On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

NZ Media on the BA Degree: “Bachelor of Bugger All”

The BA’s reputation has been progressively eroded – no-one seems to know exactly how or why. It became seen as the degree for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. The degree for layabouts seeking fewer teaching hours. The degree for lightweights without the smarts to do anything else.

And then came the jokes: “What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? ‘Would you like fries with that?’

In a world of high university fees and high youth unemployment, the acid of negativity seems to be finally etching its mark.

In the face of falling enrolments, Otago University plans to cut about 16 staff in five arts departments. Victoria University is restructuring its language departments, with job losses, after student numbers fell up to 30 per cent in five years. Auckland University arts enrolments have dived 9 per cent since 2010. Nationwide, arts deans are desperately talking up their degrees and reshaping their structure to make graduates more employable.

It’s one of the first questions prospective BA students ask Liz Medford: Is it going to get me a job?

The Victoria University careers manager has been dishing out advice for 29 years. She’s surveyed 300-odd employers since 1996 and their demands have barely changed – verbal and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, teamwork.

“The skills of a BA are just as useful today as they’ve ever been.”

What has changed is higher fees and parents and students opting for the security of a degree that appears more marketable. But there has to be time for exploration, she says.

Stuff.co.nz, “The university debate – a place for passion or a ticket to a job?”, 17 December 2016

As I’ve previously written, vocational or professional degrees are about how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson—whereas an arts degree is about what you should do. The BA is about having time and space to explore intellectually so that you can then make a properly informed decision about the vocation you wish to commit to—which can then be studied at the postgraduate level. It’s an expensive use of time, to be sure—but it has always seemed to me far more expensive to wake up one day towards the end of a vocational degree, or even later, only to have worked out that that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life.

That’s why I’m such a proponent of the US higher education system, because the BA and BSc are structurally built in as the only option for an undergraduate degree. It’s a real shame that articles like this one—in addition to propagating nasty generalisations and stereotypes—fail to point out alternative systems, taking ours as universal.

A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

An introduction to American higher education and the liberal arts for New Zealanders and Australians considering tertiary study in the US

Applying as a New Zealander to study for university in the United States was a daunting process. There were so many things I’d never heard of: the SATs, the Common App, “safety schools”, “reach schools”, financial aid, liberal arts, to name just a few. But I think what made the process most daunting right from the start—and what made it difficult to find the right information—was that I didn’t understand the fundamental terms to describe the university itself in the American system.

Americans do not go to university for undergraduate study. They go to “college”. In New Zealand everyone talks about going to “uni” straight out of high school, and we’ll be choosing between doing law, medicine, commerce, engineering, architecture, and other vocational degrees. But when you go to American universities’ websites to look at studying those things, you’ll soon see that all of them require a “college” degree as a prerequisite. And no, that doesn’t mean a high school diploma, despite us in NZ using “college” to refer to high school. This can all be overwhelming and can make little sense for those of us in countries that follow a roughly “British” model of education, and it’s something I get asked about often. So here’s a brief guide.

The first thing to know is that in the American system of higher education (that’s what we call “tertiary” education), you can only complete a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science for your undergraduate degree. That’s right—no BCom, MB ChB, LLB, BAS, BE etc. In the United States, your undergraduate degree will only be a BA or a BSc, with honours, and it will take you four years to complete. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are in a very small minority). The “honours” part is usually not optional, as it is in Australia or New Zealand—if you get into the college, you’re going to do the honours part of the degree. This is why you’ll often hear many top schools in the United States called “honours colleges”, because simply by being admitted, every student is doing an honours program—it’s not something you apply for in your third year of study depending on how well you’ve done so far, as it is in New Zealand and Australia.

The term “college” itself comes from the fact that traditionally, higher education in America was conducted at liberal arts colleges. There were no universities. Yale was Yale College, not Yale University. Harvard was likewise Harvard College. These were usually small institutions at which students spent four years (as they do today) and completed a BA(Hons) (as they do today), and what made them truly unique was that all students lived on campus accommodation for all four years of their education (as they do today). Very often, professors lived and dined with students as well (as they often still do today!) So “college” is a physical place where you live and study for four years while completing your undergraduate education.

Universities later grew up around the colleges and began to offer professional or vocational degrees, which in the American system can only be studied at the postgraduate level. Yale University today, for instance, is now comprised of fourteen “schools”—one of which is Yale College, the only part of Yale to offer an undergraduate education. The other thirteen schools all offer postgraduate degrees, and twelve of them offer professional/vocational degrees—law, medicine, architecture, business, and so on. And yes, you first need an undergraduate “college” degree (or an equivalent undergraduate degree from another country) to gain admission into one of the “schools”.

So “colleges” are now often small parts of overall universities in the United States, but they remain an important centre for the whole institution. Sometimes, the original colleges declined to set up larger universities around the small college—these are now usually referred to as “small liberal arts colleges”, where the whole institution still only offers a BA or a BSc with Honours. Examples are Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, Haverford, Middlebury, Carleton, to name some of the better known ones.

One other thing to note is that because you live on campus in the American college, you will be placed in a specific residential college for your four years of study. While studying at Yale College, for example (itself one of the fourteen schools of Yale University), I was placed into Branford College, one of the fourteen constituent residential colleges that make up Yale College. Each of the fourteen colleges is its own residential community with student rooms, a dining hall, a courtyard, and other facilities. (Fourteen is not a significant number; it’s merely random that that is the number of schools and colleges at Yale.) Each residential college will have a “Rector” or a “Head”, who is responsible for your residential life, as well as numerous other staff. Residential colleges truly are like smaller families or communities within the larger college, which itself is a smaller part of the overall university. (That’s a lot of uses of the word “college”—I hope it’s all clear!)

In New Zealand and Australia, as well as many other countries, we have a certain disdain for “arts degrees”. The implication is that students who do an arts degree either weren’t smart enough to get into a program like law or medicine, or simply wanted an easy time at university. I got a great deal of flack from friends and friends’ parents when I was applying to US universities when they heard I would be doing an arts degree—they assumed I was giving up and wanted to party at university, as is often the stereotype here in New Zealand. But in the United States, this couldn’t be further from the reality, since all undergraduate programs are what we call “arts degrees”. The American model of higher education is entirely built around the arts degree, and it is virtually impossible to study anything other than an arts degree for your undergraduate education. Even doing a BSc for your undergraduate years will require you to have taken many courses in the humanities and social sciences—the BSc is essentially an indication that you majored in a science subject at college, and intend to pursue some kind of science-related study for your postgraduate degree.

This emphasis on the arts in the American system, and the impossibility of doing any professional or vocational study for undergraduate education, gets to the heart of what makes higher education in the US truly unique. It all comes down to “liberal education”, or the “liberal arts degree”. The term is widely misunderstood, even in the United States, and yet it’s critical to understanding US colleges and to determining whether study in the US might be for you.

Here’s how I explain liberal education: whereas university study in Australia and New Zealand is concerned with learning how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson, and so on—undergraduate college education in the United States is intended to be about learning what you should do. 

Let’s delve into this a bit more. Undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the US—and those based on the US model, like Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I study—often sell themselves based on the breadth of education you’ll receive. The idea is that whereas in Australia or NZ we immediately do highly specialised professional degrees and learn little outside that subject area, in the US undergraduate education is about broadening one’s mind, trying a whole range of subjects, and essentially having four years to explore intellectually before committing to a “vocation” which you will study at the postgraduate level. You’ll choose a “major”, which is the area you think you’re most interested in, but often there is a “common curriculum” or “distribution requirements” that forces you to take a range of subjects and classes outside that area. At Yale-NUS, for instance, one’s major (mine is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, for instance) is only 30% of all the courses that you take during the four years.

Breadth is an important characteristic of the liberal arts, but it is not the defining characteristic. What breadth achieves—and the reason all liberal arts colleges offer it—is that the point of your undergraduate education is to figure out what you want in life. Liberal education is about having four years to learn not about how to do things, though that may indeed be a part of your education, but instead to explore so that you can work out what you should want to do. Instead of asking during your undergraduate years, “How do I be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a journalist?”, liberal education is about asking “Should I want to be a doctor? Or should I be a writer instead?” It’s about using classes, and professors, and books, and mealtimes every day in the dining hall with friends and teachers, to learn about yourself for four years before committing to a profession or a vocation. With those four years of exploration, you should then be much more confident in the decisions you make about what to do with the rest of your life. And, of course, you then specialise to become a lawyer or a doctor during your postgraduate study.

Another way of explaining it is that university in Australia or New Zealand trains you to be a specialist in a certain subject area in which you’ll work for life; college in the US educates you on what it means to be human, so you’re more sure of what you should later train to be.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to each system. In the US you’re more likely to become a well-rounded human being with wide-ranging knowledge and interests, and you’re more likely to be confident and sure of what vocation you choose to commit to by the time you think about postgraduate education and beyond. The downside is that you spend an extra four years doing this, whereas in Australia and New Zealand (as well as South Africa, India, and really anywhere that has developed its education system from the British model) you would spend that time specialising and then beginning your career earlier. You can therefore find yourself further behind in a career than those who had studied the vocation for their undergraduate study. A college education, then, is a luxury; not everyone can afford it, and we should remember that this kind of choice in education is a huge privilege.

Which system better suits you is therefore an individual choice, though I personally am a strong proponent of taking the extra time to learn about ourselves and the rest of our lives that comes from the American system. I think it encourages people to discover what truly matters to them—what kind of interests and work you’re willing to devote your life to. Without being very sure of the decision you make in the Australian and New Zealand education systems, you might find yourself waking up in your mid-twenties realising that the degree you’ve spent five or more years training for is in fact not what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s a costly and disappointing realisation to have. Studying at an American college, by contrast, will give you a foundational understanding of yourself—will have (if it lives up to its ideal) helped you answer the questions of what you should do with your life, rather than how to do it—that will help you be a good person, whatever you later go on to do. Of course, you can have this kind of education for yourself in an Australian or New Zealand university by structuring your own education: you can do a BA(Hons) as you would in the United States. This is a great option, but you will need a degree of self-motivation and determination that you might not need at college in the US; here, you’ll face the stigma attached to “arts degrees” and won’t have the encouragement to explore intellectually that you would at a US college.

I’ll leave it there, and further note only that the picture I’ve painted of US colleges is a kind of ideal type. The degree to which colleges live up to that ideal will depend on the institution, and even down to the classes you take and professors you get—but nonetheless the fundamentals stand. That’s a brief primer on colleges vs universities, and what truly makes the American “liberal arts college” unique. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have other questions, and I can always delve into specifics on other college-related questions in another blog post.

To end, here’s some additional reading I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the US higher education system and the difference between education and training:

Why Teach?, by Mark Edmundson

The Voice of Liberal Learning, by Michael Oakeshott

College: What it Was, Is and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand

An article in Wellington’s Dominion Post today describes how an “unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant.” The gist of the article, by Richard Shaw, a professor and director of Massey University’s BA program, is that the workplace of the future will require more arts degree graduates. As the speed of technological change increases, technical jobs are becoming computerised, and entirely new jobs are being created. The workforce therefore needs graduates with “the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity”, those skills that an arts degree teaches.

The argument is the one that arts and humanities programs the world over have been using over the past decade as the call for technical specialisation has seen graduation numbers decline. Arts programs have found themselves needing to justify their existence on the same terms as technical programs, which speak from ideas of productivity, employability, and ‘usefulness’. Specialised university degrees boast of higher employment rates of graduates, higher salaries, and moreover make the assertion that they are more practically useful to economies and societies. But by attempting to counter those claims, arts programs have merely subordinated the arts and humanities to the values of science and technology—values that the arts and humanities always stood as a counterbalance to.

I should say up front that I entirely agree all these arguments that defend the arts and humanities on terms of employability and usefulness. Arts degrees are the best foundation for anyone entering a world in which the meaning of work and technical skill changes annually. But while agreeing with the argument, I also think it is counterproductive; that by subordinating arts degrees to the terms of value set out by technical programs, we lose the essential values—and, yes, usefulness—of the arts and humanities. Simultaneously, we make it less likely that those students who study the arts and humanities will actually receive that kind of education; they will seek in it instead the kind of practical usefulness of technical programs, and look past what the arts and humanities truly offer.

Shaw fell into the trap when he says in his second paragraph, “Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.” If we set those aside, we set aside the essence of an arts education. We set those aside, and then the only argument left is an attempt at saying, no, arts degrees are better for your job prospects. And if I were a prospective arts student struggling to justify that path against those who told me to be practical, to be realistic and think about a job, I’m not sure I’d listen to Shaw on blind faith that employers would leap at the chance of having me after graduation. And even if I did trust that, I would then be taking an arts degree for practical, prudential reasons—looking daily during my time at university for chances to improve a CV, taking classes and reading books for how they might put me ahead of others in the hunt for jobs. In doing that, I’d then have missed what an arts degree can offer that nothing else can—precisely those qualities that Shaw lists and then dismisses.

The real challenge for proponents of the arts and humanities—what a different tradition calls ‘liberal’ education—is to define its value on its own terms, and to resist the easy option of merely throwing statistics back at technical programs. Doing that makes for a neat op-ed, but does not help with the harder task of persuading students and society of the essential value of liberal education on its own terms.

In the United States this debate over arts degrees and technical training is much further developed, likely because the BA degree is the norm for American undergraduates. In the US, and in a range of other countries following the US system (including at my university, Yale-NUS College in Singapore), undergraduates complete a four-year BA degree, and then follow it by specialised training in postgraduate study. There, the debate is not so much on whether students should undertake BA degrees or other degrees, but rather what a BA should encompass—whether students should major in humanities subjects, or the sciences and social sciences for employability, within their BA.

As a result, most US colleges and universities take a broad approach to encourage students to study arts degrees, or the “liberal arts” as it is known. There is a focus on the intangible but very real benefits of a liberal education, captured in a slogan like “Four years to transform your life”, through to the same kinds of statistics advanced by Shaw in the New Zealand context. At the very least there is the recognition that the arts and humanities bring value of a different kind to the focus on statistics and productivity of other disciplines—and that those values are ones students should feel proud, rather than worried and concerned, to pursue.

Judging from this debate over the usefulness of liberal education in other countries, ours in New Zealand is just getting started. We should ensure that arguments made in favour of the arts and humanities demonstrate and advance the values that those disciplines bring, and not append them as garnish to the values of specialist university degrees.