Liberal education in crisis? Functions, forms, and foils: Editor’s introduction

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014



Graber, R.B. (2014), "Liberal education in crisis? Functions, forms, and foils: Editor’s introduction", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Liberal education in crisis? Functions, forms, and foils: Editor’s introduction

Article Type: Guest editorial From: On the Horizon, Volume 22, Issue 1

Liberal education in crisis? Functions, forms, and foils

A themed issue of On the Horizon, guest-edited by Robert Bates Graber, author of Valuing Useless Knowledge

Liberal education is a higher education – specifically, a bachelor’s-degree program – devoted not to employment but to enlightenment. Representing a considerable investment of time and money with no promise of tangible return, it was traditionally a prerogative of social elites; in recent times, it has become more widely accessible. Often criticized as inefficient or irrelevant, this form of education is our subject: what has been its past, what is its present, and what is its future? Is it indeed, as is often asserted, in crisis?

Marcus Bussey leads off this special issue of On the Horizon by declaring liberal education, as we have known it, already dead. But are such reports of its death perhaps, as Mark Twain might maintain, exaggerated? Victor Delclos and Randall Donaldson come next, asserting liberal education’s continuing functions for individuals, especially in making them reflective "slow thinkers"; Robert Graber then suggests that liberal education is a survival mechanism promoting innovativeness in the face of culture’s inherent conservatism, a mechanism selected for by centuries of inter-societal competition. Wayne Jennings, however, wonders how it is that liberal education can leave so many people rigid and intolerant. In any case, the richness of online educational resources leads him to a position similar to Bussey’s: liberal education, as such, is doomed.

But what if liberal education is not yet dead? What if it is indeed still functioning for individuals and for societies? That would make more than academic the question of what form it should take. Robert Scott, in the course of offering what one might call a classical modern formulation, declares the asking of questions more important than the answering; Nicholas Maxwell, rather contrariwise, posits a single Big Question with which he believes a liberal-studies course sequence should grapple.

The balance of our contributors focus on threats – foils, so to speak – liberal education faces from one quarter or another. Leon Conrad traces a centuries-long process of disintegration, vertically and horizontally, from liberal education’s halcyon days in antiquity (implicitly deploring the very incoherence celebrated by Graber). Gordon Anderson then identifies key features of the twentieth century that he thinks have tipped the liberal-education balance too far toward "liberal" and away from "education": scientism, "boomeritis," and bureaucracy. Thomas Abeles worries that recent pressure from government and business to favor STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) will be at the expense of the humanities. Troy Paino and Stephen Pollard concern themselves, in different ways, with threats from within the educational establishment itself. Against the complacency of those who feel that liberal education needs no defense, Paino argues that a public liberal-arts institution cannot afford to ignore the practical importance of liberal education; Pollard winds things up by identifying three types of misguided initiatives by educational experts and administrators – initiatives that can be profoundly demoralizing to liberal educators as such: "toxic metaphors," "eyes off the prize," and "misplaced intentionality."

I would like to take this opportunity to thank editor Tom Abeles for inviting me to edit this special issue of On the Horizon, and managing editor Sophie Barr for capably facilitating its production; also, of course, the contributors for making it possible. I hope and believe that readers will find in these pages much to think about – not only in the essays themselves, but also in the vigorous comments and rejoinders that follow.

Robert Bates Graber
Robert Bates Graber is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Department of Society and Environment, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, USA

About the Guest Editor

Robert Bates Graber received his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, his doctorate (in Anthropology) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is the author of many scholarly articles and several books, including the epic sonnet cycle Plutonic Sonnets (2008) and the spirited essay Valuing Useless Knowledge: An Anthropological Inquiry into the Meaning of Liberal Education (1995, 2012). Robert Bates Graber can be contacted at:

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