Victor Ferrall’s short overview of the circumstances facing small liberal-arts colleges (SLACs) in the United States is an interesting read for anyone who works for such an institution and for any student past or present. Ferrall’s the former president of Beloit College, which accounts for the fact that the book, Liberal Arts at the Brink, sometimes gets wrapped up in “insider” concerns as well as not infrequently speaks for the quiet exasperation that many top administrators feel at times about their faculty.
I’m not sure what to think of his argument for a revival of price-setting collaboration between small liberal-arts colleges, or his general vision of how to approach tuition, but I think any student, parent of a student, or employee of a selective private college or university would find his description of competition for applicants fairly interesting. I think it’s fairly on point: selectivity is the first and last guarantee of excellent outcomes for higher education institutions. If you can convince the best potential students to come to your institution, you’re going to graduate people who reflect well on your college whether or not you do right by them while they’re students. Arguably all you have to do is avoid making them markedly worse off intellectually or practically for those four years. This is of course is why assessment is such a vexed, fretful issue for faculty and administrators in elite higher education: proving that you add value above and beyond what a bright, skilled student would be able to do without exposure to your courses, environment and resources is really difficult.
This connects to the other big theme of Ferrall’s book, which is that a liberal arts curriculum that’s clear-headed about what that term means is the source of that added value. I completely agree with Ferrall’s assertion that a clear-headed approach to the meaning of “liberal arts” paradoxically involves an insistence on its mystery, that the liberal arts approach is the complete opposite of a vocational, career-specific curriculum. A liberal arts curriculum, in his view, has to be resolutely against constrained preparation to a specific career or purpose.
I’m largely sympathetic to this view, and Ferrall uses the familiar Jedi mind-trick of insisting that this non-preparation is in fact ultimately a better preparation for many white-collar professions, that the creativity, innovation and flexibility which are recognized both as important human values and as a key to the economic future are developed best through a liberal-arts education. And yet, I’m not sure his book helps much with explaining either what the liberal arts are or how best to structure an education around them, particularly not for the skeptical publics that increasingly look for concrete vocationally-oriented returns on investment out of a college education.
At least part of his argument is aimed less at a wider public and more at faculty at small liberal-arts colleges, whom he clearly regards as less than reliable custodians of the liberal-arts ideal. Two things in particular worry him. First, that faculty are trained and professionalized around a commitment to specialized disciplinary knowledge and for that reason are willing to countenance certain kinds of vocational or narrow pursuits. Ultimately, he suggests that at least some of us are the wrong kind of people for the liberal arts, and that our wrongness is aggravated by our training. Anyone who has read this blog before know that I’m at least somewhat in agreement with this characterization. And yet it’s not clear at all how you would go about building a faculty with a wider range of preparations drawn from a wider variety of backgrounds who would still be able to teach within a college curriculum in a way that recognizably related to the teaching of other faculty. Ferrall doesn’t help at all on this score, and I’m not sure anyone could. You dance with them that brung you. So the more realistic question is what SLACs could do to provide an alternative pathway for professional advancement for their faculties that widened their base of experience and focused their attention on other audiences besides colleagues sharing their immediate specialized interests. Ferrall is very intent on arguing that selective colleges should once again be allowed to collaborate in setting the terms of their competition for qualified students, but he doesn’t have much to say about this kind of potential collective effort. I don’t know myself what such an effort might entail. I think there are some thumbs that could be placed on various scales that would make faculty with a different vision of their professional goals feel at least somewhat fulfilled or appreciated rather than being the last few freaks left on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Ferrall’s second concern is that faculty spend way too much time obsessed over curricular design. Here again, I tend to agree with his view that a liberal-arts approach can come from anywhere and anyone, that arguing over precisely which fields or subjects need to be covered at precise proportionate amounts does nothing for insuring that the institution as a whole delivers a liberal-arts approach. I’m substantially more indifferent than many of my colleagues to those kinds of concerns. However, I don’t think Ferrall is sufficiently curious about asking why faculty tend to be so emotionally and professionally invested in these kinds of conversations. I may be less so than most, but I can get my blood up pretty quickly when we start talking about whether we need this or that subject, this or that methodology, this or that discipline in particular measure. Maybe I flatter myself by thinking that I teach to the liberal arts in the spirit that Ferrall describes, but caring about the craftwork of scholarship and the substance of teaching very naturally leads into treating curricular design as a vitally important issue. That’s what a good liberal-arts teacher does in the classroom: address other subjects, other approaches, other ways of seeing and doing, in relationship to the confines of a particular topic or discipline. You have to be excited by both intellectual and practical questions (and sometimes argue that they’re the same thing) and being excited naturally means you have views about how to maximize exposure to those questions in the curriculum as a whole, how to enrich the environment for yourself, your colleagues and your students. You might end up with a very different view of how to structure the work of faculty (say, putting far more emphasis on curricular designs which promote movement of both faculty and students between and outside of disciplines) but you’re not going to be indifferent to curricular issues, as Ferrall implies faculty ought to be.
The frustrating thing for me about the book, however, is that it really does not do much to move the ball downfield in terms of the toughest challenge that SLACs face, which is convincing many Americans that the non-directedness of a true liberal-arts approach is the very best way to educate bright young people. Paradoxically, it’s getting easier and easier to convince many people outside the United States that this is right way to go, as they try to break down some of the constraints of highly vocational systems of higher education that are tightly constrained by government policies and professional licensing. Ferrall’s probably right that selective liberal-arts colleges have to be far more internally clear about what they’re doing before they try to take up a renewed attempt to persuade the public of the value of their project. Still, somebody’s going to need to help us think about how to get beyond tired old cliches like “critical thinking” whenever we feel ready to begin that approach, and Ferrall doesn’t really provide much along those lines.