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The Liberal Arts Are Dead

Should we educators just face the music and accept the fact higher ed is now just for job training?

by Gerald R. Lucas

Yesterday, I listened to Terry Gross interview Kevin Carey, author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. While I’ve been a proponent of augmenting traditional classroom approaches to education with online components for years, I never really considered that the liberal arts education has come to an end.

Right from the beginning, Terry Gross seems resistant to Carey’s vision of a totally online college education. She reminisces about her college years — attending art exhibits, student protests, authors’ readings, and other stuff college students are supposed to do in order to take full advantage of their time at the university. Yet, as Carey reminds us, this view does not align with current attitudes about the purpose of a college education and is becoming increasingly unrealistic for the majority of students. In truth, it has always been possible only for a privileged few.

In other words: the dream — myth? — of the liberal arts education is only a reality for those who can afford it. This has likely always been the case.

The 2014 documentary about the new reality in higher education, Ivory Tower, seems to concur with Carey’s assertion. It explores the value of higher education, asking does the cost of college ultimately pay off? With student debt at an all-time high — passing $1 trillion — and colleges ostensibly more concerned with their growth as businesses than they are with the quality of undergraduate education. Carey sees this reality, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, as “morally unsupportable and a detriment to society.” Maybe we’ve reached the point now that championing a traditional liberal arts education is no longer tenable at best, or unethical and naive at worst.

A few years ago, I served on a standing committee. The Technology Resources Committee had representatives across campus and you could generally tell what parts of campus they represented by what they wore and where they sat. Those who wore the ties sat on one side of the conference table, while those of us who probably sported jeans and a partially-tucked Oxford without a tie sat on the other. It’s not that we didn’t get along, but faculty and administrators were usually mutally gregarious. During one of our semester meetings, one of my tie-wearing colleagues stated that “the college is a business.”

I’m uncertain what we were actually discussing at the time, but I immediately took up a defensive posture: “No, it’s not. It’s an institution of higher education. We might do some business here, but our primary concern is for the education of our citizenry — not profit. One seems antithetical to the other.” I’m sure my actual response was not as articulate, but that’s what I remember saying.

The committee chair — quite rightly — brought us back to the topic, but that small exchange stuck with me. For me, it began to symbolize the contention in higher education today: that between a quantitative corporate model measured by product and profit, and a qualitative liberal arts model that helps students become citizens and better human beings. One emphasizes work; the other life. Yes, I understand that this is reductionist of me, but it seems like the reason we allow corporations carte blanche to buy our democracy, is because the “educated” that our corporate institutions of higher education produce are end-products of business-think and not truly educated within a liberal arts tradition.

Is it true, then, that higher education is just a business?

Do any non-English majors take Shakespeare anymore? Read Homer, Dante, or Tolstoy? Take a philosophy course, or one in anthropology, or mythology? When I was an undergrad — over twenty years ago now, maybe five B.I. (Before Internet) — these courses filled out the college education, making us more than just functionaries trained to fill cubicles from nine to five. I felt educated, mainly because there was so much more I didn’t know. This humility comes with education; ironically, it seems the ones who know everything these days are the ones who are the least educated. They slowly seem to be taking over the world.

One of the things I found most valuable about college is that it made me look at subjects and read books and listen to lectures that I probably wouldn’t have on my own. It fostered within me an intense desire to learn — to pursue a life-long learning that always questioned, always quested for alternatives — new ways of seeing the world and my place in it. From my college education I developed a love of travel — of difference and the new. College helped me throw away the parochial attitudes that would have been so easy to wrap around myself for safety, like a comfortable blanket. Yes, the blanket is warm and cozy, but it’s trap that separates us from the discomfort necessary for growth.

When I was nineteen, I lived in Cincinnati. I took some time off from college back home, and I just wanted to go somewhere new. I worked as a waiter and met new people, including Ken. Ken is what you might call a “bear”: a large, hirsute gay man. Ken helped me orient myself to the restaurant, gave me advice, talked to me during breaks, and became a friend. Eventually I met his partner, and they invited me to go with them to a downtown gay bar for a drag show. Others from work were going, so even though I had never done anything like that before, I agreed. My reaction was not positive: my anger and discomfort became written on my demeanor. This alien world felt threatening, though I had absolutely no reason to feel that way. These guys were having fun — reveling in each other’s company and enjoying the talent that bent gender and my comfort. I must have looked the fool: back against the bar and arms crossed, not talking to anyone and glaring at the performers on stage. My obvious discomfort made a drag queen on stage take notice, and ask me a question. Like in a movie, I remember the whole place going quiet awaiting my response, and instead just getting my defiant scowl. “Ewwwww,” she said on stage amid howls of laughter, and continued the show without looking back. Ken never asked me to return, nor do I remember him talking to me much after that night.

I still feel intense shame when thinking about my irrational behavior. My narrow life experience did not allow for something so foreign. My reaction was to shut down, calling even more attention to myself. I had no way to empathize, so my reaction was one of aversion and disgust. My subsequent liberal arts education changed me completely. It allows me to embrace difference and even seek it out. That comfortable blanket of ignorance only separates us from possibility. I no longer need it, nor do I miss it.

To me, this is what it means to be educated, and I see every day how much our country could benefit if more people had access to it.

Yet, as Carey argues, that sort of education is for the privileged. With state funding for (higher) education going down and tuition going up, most students do not have the time to dawdle in college: pick a major and go to it. Do not deviate. Get that diploma and get into the “real” world of work. Do your duty. Don’t make waves. Buy this car. Get a mortgage. Keep your mouth shut and toe the line. You wouldn’t want to make waves and lose your job, then your car, then your house, then your life. If you keep quiet, do what you’re told, you might just be able to work your way up to a livable income, a bit of health insurance, a family, and . . .

And what? Guarantee that your children have even worse lives? The American Dream has always been a myth, except for a lucky few. It’s likely “America” was constructed that way. Even if you are lucky enough to achieve financial security and material wealth, what do you do then? Prosperity is more than economics. Happiness might have little to do with the three-car garage.

Despite the new reality, I still think a liberal arts education could save us from ourselves and our overemphasis on the pursuit of financial gain. Call it the new liberal arts. For this to happen, education must change its model from that of the nineteenth-century colonial one to a twenty-first-century one built on networked digital technologies.

In “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher,” Michael Godsey seems to lament the passing of an old system, but documents how technology has changed and will continue to change the educational system. Lessons will be created and taught by the country’s best teachers (“super teachers”), turning local experts into facilitators: “techs” who keep equipment running and children behaving. He sees the days of the content expert waning and the rise of facilitators who find new ways to use technology in the classroom. Indeed, as he observes, why teach information that is easily Googled? If you want to be a teacher, he advises, you need to be a “super teacher,” otherwise your days will be spent facilitating lessons and cleaning iPad screens. Indeed, Godsey observes, how can the average teacher compete with groups of professionals — like Khan Academy, Activate Instruction, Edmodo — in developing high quality (and in most cases superior), educational materials? Godsey concludes that:

There is a profound difference between a local expert teacher using the Internet and all its resources to supplement and improve his or her lessons, and a teacher facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations.

Is this the corporation inserting itself (again) into a place where it really has no business being? When put in these terms, I find myself more sympathetic with his conclusion. Yet, I wonder if these new technologies and discussions about flipped classrooms, blended learning, project-based learning, and self-organized learning are not distracting us from an age-old problem in education. In a crucial way, we “content experts” have always been “facilitators” in that we must choose the best materials and organize them in such a way as to make them accessible to students for creating a greater understanding. In other words, we educators build canons.

This is not a solitary activity, but a dialectic of experts. These experts used to be teachers and academics, but digital media has opened up education (and many other fields) to the “amateur experts” who also have stakes in the game. If anything, these additional voices make our work as educational curators even more important. Knowledge construction is still the goal of education, and the best educators are those who assemble and construct the best means for doing so to meet a desired goal. Perhaps it’s that goal that’s changed, or maybe that traditional goals cast doubt on new forms of education.

In Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling argues that the goals of traditional education were to civilize children through “harsh paramilitary constraint” and train them for life-long roles in “large paternalistic bureaucracies” or colonial governments (39–41). Sugatra Mitra, in his now-famous TED-talk “Build a School in the Cloud,” argues that colonial expansion necessitated a system of education to train functionaries to fill roles in local governments to establish and maintain the interests of an expansive imperial power separated by vast distances. The goal, as Theodore Nelson argues, robs student of their “orientation, initiative and motivation” and by testing subverts their “natural intelligence” (308). This education, Nelson continues, must:

iron all subjects flat then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plain. Material is dumped on the students and their responses calibrated; their interaction and involvements with the material is not encouraged nor taken into consideration, but their dutifulness of response is carefully monitored. (308)

This system creates students, first, then functionaries upon graduation that learn the “official angle” and cannot operate without the hierarchy of control. Imagination and creativity only get in the way of the obedience necessary to function successfully in those bureaucracies. The problem is, Sterling observed in 2000, that the stable roles (jobs) this system used to prepare people for no longer exist (41).

Why, then, do the corporations seem to be taking over higher education? Why is the system still selling the myth of the American Dream through an educational system created in the nineteenth century? It seems that technology offers a way to break this practice of education.

I think that most of us educators do not see ourselves as complicit in this corporate educational agenda, and most of us teach in good faith using the tools we’ve been taught to use. Ask any English Professor what’s the best technology to use for teaching a literature seminar. You might get a response like: “A seminar table, books, pens, paper, and maybe a white board.” I might agree, but this answer betrays a romantic nostalgia for a time before ubiquitous connectivity — for a time of the small liberal-arts college — before open-access to higher education — a time of privilege in higher ed — for a reality that might never have truly existed outside the ivy league. I, too, long to teach an old-skool seminar on Modernism, but when I think back, I’m not sure I ever did, nor does it seem likely that I ever will. Can technology revive the liberal arts?

Carey states:

In the long run, the case for higher education as a public good will be stronger if higher education organizations make the best possible use of public dollars, in a way that’s strongly aligned with the average citizen’s intense desire to provide an affordable, high quality learning experience for his or her children. Information technology will undoubtedly be an important part of achieving that goal.

Perhaps we in higher education need to begin thinking about higher ed from a less centralized, hierarchal perspective. Ultimately “higher ed” might have to be separated from the “university.” I’m not advocating this, but the traditional brick-and-mortar university might be going the way of the shopping mall. There is an appeal and convenience of having all of these stores under one roof — and even a place to meet for a Cinnabon — but these massive structures cost money that many state governments seem less willing to support. And, frankly, the public seems to grow tired of supporting them.

A virtual university could funnel funding to where it’s needed — less to buildings and middle management — and more to the researchers, teachers, and support staff that seek to build the virtual university and the new liberal arts. Perhaps it’s time to hack education systemically to reemphasize what HigherEd is all about.

I see two fundamental difficulties with hacking education:

  1. The dominant attitude that education has to be practical. I.e., that higher education is essentially job training, and anything that doesn’t directly lead to some measurable skill sought by business should be done away with, like the study of the Humanities.
  2. The model of education that creates students and functionaries devoid of imagination, creativity, and curiosity. This is a system that does not create thoughtful, empathetic citizens, but those who depend on their superiors to deliver instructions, provide correct answers, and point a direction.

I encounter varying degrees of both everyday. I do not lament the deconstruction of teaching and learning through technology — but just the opposite. My biggest issue with teaching is that the system has done such a good job of making students into students. Likewise, it has done a good job making us teachers into teachers. If the message (I’m channeling McLuhan here) of education in the traditional sense has made the teacher the “sage on the stage” and students the passive receptors of instruction, then I’m all for new media to disrupt this paradigm. If we wait until college to attempt this, we have already lost. I see it every day.

Indeed, even many of my students studying new media resist any change in the educational status quo. Even though I encourage them to bring their gadgets into class (a dubious practice in the traditional classroom), they would rather me lecture, answer my own questions, and tell them the correct way of thinking about an issue. Indeed, even my latest evaluation, my chair summarized my teaching:

“Your teaching is innovative, although perhaps not the right mix for many students.”

I do often experiment with new media in the classroom. Yes, sometimes those experiments fail, and I accept the blame. However, would it be unfair to suggest that the system is also partially to blame? When students have been taught all their lives to behave a certain way in the classroom — to expect a certain mode of operation — and I disrupt that, many of them would rather withdraw to the security-blanket they are used to. One that orders them to put away their gadgets and listen to (and believe and learn from) what the professor says. By denying students the use of technology in the classroom, we send the message that technology is a distraction from real learning. I find this perspective increasingly untenable.

For example, take Clay Shirky’s recent post “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.” Shirky is no stranger to new media, and he is a respected academic in the field. I teach his book Here Comes Everybody every year in my New Media seminar. While I do not disagree with any of his conclusions in his Medium post, his perspective advocates that old educational paradigm that new media challenges — something that I’m certain cannot be lost on him as Here Comes Everybody traces the historical and cultural transitions of many of these technological shifts. Indeed, as Shirky points out, many studies show that technology distracts students from learning in the old-skool classroom. Shouldn’t we then, instead of resisting the inevitable, change the old paradigm?

Nearly twenty years ago in Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte asked a similar question. In an anecdote, he characterizes what he calls “a hard-line mode of teaching”:

Seymour Papert tells the story of a mid-nineteenth-century surgeon magically transported through time into a modern operating theater. That doctor would not recognize a thing, would not know what to do or how to help. Modern technology would have totally transformed the practice of surgical medicine beyond his recognition. If a mid-nineteenth-century schoolteacher were carried by the same time machine into a present-day classroom, except for minor subject details, that teacher could pick up where his or her late-twentieth-century peer left off. There is little fundamental difference between the way we teach today and the way we did one hundred and fifty years ago. (219–220)

In other words: technology’s not the problem. It’s the context. Just ask Plato about writing, or Gutenburg about books, or Dante about Italian, or painters about photography, or record company executives about sampling . . .

Are we, like Carey argues, at the end of college? In many ways, I think it’s inevitable and probably beneficial if it rids us of the problems he and Ivory Tower document. Is it something we should lament, or an opportunity to revive higher education with a new liberal arts? I, for one, see this as a challenge that I’m up for. The liberal arts are dead. Long live the liberal arts!

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