Our problem with the liberal arts

Here at the Summer Session, Beloit College President Emeritus Victor Ferrall, Jr., author of Liberal Arts at the Brink, is telling his audience that liberal arts colleges are in danger.

They can’t seem to compete in an era where parents and students are being lured to more career-oriented programs, and can’t seem to convince them of the benefits of a college education.

A few tidbits from his talk (though the quotes aren’t verbatim):

“We are preoccupied with the idea that our schools are unique. Our schools aren’t unique. They’re unique in the way a Ford is unique from a Chevy.”

And that’s reflected in part in soaring discount rates, because students are comparing programs as if they were commodities:

“We need to give (a discount) because people don’t want to pay full price for our product.”

On liberal arts colleges’ inability to get through to potential students and their parents:

“These 17-year-olds and their parents are being told by (everyone) that it’s career education that matters, not liberal-arts education. We don’t bother to pitch (our case to government, business or other segments of society), just to 17-year-olds and their nervous parents. And they’re being bombarded by everyone else (who has the career-education message).”

Ferrall says colleges have relied too long on cliched benefits of a liberal-arts education, such as “critical thinking” and “communication skills.”

“What does that mean? How does it differ from plain old good thinking? (Someone once said) ‘Critical thinking is to education what faith is to religion.’ How do we persuade someone that someone learning philosophy is going to think more critically than an engineer?

What they want to hear is: ‘We’ll guarantee you a job when you graduate.’ And we can’t do that.”

Ferrall recalled talking to a friend, a highly successful businessman who never went to college. The man thought he could think as critically and communicate as effectively as any liberal arts grad.

Ferrall said:

“But he said, ‘I regret being left out of art and music and literature and culture. That’s the number one thing.’ But that’s the one thing we won’t pitch, because we’re afraid a 17-year-old won’t buy it.”

Despite all the politicians, executives and Nobel Prize winners who went to liberal arts colleges, he said:

“We’re all sensitive about this vocational-career education and try to cover it up. We cover it up, and say that many of our liberal arts courses are careers. For example, chemistry is pre-med, and economics is business. But it really isn’t. We also try to describe our (career) programs as experiential. To suggest that having an internship program is more experiential just denigrates going to college. One of my most experiential times was my four years (studying at a liberal arts college.)”