What Has Happened to the Liberal Arts?

Academics ask why students are opting for engineering, education or criminology instead of more traditional majors such as history, philosophy and mathematics.

Most of the 3 million freshmen starting at U.S. colleges this fall will choose majors that prepare them for careers rather than majors in the liberal arts, if the recent trend holds true, write Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus it the LA Times.

Department of Education data show that students, instead of more traditional majors such as history, philosophy or even mathematics, are opting for engineering, education or criminology. Part of this trend can be explained by students wanting degrees that will allow them to step into jobs upon graduating.

But that is only part of the reason for the eclipse of the liberal arts, writes Hacker and Dreifus.

Scholars are mourning the shift. The liberal arts have been radically altered, both in format and function. What is being taught is no longer attuned to undergraduates looking for a broader and deeper understanding of the world, writes Hacker and Dreifus.

Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield worries that too many professors take the approach that “what they’re doing research on is exactly what students need to know.” But courses should be created for the benefit of students, not as vehicles for faculty careers.

Cornell’s Robert Frank was speaking about the discipline of economics when he worried that today’s introductory courses are:

“tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists.”

But top college degrees are usually judged by the financial potential of the degree, writes Degree Space.

The blog says:

“The minimum financially gratifying college degrees are typically the more broader fields of study like English, History, wellness and health, etc. A recent search turned up a belief of one author that the top three most useless college degrees have been English/literature, arts/theater, and Womens or African-American studies. It should be said that these all could possibly be applied to a teaching degree, but by their own merits, they fail as university majors that lead to employment and financial prosperity.”

The blog also points out that succeeding in the theater or arts fields is typically dependent on talent and there are a lot of jobs that depend not on qualifications, but actual work experience.

“The last factor an agent, talent scout, casting director, gallery owner, etc. is going to ask is whether you possess a degree in the arts or in theater.”

There are still colleges where the contents of the bottles match the labels, write Hacker and Dreifus. But they tend to be more modest schools, ones that don’t expect their faculties to make national reputations in research.

New College of Florida and St. Mary’s College of Maryland are such schools; also Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College and Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, which waives tuition for students who maintain a 3.5 grade-point average.


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