Still More Liberal Arts Stuff

In today’s WSJ, William McGurn looks at an aspect of the phenomena that make up the higher ed bubble — the overvaluing of the college education, with inflated prices (supported by the loans many of the Occupants are bewailing these days). But the question of value can be poorly posed, as McGurn notes:

Alas, much of the debate over the value of a college degree breaks down one of two ways. Either people pit the liberal arts against the sciences—”Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asks Florida Gov. Rick Scott—or they plump for degrees that are thought to be more practical (e.g., business). Both are probably mistakes.

On the one hand, he points out that “the problem is not so much the liberal arts as the fluff that too often passes for it,” which brings us back to the Cultural Studies wankery we discussed yesterday. On the other, he observes that the authors of Academically Adrift

found that more than a third of seniors leave campus having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communications over four years. Worse, the majors and programs often thought most practical—education, business and communications—prove to be the least productive.

McGurn’s conclusion?

[W]hen it comes to what our colleges and universities are charging them for their degrees, they have a point. Too many have paid much and been taught little. They’ve been ripped off—but not by the banks or the fat cats or any of the other stock villains so unwelcome these days in Zuccotti Park.

As I wrote this, I was reminded of a blog post I wrote some time back on the subject of the overfluffiness of 21st century therapeutic Christianity. I quote an author who suggests that young Christians want something substantial, but are given shiny, happy, pablum — cake over steak. There may be an academic version of this problem on the supply side. Because the cultural studies approach to the humanities refuses to privilege a canon, it’s altogether too easy to pass off the tasty cake of pop culture in the place of the steak of Milton or Dostoyevsky. It’s fun for the teacher — but the teacher (we hope) already has put in the time and effort and built that sort of Hirschian cultural literacy society expects a liberal arts education to produce (and which may bear a resemblance to the goals Withy was discussing yesterday). The kids just know that the cake is sweet and fun to consume, but the test scores make it look like there’s some malnutrition going on. Either way, a pretty fair teacher once asked, “[W]hat man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” We need to ask ourselves if that’s what we’ve been doing for far too long.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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