Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Selling Liberal Arts to 18 Year Olds

How do you sell the idea of liberal arts to an 18 year old?

Admittedly, the question scans differently at different institutions.  At the snooty/exclusive liberal arts colleges, the sale has already been made.  At a community college in a non-affluent area -- my beat -- the issue is a little trickier.

The liberal arts major is the largest major on campus, though that’s partly a function of its use as the ‘default’ or ‘effectively undecided’ major.  (For financial aid reasons, we can’t have an “undecided” major as such.)  It works reasonably well as a default major, since it’s comprised of transferable gen ed courses.  For a student who switches into another program after a semseter or two, typically everything they’ve taken will carry over.  The liberal arts greatest hits -- intro to psych, freshman composition, college algebra -- “count” in almost every other program anyway, so it’s a reasonable choice for a student who needs some time.

But some of us like to think that there’s value beyond the old chestnut of “getting your gen eds out of the way, “ as real as that is.  Yes, it transfers well, but why would they want to transfer in the first place?

There’s the classic “intellectual calisthenics” argument -- it makes you smarter -- but the appeal of that is probably limited.  It plays into the “scold” stereotype of academics that doesn’t make us many friends.  And it doesn’t address the real -- and largely valid -- economic concerns that are never far from the surface for so many students.

Aspirational sociology can also work.  These are the courses that the rich and powerful take.  Do you think there might be a reason for that?  Of course, that can also backfire; students could hear it as “these courses are for people with money, not people like you.”  

I’m thinking that the best sales approach -- yes, I said sales -- involves more showing and less telling.  And that’s true of almost any field.

Scientists and engineers have an advantage here; they have great toys to show off.  The engineering folks can show off their robots and Van de Graaf generators.  But even the more bookish fields have some great hooks, if only they’d bother to use them.

Poli sci sounds boring, but it’s the study of money and power.  Sociology sounds dreary, until you see it as showing the ways that a society organizes sex, power, and family.  Literature can seem stuffy, but it’s about how other people think, and how stories work.  

Incoming students may not know any of that.  They may be put off by unfamiliar labels, or by an inability to locate the immediate relevance.  And telling them to take eventual relevance on faith doesn’t quite cut it; the whole point of the liberal arts is to free yourself from having to take statements like that on faith.  It’s self-defeating, and students sense that.  

In the rush to fulfill requirements, I worry sometimes that many students never really get a chance to watch faculty love what they do.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and there’s something attractive about watching someone really engrossed and enthused in a subject.  (Though his politics were not mine, one of my favorite professors from college was a historian who was palpably tickled to teach what he taught.  His stories were rich, polished, and funny as hell.  The enthusiasm made an impression vivid enough that I still remember it.)  That’s difficult with heavy teaching loads, or with professors freeway flying from one college to the next.  But it’s possible even in difficult circumstances, if only students get in the door in the first place.

I don’t think many young students are persuaded by the usual “this is good for you” speech.  In a way, that’s actually to their credit.  But they can be persuaded by example.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or found ways to make the more bookish subjects appealing to 18 year olds who may not even recognize the names of the disciplines?

Students will spend their entire lives in service, chosen or not, to power, money, and ideas. Liberal arts is the study of how to make power, money, and ideas work for you. Once you "get" Liberal Arts, every other endeavor you pursue will work better, forever.
I teach ancient history to intellectually average 14 year old kids. I do this because I believe the humanities are fundamentally about being a human being. Studying humane letters is a pathway to being a real person. But in the short term, I hook the boys with war and the girls with love. Honestly, the classical world is not a tough sell.
This post does offer some good advice, even if the word "sales" may leave a bad taste in some mouths.

Another thing to keep in mind is to somehow make majors and subjects more concrete and less abstract. Saying that you can be an English professor by studying English isn't too helpful for most students, but introducing them to a staff writer at their favourite magazine might (as a more colourful example). Not only does this give students a better idea of why they should take certain courses, it provides possible life career goals to work toward. Abstraction is best for academics, not for most young students.
We don't have a "Liberal Arts" degree at my CC, so the entire premise here seems a bit odd.

Sure, it is called an "Associate in Arts" degree, but only about half of it consists of the liberal arts, and then only if you take the old fashioned view that math is one of the liberal arts. The other half consists of electives that are normally chosen to meet the lower division requirements for a 4-year major just as would be done if you were in the first 2 years at a 4-year school.

Our challenge is really the opposite of yours.

Many of our students are just "going to college", undecided about a career, and want to be told exactly what to take for those electives. (I hadn't thought about it before writing this, but I'll bet that is how they went through high school.) We have to convince them to think about a career path or a major.

That is, the "Associate in Transfer" degree doesn't really make much sense as a terminal degree at my college. You would have to sell yourself based on your portfolio of courses that cover some set of skills, not the "degree". If you want a terminal degree, you need an AS program.
students could hear it as “these courses are for people with money, not people like you.”
- when i think of liberal arts classes and degrees, i think the EXACT opposite. i think "these are courses for people who are going to have NO money when they leave college."

Scientists and engineers have an advantage here; they have great toys to show off.
- you're forgetting that students know people outside of their college setting. the scientists and engineers that students talk to [that aren't affiliated with the college] also have a thing called 'money' (or 'jobs'), and usually a lot more than the rest. check the 'careers' page for the top 10 biggest companies near you, and see what degrees are in highest demand, and also look at which openings pay the most. guarantee you your students are looking at them too.

introducing them to a staff writer at their favourite magazine might (as a more colourful example)
- unless students read a lot of cosmo, people, a body building mag, or a DIY magazine with lots of cute pictures, this example is going lose a lot of value in the next few years.
I went to a snotty liberal arts college and majored in physics.
I love physics, but my physics classes were always work, whereas seminars discussing racy 19th century novels or comic-book-like ancient myths were fun and relaxing for me by contrast. I spent every art history class taking "notes" by sketching each piece we discussed in my notebook, and managed to get an A. My political philosophy professor led us in big discussions of Ayn Rand and Nietzche, of just the kind I had in high school anyway with my friends. International Political Economy was "let's discuss what we read in the paper / on the internet yesterday..."

So to me "liberal arts" should be an easy sell -- "the fun classes." The ones you take because you enjoy them, not just because you think they're preparing you for a career.

But if you've got less nerdy kids who don't read comic books or racy novels or the news for fun on their own time? I don't know. Maybe you can find some piece of entertainment media that they do connect with, or some piece of art that they do love, or some issue that they do care about, and start from there? Whatever it is it probably has connections to other ideas... But that's bound to be an individual thing, best done one-on-one.

Aren't you really asking how to sell people on the idea that intellectual pursuits are worthwhile in themselves? How to sell education in general? I think it's almost a question of values. You don't sell people on your values with advertising. You do it by making personal connections with them, so that they come to admire you, and that's what makes them value what you value... It's almost the same problem faced by evangelical religious folks trying to convert people to their religion. Almost the only thing that ever wins converts is a personal connection, no matter how many events they organize or flyers they hand out...

I don't worry about this too much, at the CC level. The students get their liberal arts throught the Gen Eds or the transfer requirements; it's the job of those teachers to generalize enough so that the big issues are spotlighted to some extent. What would help would be if they arrived in college with at least some exposure (that they actually paid attention to) in high school -- other than that, most students who are 18 or older see the liberal arts as having an appeal, but also an opportunity cost if they hope to be employed when they are done with school.
I teach writing and argumentation at my CC. One of the ways I "sell" the course material is by showing students how understanding argumentation makes us better consumers of media. We watch commercials and advocacy videos in class, and discuss the ways in which the authors try to win us over. (Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" Superbowl commercial and an "It Gets Better" video made by students at BYU are two of my favorites. They're both rhetorically richer than your standard Old Spice ad.) When students get comfortable identifying rhetorical tactics in class, they start to notice the same devices being used outside of class, in conversations, commercials, political ads, etc. Once they experience a "real world" connection with the course material, they become pretty enthusiastic about the class. I doubt I've turned any business or nursing majors into English teachers, but a lot of my students are more open to the value of Liberal Arts by the end of the semester.
Why would you try to sell the idea of liberal arts to an 18 year old?

If most 18 year olds are like I was, it'd be thankless task. Unless you're going to give them full scholarships and tell them they'll graduate in X years, irrespective of what they take, and that they have a choice of A-Z Liberal Arts classes. And that's for someone with no lack of intellectual curiosity, just economic and time limits, and a strong preference for choosing courses.
I resented the heck out of my general education requirements. Quite unfairly in that they were often lovely courses, except inasmuch as I rightly recognized that there is a season to every subject. In my teens, I'd have been no good studying psychology or economics. I thought they were entirely bogus fields of study. Not sure I was wrong about some of the macro economists.

What made me want to take more courses was enjoying a particular professor and seeing that they had a more-advanced class where they got to delve into what they consider the 'really good stuff'. I would have been better served by having liberal arts requirements that would have allowed me to fill in Literature beyond freshman comp, and multi-dimensional humanities courses (what I had great professors for), rather than have to take a behavioral science and social science (which I filled in with speech communication and history, since I didn't like psych and econ).
Well, I had a lot to say but Mary has posted it already.

As a chemistry major, I looked forward to the liberal arts classes as the "fun" classes that would also be low-key on the outside-of-class work scale.

I also totally agree with her that the only way to "sell" liberal arts is to sell education and you can only do that with personal connections to pass on your value system.

As an educator, I feel that most people don't value education much so we'll need to make a lot of personal connections! I'm working on that every day... I hope others like me are doing the same.
Thank you for yet another reminder of why I'm so fortunate to have left academia.
This post presupposes that students have flexibility to choose courses they like when the reality in the sciences and engineering is that our first three years of school are pretty packed with requirements. The chem/calc/bio combo took most of my intellectual bandwidth freshman year for example.

I would do internal sales - structure your programs so that they satisfy a requirement that all students need to meet. Schedule the courses so that they don't conflict with required courses for other majors. Offer courses that are cross listed so that you pull in people from other disciplines to taste test your majors. Sell minors in liberal arts to majors that are in other disciplines and point out the success that people have if they get that minor (you know, all the bio majors with that econ minor got jobs after graduation etc.) Offer internships to your liberal arts students so that they leave college with strong employment prospects.
I suspect that it is a difficult sell to convince students of the value of liberal arts classes, especially when they distract students from pursuing their major subjects. But I think that the value of liberal arts classes are really useful in the student's overall intellectual development, but the true value really shows up only when the student is somewhat older

When I was a student at a SLAC, I tended to regard liberal arts classes as an unneeded distraction from my math and physics classes, but we were required to take a certain distribution of liberal arts classes. Since it was a church-related school, we all had to take Bible classes, but there were only two such classes that were required. I chose to take a philosophy class from a professor who was so good that I chose to take his follow up class. I also took a Medieval Literature class on the recommendation of my department chairman. In my senior year, I took a music class, which got me interested in music (even thought I never intended to perform or write any music).

At the time I thought that my time would be much better spent in more physics and math classes, but it turned out that I got quite a bit out of my liberal arts classes. It got me interested in a lot of things outside of math and physics--music, philosophy, drama, literature, plus ancient history.
I agree that enthusiasm is contagious, but not just from a teacher. Students highly value the opinion of other students. If they can have someone who they relate to explain why it is they are taking a certain class or major then they are more likely to connect with that course. On the other hand if a student has nothing good to say about a course then people don't see the value in taking it.
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