The Liberating Arts

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Higher education in the 21st century has been marked by a series of financial and existential crises. The great recession of 2007-08 raised difficult choices about which programs universities should invest in and which should be targeted for elimination. Generally when universities need to tighten their belts, liberal-arts disciplines are among the first to find themselves in the crosshairs, and at that point traditional disciplines like classics, philosophy, history and art have already begun to contract. Students, administrations believe, vote with their feet: If consumer demand is absent, universities respond not by supporting a curriculum they know is formative and valuable but by giving their customers what they say they want.

Once universities adjusted and recovered from the great recession, the 2020 Covid pandemic blindsided them. This disruption, including the long period where professors were out of the classroom, prompted a group of Christian humanists, many of whom teach in small liberal-arts colleges, to contemplate the value of the liberal-arts education they’ve spent their careers providing. The timing was auspicious—political movements that arose after the murder of George Floyd were calling for the decolonization of syllabi, and the #DisruptTexts movement began to associate classic texts with white supremacy. Many administrators, meanwhile, adopted the argument that liberal arts are a luxury that cannot be afforded in times of austerity. The liberal arts were under fire from all sides.

One result of that moment was a series of conversations, begun informally and then organized through videoconferences and supported by a grant, which has resulted in a collection of essays, “The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education,” edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson and David Henreckson. Fourteen of its contributors are professors, five are administrators, two are students, and four are writers who are friendly to the liberal arts. The essays are organized as a series of responses to common critiques: Do we need this sort of education? Is it a waste of time? Is it racist?

As dean of an honors college explicitly dedicated to liberal learning through the study of classic texts, I find myself mostly in agreement with the vision of higher education put forward here. I agree with David Henreckson that the liberal arts are not mere skills or techniques but a way of life that allows human beings to flourish. I find myself nodding along when Zena Hitz argues that liberal learning has fundamentally to do with leisure, the cultivation of habits of contemplation and reflection that allow us to pursue the highest human activities. And I could not be more thrilled to read Brandon McCoy’s argument that “the goal of education should be to create liberated persons who seek to examine life in its fullness, to enjoy friendships with others, and to foster the health of their communities.”

But I’m not the one who needs convincing. It is noteworthy that the book’s most compelling arguments for learning as truly liberating do not come from professors or administrators but from students and readers outside the university. For example, Sean Sword speaks movingly about his incarceration; Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, he tells us, offers a way in which “the liberal arts play a key role in the prisoner’s restoration to society.” In a similar vein, the testimony from students in the Odyssey Project, which brings “great works” courses in literature, philosophy, art and history to low-income adults, 95% of them from communities of color, is compelling and inspirational. Angel Adams Parham speaks movingly of her work with the Nyansa Classical Community, a program founded to bring classical learning and literature to young people of diverse backgrounds, especially from the African diaspora.

When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern—the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG has been increasingly bothered by the inflation of tuition and fees at a great many colleges and universities in the United States.

The idea that going into serious debt will be made right by increased earning power resulting from learning almost anything from higher education institutions can be financially dangerous if the graduate is unable or unwilling to take a remunerative job upon graduation.

In the United States, student loans are generally not subject to discharge in a bankruptcy proceeding, one of a small number of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Suppose someone buys a house or a car that turns out to be more costly than they can afford due to job loss or other financial setbacks. In that case, bankruptcy law will extinguish those obligations entirely or allow the debtor to pay a portion of the debt if the debtor can do so.

Ditto for large medical bills and nearly all other financial mistakes or mishaps. PG wonders why borrowing for college costs (in reasonable or outsized amounts) should be privileged over healthcare or other non-discretionary debts an individual is likely to incur.

PG admits that some of his attitudes result from his experience in college,, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in an impractical subject that did almost nothing to prepare him for any sort of job available in a large city.

If he had not graduated when employers needed many employees who seemed likely candidates to be trained in a subject of which they were utterly ignorant, PG would have been in a bad way financially.

6 thoughts on “The Liberating Arts”

  1. Part of the problem is that “education” means an awful lot of different things — and because of that, some of the sneering at education that comes from some subsets is not actually sneering at education.

    First, a note on a particular subset of “education”: The only degree offered by the military academies is a bachelor of science degree in engineering. Even so-called “bull majors” — silly, irrelevant to military officers things like “international relations” — have completed all of the requirements for a “general engineering” degree. What they absolutely, positively have not done, however (and, again, regardless of major) is taken classes above the sophomore level outside of those prescribed for their majors. Their majors are, themselves, close to set in stone before the first day of class of the freshman year.†

    But the upper reaches of the military are absolutely, positively dominated by academy graduates — and their constrained idea of what an “undergraduate education” looks like leads to some… interesting decisions… in determining which officers have the appropriate backgrounds for which jobs. Without going into anything behind an NDA, sometimes these decisions have consequences when someone who is unqualified, and specifically lacks education in certain areas, is nonetheless placed into a position of authority due to that academy class ring. In particular, this led directly to some of the problems US forces had with “nation building” exercises in Southwest Asia from 1991 on, and even well before that: Virtually no academy graduate without a prior family background from the area had either language skills or cultural awareness acquired through education.

    This is just one example. My point is that “education” can lead to “a job” — but (a) an education is not direct job training, if only because things change in even the four/five years of undergraduate time, and (b) “the job” usually means a lot more than any training program can provide for. (That goes for some seeming “good factory job”-type jobs, too, like “aircraft component manufacture and/or maintenance.”) None of this is to say that “an Ivy League degree prepares someone for any job,” either: Neither extreme works or is appropriate except in the most self-perpetuating sense, or perhaps (as Ms Myers notes) on some form of the “marriage market” (which, IMNSHO, is an awfully poor objective for spending four years in a monastery of any nature).

    † This is one of the reasons that I turned down an academy appointment: I was smart enough as a teenager to see that things, including my life and interests, very well might change.

    • “My point is that “education” can lead to “a job” — but (a) an education is not direct job training, if only because things change in even the four/five years of undergraduate time, and (b) “the job” usually means a lot more than any training program can provide for. ”

      Seconded.

      From the STEM world: there is an enormous difference between a PhD in Engineering and a Professional Engineer License. Two very different career paths for two very different kinds of people.

      I also have friends who forged two other paths: one added a legal degree to his Mechanical Engineering Degree, the other added medical school, not to go to hospitals but into Bionics.

      My own experience started with a warning from a professor that the university only taught the profession and the job taught the trade. I started out in production, switched to research (first hardware testing, then computer simulation) and finally landed in engineering *system* analysis (not to be confused with the computer science discipline), which drew on everything I learned in and out of work.

      In the STEM world “continuing education” is part of tbe job and you need to *want* to learn continually to be effective, because none of the fields is static. There is no “settled matter” or valid “consensus”; the moment you buy into either concept you’re ready to be put to pasture, because you’ll be of little use to the field.

      None of those forms of education have anything to do with academia or its deep rooted problems.

  2. Thank you for sharing your own experience, K.

    I know it’s never going to happen, but I would have made different higher educational choices if I had experience in the grown-up job market beyond summer jobs prior to going to college.

    • But, you see, I would not. I’ve always been grateful for the luxury to satisfy much of my intellectual curiosity in a way that would have been far more difficult to get started with on my own, while recognizing that it was not (directly) contributive to earning a living (having ruled out early the phantasm of an academic career based on baby boom demographics, among other things). At least it was a luxury good that I appreciated (not true of all of them — I saved my family a little bit of money by turning down the whole debutante schtick when they offered.)

  3. [Sorry for the length, but the non-professionals from elite colleges I know who had successful careers all seem to have had rambling educational/employment progressions that were not apparent to their young adult speculations about the future. So I don’t think it’s probably all that idiosyncratic.]

    The issue about underwriting higher education can’t be separated from utility. Professional education is one thing. General education without economic value is something else.

    When I grew up (college class of ’75), it was a given that (assuming you had a pulse and a brain) if your family could afford it you went to college, the best that would let you in. (Not to do so would damage your social value on the marriage market (either gender). The primary goal in my social class for most was not professional training, by and large, since we really had no idea what professions quite existed (other than doctor/lawyer/business management), what their pre-reqs would be, and what their practice as a livelihood would entail.

    What was assumed was that it would be a good preparation for adulthood, and for many of us this meant a credential for “upper” business life — it was good for a resume and eased the path into and through management.

    Of course, this meant great swathes of human careers were invisible to us, but these were the families we came from, not that different from the 1950s. What we knew about an academic career was summed up by romantic elbow-patches on tweed jackets, and pipes. (I’m still an occasional pipe smoker…)

    Consider that a (useful) functional degree in, say, accounting were compared to a general humanities degree from a selective institution — if you were a corporate business employer hiring a 22-year-old for an entry-level job, you’d hire the former for a short-term clear need, perhaps, but the latter for a long-term corporate ladder grooming track, if they seemed adequate for the entry position. Of course, the professional might be suitable for the latter, as well, but that was a gamble.

    My first “real” post-college job was as a currency hedging clerk at a small German metals trading firm. The job requirement was entry-level, but I was immediately taken under the wing of the German manager of the NYC office because we spoke the same “culturally educated person” language, and he had someone he could give his spare opera tickets to and discuss the arts. It was surely the Yale degree that got me in the door (for all that my major in “Comparative Mythology” counted for. 🙂 )

    Career tracks are funny and unpredictable things. If you have a clear professional goal as a young adult (a very fortunate thing), then the costs are relatively well-known and you can make a reasonable choice about the economics of higher education (and trade schools (including medicine/law) are a boon in providing information about their career tracks). That’s a business decision like any investment or acquisition of debt.

    But if you don’t (like so very many people), then it’s a tithe to keeping as many options open as you can until you understand more about how the world (and your own preferences) work. The higher social classes can afford that tithe more easily than the lower ones – but god knows that plenty of the higher social classes went down to human failures (alcohol, addiction, malfeasance, laziness, bad marriages, etc.) which made a mockery of that investment. The funny thing is, their fancy college degree still retained social cachet, even if they were human disasters. So, was it worth it? If their families could afford it, did that matter?

    I could not have predicted it, but I spent my life in tech firms both as an engineer and a business builder, and I always took my side of the relationship seriously, as my German boss had done. Part of my job was to make sure the people who worked for me could improve themselves functionally and could understand how they contributed to the overall business to make themselves more valuable. I may have been a boss, but I was also a teacher of how that sort of career worked, and I created “graduate students” who went on to do the same in my companies or elsewhere.

    Would my family have paid for that education if they’d been able to know how it was going to work out? I don’t think they were all that pleased to have a daughter in a professional business career (where was my rich husband?) but on the other hand, my brother was one of those who never managed to graduate. They never made their opinions known. I was grateful for my education, but I have always recognized that it was much more of a luxury than a professional career foundation. Without the credential, would I have been able to get on the tracks I did? Hard to say… Definitely a speculative debt — I don’t think it should be underwritten by others.

    I would be more in favor of underwriting debt for professional/trade school educational career tracks.

  4. PG wonders why borrowing for college costs (in reasonable or outsized amounts) should be privileged over healthcare or other non-discretionary debts an individual is likely to incur.

    Students have no collateral, no earnings track record, and no record of repayment. Lenders would be very hesitant to give $100k to some kid who could walk away. Government wanted to encourage lenders.

    When the government became a major lender, forgiveness of student government debt would logically have led to calls for forgiveness of tax debt. Both are debt owed to the US Treasury.

    Add in ObamaCare, and the plot thickened. Profits on student loans were budgeted as offsets to government healthcare subsidies. These were those thrilling days when that budget had people in their twenties paying back student loans and buying health insurance they didn’t need.

    I have taken a few young relatives through the math involved in the loan. It’s not hard, but they just didn’t know how these things work. I would first ask the interest rate on the loan. They didn’t know. Most didn’t at all like what they learned.

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