Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Graber

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014



Graber, R.B. (2014), "Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Graber", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Graber

Article Type: Authors' Comments From: On the Horizon, Volume 22, Issue 1

I have enjoyed, and learned from, all the papers; these comments pretend to do justice to none of them.

I hope my essay makes it clear that I consider culture itself, and primary enculturation, as powerful enemies of the innovation that societies so badly need under the competitive conditions prevailing since the dawn of the modern world. So while I share Jennings’ (2014) disappointment that liberal education so often fails to "take," I ascribe such failures not so much to educational-institutional shortcomings (a few of which I will identify later), as to the sheer power of the cultural forces with which liberal education contends. When Delclos and Donaldson (2014), among others, stress liberal education’s promoting thoughtful questioning ("critical thinking," to use the current catchphrase) and adaptability, their position dovetails nicely with my own – and this, despite the fact that I regard religious faith as a force weighing more heavily, on the whole, for replication than for innovation.

I hope my essay makes clear, too, that the long disintegration – if such it deserves to be called – so helpfully detailed by Conrad (2014) is, in my view, scarcely to be deplored. The social conditions that produced and sustained a prescribed, highly standardized curriculum are long gone, and unlikely to return. At the same time, I am skeptical that social conditions are so changed as to have rendered colleges and universities obsolescent or obsolete, as suggested by Bussey (2014) and Jennings. On the one hand, I find myself charmed by Jennings’ swan song for "the sage on the stage" (Jennings, 2014, p. 22) and Bussey’s image of "useless knowledge gone feral" (Bussey, 2014, p. 6); on the other hand, I am mystified by the latter’s "intrinsic knowledge," (Bussey, 2014, p. 3) and by his brief for replacing "knowledge claims" (Bussey, 2014, p. 5) with "holding space" (Bussey, 2014, p. 5). I’m afraid it calls to my mind Anderson’s (2014) suggestive remarks, in diagnosing scientism and "boomeritis," about the use of peculiar language to mark in-group boundaries.

Of some concern to me is that several authors consent, if only by implication, to defining "liberal studies" as excluding math and science. This is understandable, perhaps, when one wishes, like Abeles (2014), to stress the importance of the humanities in liberal education; but I fear that referring to the humanities alone as "liberal" encourages thinking of math and science as nonessential – or even antithetical – to liberal education as such. The STEM acronym implicitly promotes this very misconception by lumping mathematics and science with engineering – the latter being, in fundamental contrast to math and science, inherently vocational. From the perspective of one concerned to value knowledge for its own sake, then, "STEM" fails crucially, in the platonic metaphor, to "carve at the joints."

In this context may be mentioned Maxwell’s (2014) provocative justification for excluding mathematics from his liberal-studies sequence. (I confess, in passing, that it would not have occurred to me to consider liberal education the sort of thing that could be acquired by taking one or a few courses entitled liberal studies.) Can theoretical physics indeed be grasped non-mathematically? I do not deem myself competent to judge with finality, but I find it dubious. It seems to me that grasping gravitational theory, for example, entails, at a minimum, understanding that the attraction between two masses changes directly with the product of their masses, and inversely with the square of the distance between them. But how is such a sentence to be understood other than mathematically?

As a sincere believer in making liberal education as widely accessible as possible, I wish I could be as sanguine as Scott (2014) and Paino (2014) about integration with vocational education as one means to that end. Major universities typically have, among their several schools or colleges, one dedicated to liberal rather than vocational education (often called the college or school of Arts and Sciences); the institution as a whole does not pretend to be so dedicated. For the student willing to accept large classes and instruction by research-oriented professors and inexperienced graduate assistants, this can work quite well. (As a graduate of Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences [A.B., Anthropology, 1973], I am proud to recall that my professors showed only a modicum of interest in practical applications of course material, and no interest at all in whether I would get a job upon graduation.) But if a "public liberal-arts" institution attempts such a solution, it will prove difficult to show preference, in funding and governance, to any one college over the others; the promise of an overriding institutional commitment to liberal education goes unfulfilled. If, alternatively, all students – including those in vocational programs – are required to take much, or even most, of their coursework in classes counted as liberal, three problems arise.

First is what might well be termed "colonization of the liberal component." Due largely to certification requirements (and to faculty not themselves liberally educated), vocational programs, instead of allowing students the opportunity to indulge their curiosity by choosing their non-vocational courses for themselves, stipulate for them which "electives" they must take. Education students, for example, may be required to take developmental psychology rather than choose from a wide array of social-science courses. Evidently this colonization process can go all the way. A nursing professor with whom I spoke recently pointed out that at her institution, the nursing program comprised only 50 credit-hours. When I asked her about colonizing the non-nursing curriculum, however, she cheerfully assured me that yes, their nursing students in effect have virtually no course choice at all!

A second problem is "contamination of the liberal curriculum." The imperative to meet both vocational and liberal requirements creates pressure to secure approval of markedly vocational courses as "liberal." History of Nursing, for instance, may be officially approved as liberal on the basis of its historical content, despite its being taught not by historians but by nurses, and despite its being taken exclusively by nursing students. This has the effect not only of diminishing the de facto liberal component of the student’s coursework, but of augmenting the prevailing confusion about the true nature of liberal education.

These two problems result in its being rather misleading to refer to students of vocational programs as "majors." When students choose college educations centered on qualifying them as accountants, business professionals, engineers, nurses, or teachers, their educational experience is likely to be quite different from that of non-vocational students, whose majors typically comprise a minority of all coursework, and really do allow them considerable choice in the non-major component. The degrees earned by students in vocational programs, then, are often not really very liberal.

There is a third, more general problem. To the extent that an institution succeeds at preparing students for vocational certification, it will attract more students looking to an (undergraduate) college education essentially for vocational preparation, and it will hire more faculty to "deliver the [requisite] curriculum" (see Pollard, 2014, on "toxic metaphors"). What does this do an institution’s atmosphere? How much intellectual excitement and vitality can we expect where a sizable proportion of the students are preoccupied primarily with occupational preparation? The students often did not really desire a liberal education; they – or their parents – only liked the prestigious sound of it. With abstract reading, discussion, and writing assignments such students tend to grow impatient: "What good is THIS ever going to do me?" This attitude is so profoundly inimical to the liberal one of valuing knowledge for its own sake that, despite the conceivability of mutual benefit from the intermingling of vocationally oriented and liberally oriented students (and faculty), I can designate this third problem only as "degradation of the liberal environment."

Yet inasmuch as we all become practitioners, sooner or later, of something, the goal of helping create Paino’s (2014) "reflective practitioners" is not without merit. Is it not better that we have accountants and nurses with a little liberal coursework rather than with none at all? To say that a degree is not very liberal is to concede, after all, that liberality is a matter of degree! In this light, the considerable problems faced by public liberal-arts institutions should not blind us to modest opportunities for amelioration. In particular, let us at least strive not to distract and demoralize liberal educators. Having been "shipped out," the students are ready for a little "shaking up"; and scarcely least among the shakers are faculty with real enthusiasm for the fields they embody. As Pollard (2014) so wisely observes, "The best care we can offer students is to care about what we want them to care about."

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


Abeles, T. (2014), "Is there a case for a ‘liberal education’?", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 67–71

Anderson, G. (2014), "The reaction against conventional knowledge in higher education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 57–66

Bussey, M. (2014), "Liberal education may be dead but the magic will not die!", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 3–6

Conrad, L. (2014), "Integration and the liberal arts: a historical overview", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 46–56

Delclos, V. and Donaldson, R. (2014), "Contemporary liberal education: slowing down to discern", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 7–9

Jennings, W. (2014), "Liberal arts in a new era", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 19–22

Maxwell, N. (2014), "How can our human world exist and best flourish embedded in the physical universe? An outline of a problem-based liberal studies course", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 35–45

Paino, T. (2014), "The reflective practitioner: the role of a public liberal-arts university in saving liberal education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 72–74

Pollard, S. (2014), "Men grow old", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 75–79

Scott, R. (2014), "The meaning of liberal education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 23–34

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