There are folks–oh, say, Matt Yglesias for example–who can’t seem to resist being prompted to rush to the spectator stands at Thunderdome when an academic department or discipline has been picked out by managerialist bean-counters as the esoteric waste of resources du jour. But this is quintessential concern trollery. A German Studies Department at the University of Virginia is not the cause of low graduation rates at a non-selective branch campus of an underfunded public university system or community college. If the issue is poor retention and graduation of the most academically underprepared students in higher education, and the costs that they and their families incur, let’s talk about that. That’s a different conversation, and it’s one that has been going on for quite a while.
If the issue is, “What subjects should a liberal arts curriculum have? How many faculty positions should there be in an institution? What should be a major or a department?” you have to talk about those questions comprehensively. Letting yourself be led around by the nose or your own shoot-from-the-hip perceptions of what’s important may have a shits-and-giggles pleasure to it but it would a lousy, autocratic way to actually make decisions about resource allocation.
You have to start with an overall philosophy. If your first principle is, “The curriculum should privilege practical knowledge that can be put to immediate use in existing careers, and therefore be shaped by the declared needs of employers”, then ok. Recognize where that view leads you: most likely to some kind of vocational, pre-professional or trade school. It’s a viable approach, it exists in the world. You can hybridize this strategy with a liberal arts approach, aiming at creating “well-rounded” professionals, and that also can work. Or not. The downside to either is that the education on offer is narrow and highly instrumental, and that its content is largely set by organizations and interests outside of the educational institution itself. In a stable trade that has fairly straightforward technical requirements and a good economic outlook, this can make a lot of sense. (Let me know how many of those you think there are: my sense is, ‘Not many’.)
If you agree from the outset that an overly instrumental, externally-driven set of priorities is mostly the wrong way to go about designing and staffing an undergraduate curriculum, if you support some version of the liberal arts ideal, then you have a much harder and necessarily perpetually unfinished job ahead of you. Tenure complicates (and possibly enriches) your task somewhat in that many of your decisions about staffing will have lasting effect for twenty or thirty years.
But it’s crucial to think about the big picture first, last and always in imagining what you have to have in a liberal arts institution. No allocation of resources makes sense in isolation. Or perhaps the right way to put it is that all allocation of resources make sense in isolation. Almost all disciplines, departments, programs and specializations can provide a narrative about how they are essential and eternal.
In my view, they’re all right in some sense and completely wrong in another. There is, for example, no subject which cannot be taught in a way that is actively and aggressively opposed to the liberal arts ideal. Philosophy, history, biology, economics, math, classics, linguistics: you name it, if it’s taught as an exclusive stand-alone subject, a self-justified discipline, an isolate pursued in monastic purity, it’s against the liberal arts. Which means for one that when you’re making decisions about resource allocations, focusing on the subject can be a red herring. You don’t judge disciplines as a Platonic form. You judge them in usage, in practice, by actual people in actual departments. There is no subject in a liberal arts institution which is intrinsically obscure or forbidding. Any subject can be made relevant, powerful and transformative in the hands of the right professor, the right department, the right curriculum. So resource allocation is as much about the adroit management of people, about the cultivation of possibility, as it is about abstract metrics. Everything can be obscure. Everything can be vitally relevant.
You can solve the problem of the unlimited openness of such an approach with a core curriculum. The problem with a core curriculum is that it tries to dictate what must be earned, to invest authority on the deserving and undeserving alike. A core curriculum only works, in my view, if it’s strong, comprehensive and philosophically coherent. Adopted in a half-hearted way, they’re usually just a la carte exercises in institutional politics. A coherent core curriculum is a statement about what everyone must know: you should be able to justify it in the absence of any given faculty, any given institution, any given group of students. If there’s one thing wrong inside and outside of academia, it’s people who argue for a core curriculum only when it suits their immediate and self-interested needs. You are either in or out on this point. If there are essential subjects, you have to stick to that view consistently, and argue it in your classes and outside of them. Canons aren’t just weapons for sieges.
If you don’t have a core curriculum, and leave it largely to students to find their own path through their studies, you still have to consider where the traffic is. Our students, our communities, our publics have maps of what they think matters and what they think doesn’t matter. When you’re on the map in the latter neighborhood, it’s your job to get the world to beat a path to your door. When you’re in a crowded neighborhood that everyone wants to live in, it’s still your job to make your place special, enduring, meaningful, to not just coast on unearned adoration. But no matter how hard faculty and staff work, those maps direct the traffic. So at least some resources have to be allocated accordingly, just as in the real world: when people congregate, there’s only so much you can do to route them elsewhere. In the end, the key metric is, “How many students can you accommodate, and how small do you want or need your classes to be”? That’s determined by your total resources. After that, it’s a matter of shifting as many as you can from the overcrowded neighborhoods to the underused ones.
Changes in what we know and how we know it matter too. I’ve said before here that my own preference in curricular planning is less for coverage, which I think is a fool’s game whether you’re big or small, and more for heterogeneity. Especially in a smaller institution, I’d rather have fifty people doing fifty different things with fifty different methods than five groups of ten doing five things with five methods–as long as they were all prepared to talk with and understand each other, and teach students to do the same.
Continuity matters. What you have at any given moment, if everyone takes the liberal arts ideal seriously, is as good as anything else. That doesn’t help when there’s a question about what to change when someone retires or resigns, but it does mean that grass-is-greener arguments are always misguided and sometimes malicious. A subject that seems dead is just waiting for the right person to bring it to life. Or the right curricular design: more than a few departments in academia hurt themselves by clinging to a forbidding or hostile structure for a program of study. If it were practical, with every single vacancy at a liberal arts college, I’d write an ad that says “Interesting intellectual wanted, must be able to teach, must have an area of specialized competency but also be interested in other subjects and disciplines.” And then we’d sit down and sift through fifty thousand applications–which is why no one could really do it that way. (Hey, St. John’s, how do you handle your hiring?) But for the same reason, you could just as easily say that what you have is just fine, if you have enough intellectual diversity, if what you have is being approached in the right spirit and the problem of traffic management is considered as appropriate.
I’m very open in the way I think about these choices. There are more constrained ways to approach making these decisions. But the worst of all worlds is to be manipulated into throwing stones at some flavor-of-the-month discipline that the news cycle has thrown up as a self-evidently luxurious and pointless activity. What that usually involves is a kind of back-door vocationalism, a not-brand-X utilitarianism that really amounts to nothing more than whatever intellectual prejudices come to hand. Every discipline has its Henry Ford who will declare it bunk. Every discipline has its snake-oil salesman that can insidiously afflict it upon millions as an unwanted hurdle in their daily lives. And every discipline has its messiah who can show countless students how they were waiting all along to think about life in a new way.