Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Liberal Arts or General Education?

I read with interest the exchange Historiann had with Anthony Grafton, the new President of the American Historical Association. It had an otherworldly quality to it that took me a while to pin down. I think I’ve got it.

History, English, and the rest of what I like to call the “evergreen” (as opposed to “seasonal”) disciplines think of themselves as part of the liberal arts. They each have a history -- contested, yes, but recognizable -- and a sense of their place in the academic firmament. (My own scholarly discipline in the social sciences is very much the same way.)

At many larger universities and comprehensive colleges, it seems, the liberal arts as liberal arts perceive themselves as under sustained assault. They don’t seem vocationally relevant enough for parents to like them, and they don’t bring in the enormous grant dollars that would make adminstrators love them.

It’s odd, because at the community college level, the picture is very different. Here, the liberal arts fields are all considered part of “general education,” which is at the core of every degree program. Business majors have to take history classes, and culinary arts majors have to take English. In practice, Grafton’s caricature of history as economically parasitic on more lucrative programs is exactly wrong; here, the evergreens are the cash cows, and the narrower, more vocational programs are ‘parasitic,’ if you want to use that language.

The single largest major on campus, in terms of enrollment, is the liberal arts transfer major. It’s composed entirely of evergreens, with the explicit goal of preparing students to transfer for bachelor’s degrees.

I don’t dispute Grafton’s or Historiann’s portrayals of life in their respective institutional settings. I’m just noticing that their descriptions don’t come close to the truth here. (And with over 1100 community colleges across the country housing nearly half of the country’s undergraduates, I’d offer that this milieu is actually representative of far more people than theirs. It’s just that faculty from cc’s don’t attend national conferences as much. Part of that is the relative lack of travel funding, but part of it is the palpable institutional snobbery that manifests itself in nametag-glancing. If you want to relive the worst of junior high, try walking through a national disciplinary conference with “community college” on your nametag. I’ve done it; it’s not pretty. If you base your impression of a discipline on its national conference, you’ll bear some pretty serious sampling bias.)

I’ve never been terribly happy with the term “general education.” It sounds like “miscellaneous.” But it’s commonly accepted, and it serves a purpose. At its worst, it denotes a distasteful obligation; if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “get your gen eds out of the way,” I’d be a wealthy man. But at its best, it suggests a core understanding of what it means to be a college-educated person. Whether you majored in culinary arts, graphic design, or philosophy, you should be expected to be literate and numerate, capable of reading with perspective and writing with clarity, familiar with social analysis and quantitative reasoning.

At that level, part of the appeal of the ‘general education’ rubric is that it shifts the grounds of discussion of course requirements. Instead of “this is what we do,” the relevant argument is “this is what students need.” (On the ground, it often boils down to “this is what will transfer.”) Getting your course required should involve showing that your course is uniquely helpful for students. I’ve endured enough Curriculum Committee meetings to know that they often devolve into horse-trading and a sort of caricature of interest group politics, but the idea is still there.

In my world, the evergreens help pay for the seasonals. The high enrollments and low facility costs of, say, psychology help offset the high facility costs and low enrollments of radiography. In this context, getting rid of the history department and its counterparts would be madness. As the funding crises continue, the evergreens would be the last things to cut.

This isn’t intended as a rebuttal, exactly, but as an amendment. To read Historiann’s and Grafton’s accounts, you’d think that history was under assault nationally. It isn’t. The liberal arts as liberal arts may be; general education, by contrast, is doing quite well, thank you. You just have to look in places you normally might not see.