Historian Francis Tench Tilgham, commenting on the democratization of higher education around the turn of the twentieth century, observed that colleges used to be a place where “boys entered […] to learn how ‘to be’ rather than how ‘to do’.” The former groomed gentlemen, the latter employees. Think historically about the upper-class white males inheriting their family business versus the benefactors of a rising meritocratic nation.
On Tuesday the Social Science Research Council published a study to accompany the book, Academically Adrift; it suggests American students learn much less than we thought in college. Here are two startling statistics:
• 45% of students showed no significant improvement in learning during the first two years.
• 36 %of students failed to show any significant gains in four years of college.
Certainly these are alarming statistics. But before we demand our money back, before we raise our pitchforks, let’s consider the elephant in the room: the purpose of higher education.
The most eloquent and compelling description of that purpose I’ve ever read comes from St. John’s College, a curriculum based entirely around reading, discussing, reflecting on classics in philosophy, literature, history, and so forth:
“St. John’s College is a community dedicated to liberal education. Such education seeks to free men and women from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions and inherited prejudices. It also endeavors to enable them to make intelligent, free choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life.”
That’s great and validating for the liberal arts folks, and ties well into the ‘to be’ model of education. Moreover, according to the same study published by the Social Science Research Council, “Students majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields, including social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time.” Compare to this: “Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications had the lowest measurable gains.
It sounds bad. And naturally the small amount of liberal arts schools will take this up and say, see, we are doing it right. They respond defensively because they think America is anti-intellectual. It’s not. Rather, America is “doing” country.
The switch of colleges’ missions from “to be” into “to do” illustrates the rising of industry and the fading of aristocracy that began in America over one hundred years ago. Just because the liberal arts majors learn more doesn’t mean they earn more. I know more liberal arts majors underemployed and unemployed than I do educators, business majors, and communications majors.
Countless educators, scholars, writers, and others place great value on the liberal arts. We often forget that, though the unexamined life may not be worth living, someone has to pay for it. Even Aristotle noted that most people will never have the luxury to explore philosophy, and by extension happiness because it requires leisure, i.e., wealth.
Capitalism and the liberal arts sometimes work at cross purposes. The former focuses on industry and action, while the latter studies and contemplates those actions. Our employable college students may not be learning as much as we thought, but how do we know they were learning any more than one hundred years ago?
Until employers start embracing critical thinking as a skill valuable as any other technical proficiency, we’ll continue to see this sort of miss-match between liberal arts, learning, and employment.
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