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Rethinking the Liberal Arts in 2012-13:

Why Now?

The education offered within the liberal arts tradition has long been an integral part of America’s history. Today, as our democratic society faces new challenges and seeks new opportunities within a dynamic global landscape, we at Wofford believe a liberal arts education is all the more important for our future. Re:Thinking Education is a yearlong conversation that renews our commitment to the liberal arts today. Our conversation revolves around key questions we will explore together as a community:

  • How do we educate students to become active citizens in a complex, and often polarized, global society?
  • Can our model of productive, thoughtful dialogue, debate, and problem-solving address real challenges in a rapidly changing world?
  • How does Wofford deliver a transformative educational experience for students, and how does this differentiate us from our peers in higher education?
  • Most importantly, perhaps, what does this education mean for our students and for us, as professionals, citizens, and members of a community?

There is an urgency to these questions given the consensus of a mounting crisis within American higher education. While it has been relatively easy for critics to identify the most obvious symptoms of the crisis – escalating costs, declining job prospects for college graduates – the causes of the breakdown are both subtler and more problematic. Two general models of criticism have emerged to shape the public examination of higher education. In the first, critics apply a cost-benefit analysis to argue that the costs of a college education, including the debt-burden students incur, far exceed the expected benefits of employment possibilities and earning potential. Popular pundits have increasingly reached the conclusion that American higher education is failing its students: it is not providing them the practical tools that will enable them to succeed in the job market, particularly if they major in “impractical” disciplines like philosophy, art history, and anthropology. Politicians and public policy makers, influenced by this popular cost-benefit evaluation of higher education, have responded by funneling public funds to disciplines considered “practical” (like science, mathematics, technology, and engineering); by proposing legislation to help address the rising costs of higher education; and by targeting budget cuts at departments and programs thought to be under-enrolled or simply “impractical” – frequently programs associated with the humanities and fine arts.  

In the second general model of criticism, scholars of the education system argue that American colleges and universities have abandoned their obligations to teach students higher-order cognitive skills, and as a result students graduate with only minimal increases in their abilities to think and write both broadly and critically within a variety of disciplines. Higher education is, in the words of one widely-read analysis, “academically adrift,” and students are paying the price, measured not necessarily in post-graduation salaries but instead in failure to gain new competencies necessary to thrive in a globally-interconnected and complex future.

In both models of criticism, the shortcomings identified are located within the powerhouses of American higher education: the large research university, where both resources and enrollments have invited public scrutiny. Mostly escaping this negative criticism, however, is the liberal arts college, which offers a type of education distinctive from that of the large university. In fact, critics who point to students’ lack of growth within the university system point to certain bright spots in undergraduate education: institutions that prioritize broad-based undergraduate education for an increasingly complex, globally-connected world; curricula that emphasize the acquisition of the skills of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication; and instruction that engages in high-impact teaching practices. More often than not, these bright spots in undergraduate education are found at liberal arts colleges.

The liberal arts college has always occupied a place in American culture defined by ideals of citizenship and responsibility. Its curriculum rests on depth and breadth, frequently in the form of interdisciplinarity. Students are encouraged to discern connections across a wide array of topics in the humanities, fine arts, sciences and social sciences – all within intimate classroom settings that foster participatory engagement. Broad inquiry, thoughtful discussion, and lively debate draw practitioners of the liberal arts – learners as well as teachers – together in a community that changes everyone who becomes a part of it. And, as studies demonstrate, those who receive a liberal arts education are not only best equipped for the job market, they are also most likely to become the civically engaged and socially active citizens necessary for a robust democracy to flourish.

Conclusion 

Given the current era of increased scrutiny of higher education, it is time now to re-examine the crucial importance of the liberal arts tradition. Re:Thinking Education will therefore consist of a yearlong program of various public lectures, symposia, conversation circles, and other in-person and “virtual” initiatives, the goals of which will be

  • to reeducate ourselves about the history and purpose of the liberal arts in higher education;
  • to reassert the effectiveness of the liberal arts to empower undergraduates for global citizenship;
  • to reclaim and reenvision Wofford’s institutional identity as a 21st century college of the liberal arts and sciences.

For the sake of our shared future, for diverse communities here and beyond our borders, and for an ever-changing landscape of global commerce, it is time for Wofford College to rethink, re-imagine, reenvision higher education in the 21st century. Over the course of this year, we expect to challenge and inspire, to transform and be transformed, and by so doing, to lead in conversations about education in America and the place of the liberal arts in a world that can benefit tremendously from the way we teach and learn.