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Do the liberal arts need saving?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. At the beginning of the 20th Century only a small minority of young people pursued their education beyond high school. For many of those, a liberal arts education steeped in classical literature, foreign language and mathematics was seen as a rite of passage. Today, despite a greatly expanded student population, the numbers of those choosing to attend such old-fashioned liberal arts schools appears to have declined. Instead, with college costs going up sharply, most students are pursuing an education that will prepare them directly for a job. Is this as it should be, or are we dumbing down America?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by a group of distinguished academics, Richard Hersh, past president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and now senior fellow at the Rand Corporation's Council for Aid to Education; George Dennis O'Brien, president emeritus at the University of Rochester and author of All The Essential Half Truths About Higher Education; Jane Margaret O'Brien, president of St. Mary's College, a public liberal arts institution in Maryland; and Josiah Bunting, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, and author of An Education for Our Time. The topic before the house, do the liberal arts need saving, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: In the years following the Second World War, the GI Bill put higher education within the reach of many working class families. College was seen as a mass ticket to a higher standard of living. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of undergraduate students in the United States grew by 500 percent. Graduate students by 900 percent. Over the decades, the number of colleges and universities doubled to nearly 4,000. Today, higher education has become the norm. According to the National Center For Education Statistics, two-thirds of today's high school students will end up with at least some college education, a greater proportion than in any country in the world.

The student population they will encounter is increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, and age. Some critics say colleges have dumbed down the curriculum to appeal to this broader range of students. The argument is made that colleges no longer produce truly educated men and women capable of critical thinking, but instead are selling whatever the public is willing to buy, and charging whatever the market will bear. Others say, colleges are simply adapting to the times.

Lady, gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Let me toss this one on the table, we alluded to it in the set up piece, that in the allegedly golden earlier era, the earlier era is always golden, people went to these liberal arts colleges and learned all about Western civilization, and history, and economics, and literature. I, in fact, went to such a program at Hobart and William Smith before Dick Hersh was president there. And that this was supposed to provide you with a classical, well-rounded education that could fit you for all manners of occupations. Is this an outdated concept now?

MR. HERSH: The concept of the purpose and intent of a liberal education is as important now as it ever was, that liberal arts education in this country is in trouble is true, largely because of the McUniversities that we've created. People think that you can have learning malls in the same way that we have shopping malls, and that the consumerism that we now have has changed the culture's sense of worth and value of what an education is. People have confused certification and degrees with being educated. People have confused training with being educated.

What liberal education does is it reminds us that we're still human beings as we've always been, we have the exact same needs, we have the same abilities of being able to think and feel and make sense of the world, it's just faster now.

MS. O'BRIEN: I would say that the large public university is increasingly attractive to families and students as a consumer product. They like the amenities, they like the urban cultural experience, and they like the diversity. I would argue that the liberal arts colleges need to transform more than anything.

MR. BUNTING: I think the genius of the American education system is that it has developed over a couple of centuries, very singular colleges, very passionate about what they're doing on their own campus, colleges like Grinnell, Haverford, Reed, my own school of VMI, St. John's College in Annapolis. They take kind of an evangelizing mission, they're very passionate about what they teach, they recruit faculty who are very passionate about what they are teaching, and the students see the results in their own professors, with whom, incidentally, they spend a great deal of time.

The problem is, we live in a culture which values very early material success and celebrity. In these colleges, they can evangelize on their own campuses, but I think they also have a national mission to demonstrate the effects of the efficacy of their kind of education nationally, and by and large they have not done that very well.

MR. O'BRIEN: The question about what's wrong with liberal arts depends on what you think the liberal arts are. There are two big traditions of the liberal arts. One of the liberal arts is the 19th Century notion of liberal arts, which is the recover of past civilizations so that you can pass them on and apply them in your own time. The other is the discovery of new knowledge.

What happened in the 20th Century, because of the dominance of science, is we moved from a philosophy of education which was very largely directed towards recovery of those things which were valuable in the past, what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed, to the notion of we're not quite sure what we know, therefore we have to be critical and discover new truths. I would say some of the best education being done in the United States places like Notre Dame, where they still have an evangelical sense which envelopes and frames the institution such that the disparate faculty specialities all have a kind of purpose for being there. Take that evangelical sense away, and the institution begins to divide itself into simply a collection of various people doing critical and discovering things, all of which are very interesting, all of which can be called liberal arts. You can call-- I remember Robert Maynard Hutchins once said that if Socrates were to teach a course on auto mechanics, it would be a liberal art, because it would be critical in discovery. That's one view of the liberal arts.

The other is, there's content--

MR. WATTENBERG: You can just see him with those overall, and it says Socrates on it.

MS. O'BRIEN: But, Ben, the reality also is that much of the analysis that our prospective students and families undertake is undertaken in the absence of the true evaluation of the liberal arts, and in the perspective of consumer amenities. And, consequently, liberal arts colleges, which are often rural, and often not as technologically nimble as our university counterparts, find ourselves challenged with new malls, as you said, Dick, facilities that include spas and golf courses, and you find that--

MR. WATTENBERG: In the major universities?

MS. O'BRIEN: Well, yes. In Gainesville, who has just, I believe, put in a large golf course next to one of the residence facilities. And, quite frankly, our consumer society looks at an awful lot of the trappings as much as they look at the education. I was at an admissions event for a high school the other day, and the host had asked the students, five of them, tell us your dreams, lawyer, judge, marital counselor, and multimillionaire. Those were the five. We reflect our society. We reflect our society in the way that we look at education, and I think that is the challenge for the liberal arts.

MR. WATTENBERG: Cy, your book describes the creation in fictional form but there's obviously you believe of something quite antithetical to this consumer driven McUniversity. Could you just tell us in brief.

MR. BUNTING: I think many of our colleges have been brought into being with a civic mission, an avowedly civic mission. Their early statements bristle with words like honorable, just, obligation to lead, civic, that kind of thing. The majority of our colleges nowadays abandon those thoughts on page one of the catalogue and move into some completely different area. In my judgment, in an ideal college, you have an adult cohort, faculty, administrators, and others, who believe passionately in what they are doing, and who offer their courses in such a way as to inspire the young, and who in the way they live their lives, literally model the mature benefits of what it is that they are teaching. In order to have that kind of a college or a university, what becomes critical and urgent is that you have an instinct for hiring the sorts of people who have been led to that work.

MR. WATTENBERG: But there is also an intense disciplinarian notion and patriotic notion.


MR. WATTENBERG: It's kind of cold showers at 5:00 in the morning, and hit the track, and less literature, more history.
MR. BUNTING: Much more history, it's interesting that the founding generation, many of whom did not go to college at all, thought more clearly, wrote more eloquently than we did. They were soaked in history, particularly Roman and Greek history, the Old Testament of the Bible. They read very few things, but what they read was choice.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you say the founders did not go to college for the most part?

MR. BUNTING: They went to-- a few went to William and Mary, or Princeton, or Columbia, it will now be called Columbia College, but for the most part they were self-educated people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Benjamin Franklin did not go to college.

MR. O'BRIEN: Benjamin Franklin did not go to college. My alma mater has the slogan, for God, for country and for Yale, which has been called the greatest anticlimax in the history of Western civilization, and that was where they were in the old days. They had an evangelical sense. There were sense of values which enveloped the institution. So if you were teaching the classics, or history, it was because you wished to, as the General says in his book, hold up objects of emulation.

MR. HERSH: I think that we have to remember that 99 percent of the students in this country are going to large institutions. But that doesn't mean they can't be liberally educated. I think the real issue is that higher education has lost its courage to say what ought to be learned, maintain high standards, and be demanding of youth, and have really capitulated in a relativistic way that there's almost an unwritten contract, we won't ask much of you if you don't ask much of us.

MR. WATTENBERG: How much of that is related to this alleged wave of political correctitude, that there is an ideology there that purposefully reconstructs Western civilization at its glory, and how much of that is just the McUniversity mauling of education? I mean, it has become, and we've shown some numbers, it has become an incredibly huge industry. It's the biggest industry in America, education.

MR. BUNTING: The biggest single industry in America in terms of the number of people employed.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the ascendant slope of the college education line is truly incredible.

MR. O'BRIEN: I think the political correctness issue, the whole deconstructionist thing, which has contributed, I think to a belief that there is no truth and everything is contextualized, that has contributed some to, I think, the loss of agreement in higher education about what a curriculum should look like, what students should be able to do. I don't think that's the bigger issue. I think the big issue is that a large part of the 'professori' that is now teaching has come through an education system post-'60s in which, in fact, we began losing the notion that there can be something we can agree on. That, in fact, the purpose of education changed insidiously. It was unintentional. And that's now been reified in ongoing curricula. You couple that with the fact that most colleges and universities in this country have to fiscally stay stable so that, in fact, they are, themselves, marketing having to get students to pay one way or the other, state or private. And it turns out then how many places feel comfortable in having high enough standards at admissions or retaining students so you don't lose that revenue.

MR. WATTENBERG: The revenue, it's interesting, I once heard someone describe the job description of a college president is, you live in a big white house and beg for a living. Do you all face that?

MR. O'BRIEN: I'm a state school, we don't have to beg quite so much.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you're a state school?

MS. O'BRIEN: Yes, but we also do a lot of fund-raising.

MR. WATTENBERG: You do a lot of begging also.

MS. O'BRIEN: Well, I don't live in a big house.

MR. HERSH: It is interesting that a relatively small percentage of these schools are what we would call liberal arts colleges.

MR. WATTENBERG: There's a definitional problem here, isn't there. I mean, like Harvardis not counted, Harvard College, is not counted as a liberal arts college, and yet it's a liberal arts college.

MS. O'BRIEN: Formally by the Carnegie classification, which we mostly follow, it is 50 percent of the degrees have to be from the arts and sciences to be classified as the liberal arts.

MR. WATTENBERG: But it's part of a huge mega-university as well.

MS. O'BRIEN: Well, and the other restriction that Carnegie puts on is size, so that typically the size is under 2,000. I think that's gone up in the last variation.

MR. O'BRIEN: I was going to make the point that however you define these prestigious liberal arts colleges, even though they're a very small percentage of the opportunities available, they are now coveted by the leading cohort of this generation. They want admission at these places, they want it early, they can hold it up like a battle trophy, but they seem to want it for all of the wrong reasons. I want to be admitted to Princeton or Brown or Stanford or Dartmouth, they don't for the most part think about what the relationship would be as a freshman with a teacher of Greek. They're not seeking education at these places for the things that we were talking about.

MR. WATTENBERG: And, do you think it's important for students in the 21st Century to learn Greek?

MR. O'BRIEN: If not Greek, something equally abstruse, equally demanding, and equally unforgiving as a discipline, certainly.

MR. WATTENBERG: How do you deal with the money problem, the costs of education? I was just looking at some of the charts, just in real dollars among private schools have gone like that.

MR. O'BRIEN: The price, Ben, the price.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, the price.

MR. O'BRIEN: The cost is different.

MR. WATTENBERG: The check that the parent has to write has doubled for roughly the same education, and this, it seems to me, is driving the idea that what am I getting for my money, and it's got to be something less amorphous than my kid's learning Cicero.

MR. HERSH: But that's part of the problem. The culture has so materialized the meaning of education. I would argue strongly that the notion of liberal education is not simply an issue of what one learns, it is the content, which we can have a big debate about as well, but it's also how one learns. The fact of the matter is, a hand-crafted education in which you are mentored, people are questioning you, people know who you are, people are giving you feedback on papers, people are asking you questions, there is a dialogue, it's a transformative education. It's much more like--

MR. WATTENBERG: And this is not happening in the learning malls, as you put it, not as much?

MR. HERSH: You're getting distance education in lecture halls of 2,000 and you're in the 15th row. Education is becoming a commodity as opposed to a process by which you become somebody different than you were when you entered. As long as we have reduced the notion of education to something two-dimensional, we're going to value it as if, in fact, it can be bought anywhere.

MR. WATTENBERG: And your studies indicate that it's a good buy to get a hand-crafted, liberal, more expensive education. You've surveyed CEOs, and while the parents and the students say, where's the job, where's the job, the CEOs are looking for men and women of broader range.

MR. HERSH: CEOs are saying, we've made huge gains in our industries using technology, we've now reached the point where technology is not going to make the big difference, we need what they're calling human capital, we need people who are educated in ways in which we would argue are liberally educated, and they use that language. The difference is they don't hire them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Dennis went like this, now you have to explain that.

MR. O'BRIEN: When Joe Murphy was president of Bennington he was making the same speech that Dick made so eloquently about the CEOs wanting to have this, and so forth, and one of his trustees said, you're right, in my corporation we need people are broadly educated, we only need one of them, that's me. And the problem is, the CEOs, if they started hiring students as CEOs, it would be very helpful. But when the recruiters come to campus, they often want to have what do you know specifically, and that's a great pressure on the kids.

MS. O'BRIEN: If you do look, Ben, though back to what Dick was saying, I've had parents express this at the liberal arts, is it takes the risk out of education for parents. Parents see the graduation rates, and realize that if 80, 90, 95 percent of the students who begin will also graduate, persist to graduation, versus large universities which are often below 50 percent, you find that a smart parent, a good consumer, understands that. But I think the challenge for us is that the large universities have begun to understand this, that if you can create the village within the large city, and do honors programs well, and remove that risk, you can capture the hearts particularly of the upper middle class. That is the group that has been most impressed now by that currency of university of--

MR. WATTENBERG: Cy, is this, let's call it political correctness movement, which has tended to vitiate some of these earlier standards that we were talking about, has that rippled across VMI as well?

MR. BUNTING: No. It has not. One of the great dangers of what we call political correctness, which I do think is a sort of a 1990s phenomenon, is that it tended to inhibit free intercourse, free exchange of ideas among colleagues and friends working in the same community. In other words, you deliberately pull your punch before you say anything for fear you might give offense. If you're working in the context of a community in which all are laboring towards the same end, that never comes up.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Listen, we are out of time. Let us go ahead into the future ten years, what would you like to see happen in the next ten years in terms of liberal arts education? I mean, everyone says in America education is the number one issue, and here we have four distinguished people in a particular part of it, a very important part of it, what ought to happen that's realistic?

MR. BUNTING: I would like somehow for it to be possible for our best young people now in college to hear and answer a vocation to teach in colleges. That is to say, for reasons other than early celebrity or fame or riches, they would finish college with a very clear idea of wanting to give back, and give back by being a college teacher.

MR. WATTENBERG: Maggie, what's your fond thoughts for the future?

MS. O'BRIEN: I would like to see us in our academic performances keep the creativity and enhance the performance in our eyes both quantitative, the written, the writing, all those technological, all need to be performance-based, I'd like to see that increased through more creative teaching, learning environments. I would love to see the residential environments of the liberal arts in particular preserved as villages. We need to cherish that as much as we cherish the large cities and the large urban environments. And, as Cy said, I would love to see all the liberal arts colleges take on the mantle of civic virtue in a way that is part of our heritage, but I agree with both Dick and Cy, something that is perhaps not as central right now in our focus.

MR. O'BRIEN: What I would like to see is graduate schools in the United States have an intensive program for their Ph.D. graduates who are going on into college teaching, because I think that's where we're going to continue. The general's idea is an interesting one. But I think we're going to continue to recruit Ph.D.s for college teaching, to have them have an intensive experience about the history and philosophy of higher education, not just about how to physics is done or philosophy is done, but what's been going on in higher education since the University of Babylonia was founded, because it's been a whole series of different assumptions in societies about higher education.

MR. WATTENBERG: Maybe then the rap on teaching teachers is that you shouldn't be teaching teaching, but you should be teaching what you're teaching about.

MR. O'BRIEN: Well, the worry is that you go into a university and you're put on the curriculum committee, and you're told, we're going to put together a curriculum. The only thing I know is physics, the only thing I know is chemistry. I don't know anything about education, or what we're supposed to be doing, but I can teach people physics. That's an interesting thing. You want to have people who really know how to teach physics, but do they know what it is that higher education is supposed to be all about? Could they participate as well in this discussion as these folks who have been here today?


MR. HERSH: T.S. Eliot said that the paradox of human consciousness was the fact that we had the experience, but missed the meaning. And my hope is that in the next 10 or 12 years, higher education takes the lead in reminding society that the authority of knowledge, and the moral authority of knowledge that we have still has some resonance, and that, in fact, it is an answer, a fairly antique answer, as it turns out, and hand-crafted. That is, the answer to some of our ills as a society is education, if we mean education, as opposed to simply the empty calories that we now claim to be degrees.

MR. WATTENBERG: And no more empty calories.

Thank you, Cy Bunting, Dennis O'Brien, Maggie O'Brien, Dick Hersh, and thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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