As the Academic Year Starts: Praise for the Liberal Arts

Photo: Amanda Baloun '17

Photo: Amanda Baloun ’17

While most of us in higher education have never really bought the public or the media’s arguments that colleges are failing our students, (See here or here or here), it is appropriate on the first day of the 2015-16 academic year to remember why we are engaged in this important liberal arts enterprise.

In an environment that focuses relentlessly on the instrumental value of an education–“What  can I do with that major?”–the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular have come in for withering criticism.  President Obama himself cautioned students on the challenges of being an art history major, though he ultimately apologized for the comment.

However, a recent Forbes article, which was circulated widely among college faculty, makes a strong counterargument.  The article, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket” notes that:

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.  Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing.

Tech CEO Stewart Butterfield describes how the humanities have benefitted him professionally:

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

The article goes on to explain how tech companies have found that they need soft skills and the ability to think creatively at least as much as they need tech skills.  Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates of future job growth confirm this phenomenon.

In a recent Washington Post article Fareed Zakaria seems to go even farther in his defense of the liberal arts in an article entitled, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.”  The headline seems to pit the arts against the sciences, but the term liberal arts is typically shorthand for the liberal arts and sciences.  A liberally educated person has a breadth of knowledge that includes the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and math.

The body of Zakaria’s article acknowledges this as the author touts “broad-based learning” and a “a well-rounded education.”  His point, consistent with the Forbes article, is that a narrow focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is not what is needed for innovation and to improve the world for humanity.  The countries and individuals that are the most technically proficient are rarely the most creative.  As Zakaria writes:

Americans should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking. I went through that kind of system. It has its strengths, but it’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity. That’s why most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems.

All of this simply suggests what defenders of the liberal arts have been saying all along.  Breadth, the ability to synthesize knowledge from multiple fields and the skill to make connections between disparate areas, is what makes for a truly liberal education and for the kind of success – professionally and personally – we all want for our students.

Steve Jobs explained Apple’s ability to make products and experiences that please and delight people, saying, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

So as the school year begins around the country, let us remember that the liberal arts and sciences together have improved the lives of humanity, materially and spiritually, over the centuries while also making our hearts sing.

By |August 31st, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Uncomfortable Learning Once Again: Coddling Students?

5158335259_515aa62076_zWhen something on campus reaches the cover of The Atlantic it clearly is being noticed by mainstream society.  (It may also mean the phenomenon has jumped the shark, but only time will tell.)

The cover story of the September Atlantic is about how students today approach challenging or uncomfortable ideas.  Authors Greg Lukianoff (a constitutional lawyer) and Johnathan Haidt (a social psychologist) succinctly summarize this issue in the title:  “The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”

The authors’ title is a reference to another academic controversy from the 1980s when University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom wrote a surprise bestseller called The Closing of the American Mind.  In that book, Bloom describes “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.”  He argues that post-modern education, especially in the humanities, which calls into question the existence of fixed truths, makes it nearly impossible for students to seek meaning in their own lives, to seek virtue and wisdom.

Bloom was specifically criticizing the academy and the professoriate, but what Lukianoff and Haidt focus on is the behavior of students.  Some have come to expect that a college education should not engender any intellectual or emotional pain, or even discomfort.  As the authors write that as students seek to avoid discomfort:

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

One challenge that arises in this new world is that faculty find themselves treading lightly, self-censoring what they say and present in the classroom.  “In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. ‘I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,’ the headline said.”

Some popular comedians, like Chris Rock, no longer perform at college campuses because so many students take offense at their jokes.

But the most important issue for educators is how the atmosphere on campus affects student learning, and this is what The Atlantic article focuses on.  In an attempt to protect their own emotional well-being students are seeking to make campuses “safe-spaces” that ultimately fail to educate.  The authors write:

What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?

The current environment hurts students by teaching them to think in ways that will not serve them well in their lives outside the campus bubble.

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way …. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

The authors go on in some detail to describe the psychological harm that “coddling” students might do to them, both personally and professionally.  On a personal level, “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.”  Furthermore, “It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.”

Finally, there is the harm done to the educational experience of all students, as some topics become off-limits, certain works aren’t taught and faculty emotionally dumb-down the material to match the perceived needs of the most sensitive student in the class.  Self-censoring by faculty risks making a college degree not worth the paper the diploma is printed on.

Writing on this topic for Bloomberg News, Megan McArdle notes<

A university education is supposed to accomplish two things: expose you to a wide variety of ideas and help you navigate through them; and turn you into an adult, which is to say, someone who can cope with people, and ideas, they don’t like. If the schools abdicate both functions, then the only remaining function of an education is the credential. But how much will the credential be worth when the education behind it no longer prepares you for the real world?

A college education is worth little if it does not take us outside ourselves and beyond our upbringing and communities.  Students should come to college actively seeking new ideas, experiences and people.  They should be seeking the discomfort that comes with real learning.

By |August 24th, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Is College Worth It?

It seems to be the hottest question among education journalists in the last couple years.

Forbes: Is College Still Worth It?

The Economist: Is college worth it?

Huffington Post: Is College Worth It Anymore?

New York Post: Is College Worth It?

U.S. News and World Report: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

Time: Is College Worth It?

papersAnd this month, Minnesota Monthly joins the conversation with: Is College Worth It?

To be brief and to the point: Yes.  Next question?

I was recently chided for being too flippant with this response, which is fair.  You can’t be very subtle in Twitter’s 140 characters.  But, in my more frustrated moments, the shallowness, and harmfulness, of the question does not deserve much more of a response.

College is obviously an important question for most young people and their families.  It is arguably the first major decision in a young person’s life and can have an impact for the rest of their lives.  But the analysis provided in the articles above is frankly not very helpful.

When considering an investment like a college education, students and parents obviously need to consider both costs and benefits.  The recent articles have tended to focus on the cost side, which is not surprising, given the significant growth in the real cost (inflation adjusted) of tuition over the past three to four decades.  The articles also have stressed the growth in student loan debt.  Both of these are valid concerns—to a point.

TUITION.  There is no question about how much college tuition has increased in the past few decades.  As the Minnesota Monthly article notes, for the 2015-16 academic year, “in-state tuition is more than double that for the 2002-03 school year, and five times what it cost a decade prior. Since 1985, college tuition nationally has risen more than 500 percent, outpacing even skyrocketing health-care costs.”  The graph below shows a comparison to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

chart1There are good explanations for the rate of increase in college tuition, including the economics of “producing” higher education and decreased state funding at public institutions.  (Those topics have been discussed previously in this blog.  I would also note that these understandably scary numbers do not consider financial aid for students.  Colleges work hard to ensure that students and their families can afford the education we provide.  Among the Minnesota private colleges, financial aid has managed to keep the average tuition paid by students basically flat in the past five years, even as sticker prices have risen.

But even with aid, the real cost of college tuition is certainly much higher for millennials than it was for baby boomers.  That point is indisputable.

STUDENT DEBT.  This is another topic that draws the attention of education writers.  The Minnesota Monthly article leads with this concern: “With Minnesota student debt ranking 5th in the nation, graduates worry that the benefit of their degrees may come with too steep a price.”

The average debt for the two-thirds of students who graduate with debt is approaching $30,000.  This amount is equivalent to a moderate car loan and most graduates are able to handle their student loans without too much stress.  Furthermore, in comparing the changing debt burden over time, a recent Brookings Institute analysis concluded “the monthly payment burden faced by student loan borrowers has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades.”

But again, there is no question that for some students, education debt is a burden and may affect their immediate post-graduate choices.

BENEFITS.  Tuition and debt notwithstanding, the thing that makes the value of a college education so easy to analyze is the economic benefit.  The economic benefits of a college degree are widely studied and the results are unambiguous.  In the Minnesota Monthly article, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler “cites the $1-million-plus that the average college graduate stands to earn in a lifetime over someone with only a high-school diploma—the foundation of the education-as-ticket-to-the-middle-class argument.”  Kaler’s data likely came from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce which found that “the average college graduate makes $1m more than the average high school graduate over his or her lifetime.”

What is also interesting to consider is how these benefits are changing over time. A New York Times article reports,

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

The ratio of average hourly pay, compared with pay of people with a high school degree, has risen from 1.4 in 1980 to 1.8 in 2013, and the trend line continues to slope up.

Economic benefits that average $1m over a lifetime and are growing should make the college decision a pretty easy call for most students.

HARMFUL RHETORIC.  Finally, the biggest concern I personally have over the press surrounding this question is how it gets interpreted by different groups.  Is it really the case that education journalists sit around the kitchen table and debate whether their children should go to college?  Do you know of any college graduates who tell their child, “I am not sure college is a good investment for you”?  But I can imagine a potential first generation college student having a hard conversation with a parent in which the parent says, “I’ve been reading all these article questioning the value of a college degree.  Tuition is high and you will have to borrow to complete your degree.  You are smart and hard-working.  I think maybe the best option for you is to get a job and work your way up rather than take on the expense and risk of going to college.”

Is this how to build a strong middle class for the future and to address the real concerns we have about income inequality?

Is that how to respond to the hopes and dreams of young people?

If you are only going to read one article on the value of a college education try this one: David Leonhardt, in the Everyday Economics column for the New York Times, asks, “Is College Worth It?” and answers unambiguously, “Clearly, New Data Say.”

By |August 17th, 2015|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments