WHAT WILL WE DO WITH THE LIBERAL ARTS?
As noted previously on this blog, that version of college education has taken some hits recently. Why study the classics and old-fashioned disciplines (Religion, History, English, Biology, Sociology) when what the kids (and their parents) really want is job-training? Out with the liberal arts, in with "Competency Based Education" (CBE)!
And the hits keep comin'...Steven Ward sees this high-level vocational training as furthering an already troubling bifurcation in American education. Liberal education has become elite education.
However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.
Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.More:
CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.
CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.
These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.
In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.
Read it all here.
Ward's deconstruction of CBE reminded me of an Internet debate not too long about MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Amid the usual concerns--much like Ward's--that MOOCs offered little substance under the veneer of democratizing college eduction--appeared a clear voice declaring MOOCs did not fit the principles of Catholic higher education (something this blog has already covered). Jonathan Malesic:
Catholic organizations have known for a long time that to educate the poor, you have to go to them. In fact, to educate anyone fully—addressing their moral and spiritual development as well as their intellect—teachers and students must be present to each other.
Read all that article from 2013 here.
MOOCs undermine the liberal arts because they (the MOOCs) offer a false promise: it's really very easy--just look at our prepackaged offering. This, of course, is the opposite of actually struggling through Kant, Freud, Calvin, Augustine, and Love and Responsibility. Malesic makes a great point: if Catholic education becomes largely MOOC-based, then it will have failed as a project. I think he's exactly right. There's something unique, and uniquely good, about taking all sorts of students, but especially those from first-generation and/or underprivileged areas and communities, and introducing them to great ideas and great possibilities precisely through great classic fields of knowledge. (So, to be clear, I firmly endorse a broad-based curriculum involving Christian theology but also the sciences, the arts, as well as history, economics, and politics. When the college has good science students, that means I have good students in my Theology and Ethics courses, and vice versa.)
Then just this month, the former president of the NEH threw down the gauntlet. A contributing factor to the liberal arts' decline are the folks teaching it. Obscurantism, elitism, and the sense of self-entitlement that derides teaching all combine to suffocate today's liberal arts experience.
Equally disappointing was the fact that large numbers of applications stuck to the deeply grooved paths first trod by the postmodern humanities of the sixties and seventies. There was a uniformity, and conservatism, among them that indicated a lack of fresh thinking. Instead of advancing new ideas, such proposals left me with a feeling that their shelf lives had expired years before. Whatever their subjects, applicants often viewed their research exclusively through the same predictable lens of race, class, gender, theory, or some trivial aspects of popular culture. New and original approaches to the various areas of the humanities were all too rare.
Yep, that pretty much nails it; these days the experience of the liberal arts, regardless of the intentions of those teaching, combines frustration, bewilderment, and a sense of being sold a bill of goods.
And that, unfortunately, is correct. Reinhard Huetter wrote for First Things over two years ago:
The ideal of a liberal education that carries its end in its very practice has been supplanted by an efficiency-driven program of knowledge making and a respective training in the communicative, mathematical, and scientific skills necessary for contributing to this knowledge making and applying it to ends dictated by individual and collective desires. The university has morphed into a polytechnicum with a functionalized, propaedeutic liberal arts appendix, a community college on steroids, with undergraduate training subdivided into functionalized pre-med, pre-law, pre-engineering training and the “salad bar” consumer curriculum in the humanities.
Huetter makes a crucial point about Cardinal Newman; the Catholic university, with its inherent universalist curriculum, sticks a thorn in the side of all late-modern university agendas: the politically and socially liberal one, the fascist state, etc. Catholic universities are committed to the truth, thus faith and reason can and should be studied--individually or in tandem. The truth is served by both, so why not, so long as that founding truth is recognized and observed, shouldn't we study everything?
The other option--resignation to the "polytechnic utiliversity", not a 'university' because there's no pretension to universal knowlege, merely specific job (not even "vocational") training--results in precisely the lose of liberal arts and thus loss of the knowledge of God...and thus self.
And is that really what we want? And even if so, can we really afford that loss of knowledge?