The Liberal Arts and the Great Recession

A reformed liberal arts curriculum should teach critical thinking and other skills that undergraduates can actually learn as well as job related courses that help students achieve fulfilling and socially useful careers.
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The virtues of the liberal arts for undergraduate education are in the news again these days, partly because of a new set of books and articles and the inevitable commencement addresses celebrating them.

Nonetheless, the liberal arts are being foregrounded mainly because they have been facing a powerful adversary: the Great Recession, which generates pressure to transform undergraduate education in a more vocational -- read professional -- direction. At a time when many graduates leave the campus with significant debt and then encounter serious problems in finding jobs, even so called selective colleges are being urged to do more to train their young people for the labor market.

Although the official jobless rates for college graduates remain below those of less educated young people, federal Current Population Survey data indicate that in 2011, over half of all college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed, working as truck drivers, bartenders or in fast food places. A Rutgers University study from the same year reported that only 58 percent had held a job during the year after their graduation.

While a liberal arts education is said to provide students with the intellectual heft and flexibility to conquer all labor market obstacles, one of its most loudly asserted virtue is a broadly defined skill called critical thinking.

Critical thinking is generally associated with elite research universities and selective colleges. Usually described as an educational approach that transcends lowly job-related forms of education, it nevertheless enables its practitioners to be prepared for the most prestigious jobs as well.

The definitions of critical thinking are voluminous; they include everything from Robert Ennis's well known but maddeningly general "reasonably reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do," to the analytic training to take problems apart radically, i.e. down to their roots. But critical thinking is also defined as practicing the detachment and distancing to question the conventional wisdom -- and even negatively as debunking for the sake of one-upmanship.

Unfortunately, the discussions of critical thinking rarely make direct connections to liberal arts education. Which liberal arts train students in critical thinking -- or how they do so -- is not spelled out; indeed, all liberal arts are assumed to do so.

Conversely, no evidence is offered that the social sciences, the natural sciences, or in the professional schools fail to train their people in critical thinking. In any case, the concept needs to be operationalized before we can discover whether and when the liberal arts can actually teach critical thinking to undergraduates.

The most vocal claims for the virtues of the liberal arts come from colleges that stress the study of iconic or otherwise classic texts. Nonetheless, researchers have to find out which texts and what ways of teaching them educates students in critical thinking. Equally important is learning which texts help students apply critical thinking to the real world issues beyond the campus, including the job market problems that today's students face after graduation.

In addition, the advocates of critical thinking need to consider whether and when such thinking can be learned without a college education. For example, the problems, conflicts and contradictions people must cope with in everyday life probably require less educated people to think critically -- and poor people even more so. Could it also be possible that some very young people learn critical thinking to reconcile their parents' preaching and practice. Or that teenagers may employ critical thinking to survive the social combat that takes place in adolescent society.

Liberal Arts and Career Training

None of the foregoing observations are meant to dismiss the liberal arts -- or the teaching of critical thinking -- sui generis. What's wrong are unjustified and unprovable claims for both, as well as arguments that they are superior to -- and thus make unnecessary -- any attempts to teach insights and skills that they will need in today's job market.

Equally wrong is the assumption that going to college for job, career, and other economic reasons is acceptable for the less affluent young people who attend vocational schools, community colleges and for-profit universities. So is the parallel assumption that job related training is unnecessary, and in fact crass and illiberal for the students that attend four-year colleges, and especially selective and otherwise elite schools. But even critical thinkers have to eat, and graduates of elite schools currently suffer from high unemployment and underemployment rates too.

Perhaps this assumption made sense in the past, when such schools trained mostly students who would go to work in family firms or in prestigious organizations and agencies that hired only the graduates of such schools.

Actually, there is no good reason for an adversarial relationship between the liberal arts and career oriented training, but good reason for combining the two in a constructive manner. Moreover, liberal arts courses that relate to career issues can contribute context, breadth and depth to all students, whatever their eventual careers.

For example, history departments can teach courses on the histories of the professions and other occupations that most undergraduates will choose; they can also teach the problems they have had to solve or evade -- and all the way back to the rise of civilization, however defined. Students who wind up in Wall Street would benefit from history courses on investment, speculation and risk management through the ages, beginning with biblical references to usury and Jesus' confrontation of the temple money changers.

English, literature and arts departments can offer courses on how an array of professions and other occupations -- and their problems -- have been depicted in literature and the arts, again far back into the past. American studies and popular culture departments could teach similar courses on their treatment across the various media.

The social sciences can shed other lights on the professions and their problems. Economics and business schools should be teaching undergraduate courses on the economics of various professions. Medical economics is already an established subdiscipline. Sociology and social anthropology can teach courses on the roles the various professions and occupations play in -- as well as the problems they cause for -- society. Together with law schools, they could inform students about the social and legal responsibilities they exercise and should exercise.

A joint liberal arts-career curriculum should interest the students who have already chosen their careers.

However, students who are still trying to figure out what they want to do may be helped even more, as are the numerous others who put off thinking about their occupational future and trust either to elite luck or to Wall Street or graduate school after they obtain their college degrees.

None of these courses, and the many possible others that can be added to this list should be required. The same is true of standard liberal arts courses. While some should be offered during the first year, others, particularly those that concentrate on the reading of classic texts should be put off until later, when students can better understand why and how these are relevant to their schooling, and their post school lives.

True, a college education must begin with some required courses, if only to provide a shared set of experiences to first year students. However, these courses ought to focus on the learning skills as well as the analytic and related techniques and conceptual frameworks needed during the rest of college. They must also help students deal with the intellectual confusion and feelings of being lost that beset many first years.

The first year curriculum might also include an introductory liberal arts or other course that teaches the beginnings of critical thinking. This course should begin with subjects and issues that first years have already been thinking about and with problems they have been trying to solve.

Another course might tackle not Western civilization but today's America, teaching critical thinking about every day issues and conflicts in everyday social, economic and political life. (In a country that takes democracy seriously, these courses should properly begin in high school.)

The Great Recession will end some day and the labor market for college graduates may recover, even if it does not return to the levels it reached during past periods of prosperity. Still, the current adversary relationship between the liberal arts and career concerns should disappear. Instead, a reformed liberal arts curriculum should teach critical thinking and other skills that undergraduates can actually learn as well as job related courses that help students achieve fulfilling and socially useful careers.

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