at least two different computer languages. They need it to construct computer models of dynamic systems. Computer science majors learn at least two computer languages. Physics and chemistry majors also need to learn computer progamming languages to manipulate and analyze data.
But I notice the people who throw in “learn to code” into everything never provide any answers regarding what computer programming language to learn (no, they’re NOT interchangable) and what exactly they would be writing computer programs to do. I recall back in 2019, when asked what out-of-work coal miners should do for a living, the president said coal miners can “learn to code”.
No, coal miners do not need to learn to code–and either do liberal arts majors.
Thank you for your comment. The purpose of the essay was to broaden the appeal of a liberal arts education. Coding was a legitimate option in that regard. Today, coding may a gratuitous inclusion but this may not be true in the future. It is the wise person who can be open to that possibility.