“Practical” v. Liberal Education

Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky suggested recently that some academic programs on the state’s college campuses have outlived their necessity in times of tight budgets.

“With a pointed jab at the job prospects of interpretive dancers, the Republican governor challenged public university boards and presidents to consider eliminating some courses that don’t produce graduates filling high-wage, high-demand jobs,” according to an article by Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press, published in U.S. News. The governor previously mentioned French literature as a good target for elimination.

It is fair to say such statements reflect a growing trend to disparage courses in the liberal arts, fine arts, and humanities nationwide, especially regarding tax-supported public institutions. You don’t hear this kind of thing about elite private schools, where Shakespeare is safe. Some commentators argue that the term “liberal” as a species of education should be eliminated for political reasons, but the word is too concise and accurate for a purge.

So far in Texas, chief policy leaders have not explicitly gone in Gov. Bevin’s direction. But the same effect can be realized through declining enrollments in majors not seen as “practical” in landing a good job.

For faculty members dismayed by the trend toward more emphasis on job-related education to the detriment of liberal education, bending the curve of public opinion is a daunting task. First, we must acknowledge that curricula evolve. As pointed out here before, Latin and Greek were once deemed essential to an educated mind.

Notwithstanding the seemingly Sisyphean (the meaning of which may require …um … never mind) difficulty of defending liberal education, we should all do so, in communicating with public officials, community leaders, and everyday folks at church, football games, and the grocery store. Students who graduate from our colleges will likely change careers many times over the years. Their minds should be nimble enough to comprehend nuance, complexity, and scope—thus equipped to act rationally and as conversant citizens in a democracy. Those who teach in STEM fields are urged to join the discussion. Some medical schools are reportedly adding liberal arts and fine arts to their curriculum, rather than eliminating them. This should tell us something.

We are more than what we do for a living.