We all know that we live in tough times. A number of small, private, liberal arts colleges have gone belly up, a product of mismanagement, declining enrollment, or a combination of the two. Funding for public higher education is either flat or falling, and some schools have dramatically cut back on programs. Western Kentucky University, for instance, recently announced an end to 101 academic programs. Faculty members do more with less.
Demographic changes, meanwhile, have made their impact felt, as colleges compete for a declining number of prospective first-year students. Institutions with deep pockets and strong reputations are able to offer generous packages of financial assistance, while state colleges and smaller private institutions struggle to keep up. Adjunct faculty do an increasing amount of the actual teaching at institutions across the spectrum, and universities seldom replace departed faculty members in uncertain times. I may be part of the last generation of tenured professors.
Perhaps predictably, this sorry state of affairs has produced some soul-searching. Some commentators or critics have explained that the current crisis is the fault of the academy itself. The demographic trends could have been visible to anyone who looked, they argue. At the same time, professors, more interested in pursuing their overly-narrow research interests, do not put adequate time into their teaching. This hyper-specialization spills over into the classes they offer. Quite simply, colleges are not offering classes that students want to take. Try to find a military or diplomatic history course, they say, and you will search for a long time. Maybe professors would be better off teaching relevant courses for their students than dunking on buffoons like Dinesh D’Souza.
Can we give it a rest?
Of course, there are serious problems in higher education. I do not want to dismiss the seriousness of the crisis.
But let’s not blame the liberal arts or their practitioners, and let’s not look to their alteration, diminution, or elimination as a solution to the deep structural problems afflicting the academy. At SUNY-Geneseo, where I teach, the number of majors in our history program has increased in each of the last three years. Our liberal arts programs are healthy and vibrant.
There are a couple of reasons for this. We have outstanding teachers in our department, and we encourage faculty to pursue their interests, to share their passions with their students. Instead of requiring old-school survey courses in United States history and Western Civilization, a tired model if ever there was one, we emphasize the discipline of history. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. We teach students to formulate questions, to answer them in a manner that is honest, thorough, and disciplined, and to write with grace and style. We offer no courses in military history, it is true, but we offer courses that our students find relevant and important and that teach students the skills of the historical discipline. They learn to work with facts, evidence and explanation. They study the history of everyday life, histories written from the “bottom-up,” and histories of groups traditionally underrepresented in other historical accounts. They want histories shorn of the patriotism and myth that they see as characterizing parts of their high school experience. But they study as well the classics. They read widely and they read deeply.
Many of us are active researchers still, and our scholarship informs our teaching. Some of us focus on topics that are narrower than others, but we are working, exploring, asking questions, and examining our own assumptions as we examine the evidence. We bring this research into the classroom. We deploy a variety of teaching styles. Some of us lecture. Some emphasize discussion and form our students into groups to analyze the reading. Most of us do both. Over the years, I have sat in on discussion classes where little has been accomplished, and others where the resulting conversations were so stimulating that my mind raced for the rest of the day. I have sat in on lecture courses as a student that bored me to tears. And I attended lectures that changed my life.
If you were young once, you might remember how an idea could turn you on, how a topic about which you knew nothing could consume you, and inspire you to dig deeply for more knowledge. Students hunger for knowledge. They want to think big thoughts, ask and answer important questions, examine the contours of their own existence. They want to learn the skills of their particular discipline, yes, but many also want to talk about meaningful citizenship. They want to understand the world they live in and the people in it, and how to make their world a better place.
There are scholars who write on “narrow” topics, to be sure. Some publish and present their work to small groups of like-minded scholars. There are writers in the liberal arts whose writing is difficult and jargon-filled. But there are others whose work is accessible, urgent, and available. They write about subjects of immense importance, and they do so with energy and style. Their work sheds light on the human condition, and they share their work widely with readers and with their students. They may not write about war, politics, or diplomacy, but they explore what it is to be human, to live in community with others, and how we got here. Those who read their work find it powerful and important.
Students love their courses in history.
In our current political climate, however, they hear from politicians and policy-makers that to be educated is to have a job, and that little else matters. The president, his party, and their propagandists dismiss the value of the life of the mind. They dismiss the liberal arts as elitist, or as dominated by topics that are “politically correct,” largely because they distrust the democratizing potential of free inquiry, and resent the calls for justice that lie at its core. Professors should teach the facts, they say, and they should not indoctrinate their students. They express that fear frequently. They worry about freedom of expression and freedom of speech on college campuses, but what they really fear is open debate and the discussion of topics that challenge their assumptions. When we ask students to consider the meanings of freedom, equality, and power, to explore the inconsistent relationship between law and justice, and to examine the yawning gap between our reality and our ideals, between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they see a threat. They fail to understand how it is essential to a thriving republic for citizens to ask these deep, probing questions. They fear the questions and those who ask them.
We who teach these subjects must push back against this style of thought. We can talk about how liberal arts students will find work, about how they make decent money, and how students need to be adaptable because today’s students will likely be doing many jobs that do not even exist. Many have made the point about the economic value of the liberal arts. But there is a larger, cultural force against which we contend. Anti-intellectualism and resentment against the privilege that colleges and universities seem to represent are powerful forces. It will not be easy, but it is essential, that we engage those who hold these views. We are, after all, educators. And our most important job, in addition to teaching the students in front of us, may be to explain to a skeptical public the importance of the work we do, and how wrestling with big ideas is necessary not only for meaningful citizenship, but for a richer life.