Are the Liberal Arts Relevant?Are the liberal arts relevant? Related to my efforts to defend the undergraduate anthropology major and understand liberal arts college financial aid, I spent much of the last year working on an evaluation of liberal arts curriculum relevance. The Muppets faced very similar issues in 2011. Watching this film over and over with the kiddos finally paid off, as the Muppets relate directly to liberal arts relevance: “I’m sorry, but in this market you guys are no longer relevant.”


Are the Liberal Arts Relevant? Dueling Views


From October 2012, a pair of essays from Inside Higher Ed address the question of “are the liberal arts relevant?” The New Liberal Arts by Michael Staton advocates for a more entrepreneurial approach:

Simply put, we need to rethink what our students do to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching literature and history and economics and psychology–or that students stop majoring in these fields. But we need to ask students to create, to experiment, to be bold and possibly fail with projects and deliverables relevant in today’s world. We’re too limited by Blue Book short essays and term papers–in which success is easily measured and bell-curved. If we shift the way we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge within liberal arts fields, we can prepare students for employment by advancing the liberal arts.

I resonate with Staton’s approach. I’ve been returning to more desks-in-circle discussions, in part because that’s what I see happening in the workplaces our graduates aspire to join. I’ve also de-emphasized the double-spaced paper in favor of short blog-like commentaries and pointed reading reflections, in part because I truly don’t find myself writing many double-spaced papers anymore (note to traditionalists–I still lecture and require papers).

But then Johann Neem, The Liberal Arts, Economic Value, and Leisure, urges us not to make an economic case for the liberal arts:

In a society in which we expect all people to be effective citizens, all people need to have access to the liberal arts in order to have the knowledge and moral foundation that they need to think about what is a good life and a good society, and the skills necessary to help them work to achieve it here in our democracy. Today’s students need to know a lot about how the human and natural worlds work and they need not just knowledge but the capacity to evaluate–that is to determine the moral value of–different goals, ideas, and policies. This evaluation requires moving well beyond the economic calculus to questions of what is worth it and to understanding our cultural traditions. As Martha Nussbaum has put it, such an education is by definition not for profit.
[See also Oneonta and Center Street School for related thoughts from Diane Ravitch.]

I also resonate with Neem. Neem’s emphasis on the liberal arts as the essence of freedom is very parallel to the Hartwick College expression of the Liberal Arts in Practice Curriculum, “preparing individuals to face the responsibility of freedom.” Neem’s point is that students need the freedom–freedom from excessive debt and the free time–to pursue this curriculum, which is very much the issue I emphasized in Liberal Arts College Financial Aid: Best Opportunity for Relevance.

Although Neem writes as if opposed to Staton, this does not have to be an either-or. The liberal arts can be more entrepreneurial and can connect to the skills most necessary in today’s world. But Neem is also correct that the primary goal is citizenship, freedom, and making the world a better place.

Liberal arts institutions do not need to play for all the marbles, like the biggest money-making film of 2011, Cars 2 (panned by the critics, but another movie I’ve watched over and over with one of the kiddos). Rather, liberal arts can be like the #10 film, The Muppets, with just enough entrepreneurial and boutique appeal to keep this essential and very relevant enterprise going. Of course, we may need a celebrity host!

Meanwhile, on the question of “are the liberal arts relevant?”, Forbes did come to its senses with Does Your Major Matter?

Liberal arts majors actually do just fine, with incomes far in excess of the median in the United States. And many of them . . . are as satisfied or more satisfied with their lives as their classmates in other disciplines. . . . The liberal arts, moreover, also serves as a preferred pathway to rewarding and remunerative careers. . . .

These statistics remind us how important it is for students to major in what they enjoy most and what they’re best at. When they do so, they’re more likely to excel in their classes and enhance their career options. Those who complete post-baccalaureate study will enhance their chances of eating their cake and having it too, with prestigious, high-paying jobs and, equally important, from our point of view, fulfilling work that allows them to make a difference in the world.

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