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?