Faculty who believe in the liberal arts approach and who think this means that there ought to be some kind of firewall between what students study and what they do in their careers or anything else in their lives after graduation have a growing number of antagonists to contend against, most recently, several conservative governors who have announced that they will push their state’s public university system to eliminate or de-emphasize majors and departments that don’t have direct vocational objectives.
I’m one of those faculty. I’m working now on a long essay about why I think a liberal arts approach is still the right thing for most of higher education, but here’s a shorter thought.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I have no qualms about saying that a well-designed liberal arts education offers the best outcomes even in terms of employability–but “well-designed” in this case means, in part, that the connections between what you study and what you do in life must be indirect, flexible, and unpredictable. At least some liberal arts faculty tend to believe so fastidiously in that proposition, rising against any talk of usefulness or skills or careers, that they entirely cede the field of struggle to the most malicious and manipulative critics.
And yet it is very rare to find a faculty member who believes so wholly in this understanding of the liberal arts that they reject any possible life outcomes for students which do not tie them tightly to academic or scholarly institutions. Virtually every faculty member I know delights in the wide range of careers that former students have undertaken, and treasures in particular any story of how some aspect of their experience as a student relates to their later work–even when a former student describes how work and life have called into question the relevance or accuracy of something that student studied in college.
I understand–and share–fears about designing an undergraduate program of study which specifically anticipates a particular vocation or career. There’s one thing that I think we could do for our students (former and current) far more than we are doing, however.
I don’t think it’s possible to convince the current wave of Republican governors that anthropology is not “a useless major” or that the problem of employability in the contemporary American economy is not a result of inadequate vocational training, largely because I don’t think the governors in question are genuinely trying to deal with underemployment or engage in a careful argument about what education should be. They’re returning to a favorite scapegoat, the useless liberal professors, and blaming them for structural unemployment in addition to all their other sins.
But there are important actors that we can convince–or maybe support is the right word. Many employers are already convinced that a graduate who can write, speak and think well, who has learned to ask open-ended questions, who can find the tools they need to deal with problems both known and unknown, who knows how to know, is worth far more to them than the graduate who has memorized some rote procedures to perform on preset challenges. Now one problem might be that liberal arts institutions aren’t actually producing those graduates, and another might be that there aren’t enough students prepared to become those graduates. Yet another might be that there is some better way to couple the spirit of the liberal arts to practical or problem-based learning. Those are different issues.
But what we could do is give those employers more reasons to believe that they’re generally right, to tell more specific, concrete or illustrative stories about how almost anything that a liberal arts student studies can have a payoff–sometimes in what that person does directly at work, sometimes in how they approach life and its catalyzing relationship to work. Not as a promise that a particular major has a particular utility, but yes, as a series of assurances of the generativity of liberal arts for the economy, for the society, for the world. Those stories have to be more than vague hand-waving or enigmatic koans in order to give sympathizers something to fight back against the push to reduce higher education to a meanly-imagined vocational core.
Even specific vocational training needs something to suggest the unexplored possibilities, the unexamined norms, the reasons why and wherefore, all the more so in a moment of technological and economic disruption where no career or life can be taken for granted or seen as secure.
To tell the many stories of the diverse consequences of liberal education to the many people eager or ready to hear them, professors and administrators not only have to be unashamed and unafraid of those stories but also be out there in the world more among our former students–not just the ones we’ve taught personally but the ones that all our colleagues have taught. Being out there means, sometimes, that we’ll hear about the students we confused or disappointed, about the unnecessary or unhelpful limits that our curricula imposed upon them, about the ways in which we haven’t always lived up to our own belief in liberal education. We need to hear that, too, alongside the stories which more closely fit our belief that it all turns out for the best.
We need to hear it all so that we can speak those stories back–and help others to tell them as well. Staying above the fray when someone is sawing down your perch is a bad idea.