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Opinion Matters: The Lull in Liberal Arts

Recently it seems many liberal arts colleges are turning toward the sciences.  In this shift, whether fully conscious and intentional or not, higher education is turning its back to the humanities.  I constantly hear about our need for “innovation” to solve our 21st century issues.  In the most recent State of the Union our President spoke of rewarding schools that prepared students in science, technology, engineering, and math so they can participate in the high-tech future.  While the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities published their report Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools we do not hear about STEAM in public addresses.  I worry that if the arts tries to attach itself to STEM it will not win and eventually be cast aside.  Even more concerning to me is the attempt to limit the humanities or to think that we can or should separate the sciences from the humanities.

A university shows its priorities in many ways, but money and physical space are two important ones.  The campus of my alma mater, Brown University, has changed since I graduated.  A massive new life sciences building has been created and fields like medicine and engineering have received incredible donations to expand.  The new science center takes up an entire city block while almost every other department lives in small and quaint houses.  As an undergrad I was conflicted when my female friends studying the sciences received thousands of dollars in scholarship aid every year; while I wanted more women leading the scientific front I also wanted more women leading political and philosophical fronts, but there was and continues to be money in the sciences.  My partner is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Brown, a department that I now realize understands what it means to be marginalized perhaps as much as the arts, and his opportunities for outside funding sources have been shockingly scarce.  A university’s values are impactful well beyond its gates and this is what causes me worry.

In a time of such economic anxiety, it makes sense that students want to ensure their readiness for jobs post-graduation and so it’s not surprising that a wave of professionalization is sweeping through our universities.  But in turning toward STEM higher-ed seems to be forgetting that they can in fact embrace a full education that includes the humanities and the sciences.  If they do not, they not only risk contributing to a population of imbalanced thinkers, but they will greatly shift the K-12 sphere, as curricular decisions will be dominated by a desire to prepare students for acceptance into schools that highly value the sciences over other disciplines.

I believe we have entered a lull in liberal arts when the benefits of a true liberal arts education are as critical as ever.  We need to herald diverse content areas as necessary elements of a robust education, but also begin to see them as connected, rather than merely a buffet of disparate choices.  This is not only a call to reinvigorate support for the arts and humanities, but to re-imagine the potential of a liberal arts education, as I believe there are habits of mind that can only be fostered through multi-disciplinary work in which students are deeply embedded in various ways of learning, building, communicating, and knowing.  When wealthy donors approach universities with millions for a specific intent, how can we encourage higher-education to lay out a vision for the fulfillment of their charge as liberal arts institutions?  What will it take for colleges (and for K-12) to take this to heart?


Jessica Delforge

Jessica Delforge Jessica Delforge (AiE ‘12) is a former arts and literacy teacher and administrator. She currently works for the Rhode Island Department of Education implementing educator evaluation throughout the state.

4 Replies to "Opinion Matters: The Lull in Liberal Arts" Subscribe

  1. Andrew Tobolowsky Permalink  | May 07, 2013 01:12am

    It’s one of the fights that seem pretty easy to win, but just isn’t. For me, the number one step is moving away from talking about degrees, so much. On a completely objective plane, this is meaningless, since the jobs available to you as a newly minted STEM graduate are, for the most part, not actually better than those with a liberal arts degree. I don’t know what people imagine you’ll be able to do with a biology undergraduate degree, and no additional education, that you can’t do at a comparable socioeconomic status with an English degree.

    But the fight to make an art or literature degree seem reasonable to the general public looks unwinnable. Maybe if we called them general liberal arts degrees, we’d be able to capitalize on the fact that there isn’t one part of a normal office job, or of the kinds of jobs that most people have, that somebody with a humanities degree isn’t better prepared for than somebody with a bio degree. We learn how to write, we learn how to think critically, and analyze. I don’t think any education is really about the thing it’s about, it’s about growing your mind through a medium and the direction liberal arts grows is great preparation for so, so many jobs.

    The real casualty of this, to me, is the students. When I think about my classes, and think abuot what I can expect from them, I can’t help but think of the whole world out there that will be impressed by where they got their degree and systematically devalue what they got it in–how can I expect them to go the extra mile to learn, then, if just by getting in and not getting kicked out they’ve already done the part of this that society not only wants from them, but the only part it isn’t actively critical of.

  2. Srivi Kalyan Permalink  | May 07, 2013 03:20pm

    Across the world, the liberal arts, and the nature of consciousness and the varied intelligences they bring into being are systematically being erased. I think we will be a poorer civilization for this mindless destruction of the wealth of human thought that liberal arts bring.

    The issues we are fighting for, trying to build a case for the arts can not really work, unless there is a critical shift in thinking across political, economic and social frames. Unless, we can re-imagine the future of humanity and redefine, where we see ourselves as a race evolving into, I don’t see the situation changing. And for that we need visionary leaders and I think a feeling of unrest among people. People who can see the emptiness and pointlessness of a life that offers “entertainment” and not real growth as a human being. And the more that unrest happens, the greater the chances that creative forces will start shaping the world in positive ways.

    I would say, show students the path to discovering the fullness of their souls and the depth of their wisdom and freedom, so that, they begin to feel this deep unrest, that will reshape their futures. I think it is already happening…

  3. Beth Permalink  | May 07, 2013 06:16pm

    I have similar concerns with today’s direction of 21st century learning, seeing much more attention go to the sciences (and technology) than the arts and humanities. As a seasoned educator and administrator, I was extremely excited in recent years when I first read about the shifts reflected in new “21st century learning.” Instruction was taking center stage with the importance of critical and creative thinking. Conversation and communication was present and the inclusion of collaboration among students and teachers was now part of common place learning expectations. The process of learning, the scope of end products, and the roles of teachers and students appeared to be changing. But I am once again cautious of real growth across American schools. I’m fearful that the arts (though Jess broadens it to the arts and humanities) will again be overlooked and I am fearful that educators will look for the quick fix, which in my opinion, is the quest of anything exclusionary (STEM)!

    How can innovation be such an important aspiration in the educational landscape without discussion and inclusion of the humanities and arts?

    You mention how the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities recently published a report on the future of arts education. What a great opportunity for President Obama, Mrs. Obama (who is the Honorary Chairman of the report) and Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, to make explicit connections to what a “robust education” looks like by expressing how a holistic and more inclusive approach reflects the goals of today’s education. To your point of how money and physical space are ways a university shows its priorities and values, the same can be said about K-12 budgets across our nation. Over the last twenty years, the arts have seen a tremendous decline in school budgets. At the present time, there are few school districts across our country that reflects the necessary positions to provide a K-12 comprehensive arts education in music, theater, dance and visual arts. National and State Standards expects this level of commitment but they are considered a recommendation not a mandate!

    Now is the time to showcase what the arts bring to 21st century thinking and learning. Now is the time for all classrooms to reflect what it means to be creative and ask arts educators and integrative thinkers/educators to help lead the way. Now is the time for arts educators to be central to collaborative conversations with colleagues or it is just a façade in chasing innovation. For the third year in a row, the President has held a science fair at the White House with science students across the United States. What a great idea yet it is time to share the limelight and have arts students’ exhibit, express, and share their creative and thinking process and products at the White House. It goes back to values and priorities.

  4. Srivi Kalyan Permalink  | May 08, 2013 04:26am _ Here’s a program at Stanford, that could also lead to a wonderful direction to bring into focus the equality of arts and sciences. Perhaps more such departments in universities that brings the arts and sciences together would be the way to go!

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