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New Book Discussion: <i>Liberal Arts at the Brink</i>

What is the future of liberal arts education in America?

Date & Time

Apr. 26, 2011
3:00pm – 4:30pm

New Book Discussion: <i>Liberal Arts at the Brink</i>

Author: Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., President Emeritus, Beloit College; Commentators: Scott Jaschik, Founding Editor, Inside Higher Ed; Francis Oakley, President Emeritus, Williams College

The discussion of Victor Ferrall, Jr.'s book Liberal Arts at the Brink began with a welcome from Wilson Center President, Director, and CEO Jane Harman, a graduate of Smith College, who stressed the important role of liberal arts in American public life. As Ferrall notes in his book, students in higher education have been moving away from an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, instead opting for career-focused vocational courses of study, creating broad implications for the future of American innovation and competitiveness. Liberal Arts at the Brink seeks to analyze the current state of the liberal arts education at 225 colleges across the United States and assess its prospects for the future.

Ferrall opened the discussion by highlighting the trend towards career-focused study, even at traditional liberal arts institutions, declaring, "College students, in increasing numbers, are turning away from liberal arts education." This trend, he said, has its roots in the 1960s, when colleges began opening their doors to students for whom college "was not the next regular step." As mostly first-generation collegians, these individuals wanted degrees that would enhance their career prospects and increase their earning potential, a trend that has now become the norm across higher education. At the level of the federal government, according to Ferrall, the purpose of higher education promotion has been not "preparing thoughtful citizens, but rather a trained workforce."

Ferrall went on to say that one of the major challenges facing liberal arts institutions today is finances. While top-tier schools can afford to offer almost exclusively liberal arts curricula, budgetary constraints force others to modify their offerings in order to maintain enrollment. The topic of financial aid discounting is particular concerning. "Are we selling education or buying students?" he asked.

The fierce competition between schools for students ultimately drives up costs across the board. In Ferrall's view, this approach is "exactly wrong" and is "compounding, not solving, their financial problems." The decline in demand for a liberal arts education remains the most difficult issue facing small colleges, he stressed, and its solution will require "a massive, cooperative joint effort by the colleges and universities."

Ferrell concluded by recommending that colleges and universities work together with their own distinguished alumni to highlight the benefits, both individual and collective, of a liberal arts education in order to counter the belief that vocational education is the sole path to success in America.

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Commentator Scott Jaschik noted that as a journalist he could provide an outside perspective on the challenges facing traditional liberal arts education. While college leaders often caution against overstating the decline of the liberal arts, Jaschik cited the cases of Lambuth University and Dana College as examples of schools have been forced to close their doors in recent years. Jaschik predicted that second-tier institutions (which he dubbed "the great middle") will be most deeply affected by the declining interest in liberal arts.

Without the economies of scale that larger universities enjoy, residential liberal arts colleges have no margin for error; even slight enrollment shortfalls can mean layoffs or the elimination of entire programs. This, according to Jaschik, has caused many schools to add revenue-producing majors such as business and nursing, which are outside the scope of a traditional liberal arts education. Closing on an optimistic note, Jaschik noted that as budgets are slashed across state university systems, stretching the usual length for earning a BA from four years to five, the small classes and engaged professors at liberal arts colleges help to draw in students looking to graduate on time.

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Calling Liberal Arts at the Brink "lively, informative, and stimulating" Francis Oakley, President Emeritus of Williams College, sought to provide a different perspective on the debate by suggesting that Ferrall had overemphasized the distinction between the liberal arts college and research universities. Over time, Oakley noted, this "distinction has functioned to promote the idea that the freestanding liberal arts college is something less than the American-style university rather than something other," leading to liberal arts colleges defining themselves by what they lack rather than the things at which they excel.

Delving into data on the attitudes of college faculty, Oakley argued that there is very little difference between professors at universities and liberal arts colleges when it comes to their attitudes on undergraduate teaching. In fact, he has found, a disproportionately small percentage of faculty produce much of the published scholarship, leaving the majority, at both types of schools, to concentrate on teaching.

Oakley went on to debunk the idea that there is a "zero-sum" relationship between faculty teaching and research. On the contrary, Oakley declared, "highly active researchers also tend to be highly active teachers." Despite his critiques, Oakley stressed his belief in the value of the liberal arts college, concluding that "the institutional commitment" of liberal arts colleges "to the central importance of good teaching in the liberal arts remains clear, consistent, unwavering" and "unambiguous."

By: Andrew Bedell
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies


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