SEEING AND SAYING ANEW:
RETHINKING THE LIBERAL ARTS*
As we encounter college and university students increasingly seeking an education which will lead to immediate and tangible returns, enrollments in the liberal arts--both in the social sciences and the humanities--continue a vacillation which began with the slow decline of the 1970's. Those of us who believe that the tradition of liberal education is central to the continuation of an enlightened society thus receive a new challenge and responsibility: to find effective and attractive ways to pass this essential tradition on to future generations while at the same time satisfying their growing and understandable demands for an education which is clearly employment-related.
A major reason for our current failure to meet this challenge lies in our failure to reexamine what a liberal education ought to represent in a modern society. I believe a significant insight into our failure is revealed in how we speak about the liberal arts. What we say tells what we see; our language bespeaks our vision--or our lack of one. As I have listened to the liberal arts being discussed and debated I have heard three distinct vocabularies. One belongs to members of the "Academic Establishment," a second to the larger community of business, government, and the professions, and a third to the transiting, harried students briefly suspended in between these first two formidable groups.
Academic practitioners, especially in the liberal arts, speak of their activities in terms of courses, majors, and degrees. In their role as educators they provide substantive content, together with the other dimensions just described, in the form of information, sometimes technique, occasionally even knowledge, in specific disciplines. These disciplines are historical conventions that gradually emerged through centuries of intellectual discourse, taking their current form with the crystallization of the new American universities around the turn of the century. The disciplines serve to break the world up into purportedly useful analytical categories. We would hope, as with Plato's chicken, that they carve reality "at the joints." But whether they do or not, these disciplines have the weight and legitimacy of a highly institutionalized tradition, embodying the specialization and expertise of the various academic guilds (including those of the post-modernists, who are intent on telling us that there are no "joints," and perhaps no "chicken" either.)
A second vocabulary is that of the larger community which utilizes the product--the graduates--of our educational programs and institutions. This broader community of business, government, and the professions speaks much more directly to what their future employees are able to do rather than simply to what they know (although the two capacities are clear related as in knowing what to do and how to do it). Members of this community speak in terms of doing work and achieving results. They talk of specific jobs, tasks, and activities. While members of the academic guilds speak of disciplines, representatives of this more inclusive community speak of positions--positions that need to be filled, positions that the graduates of our colleges and universities want to be able to fill.
A third vocabulary belongs to the students. As the flesh and blood, real time connection between the worlds of school and work--the vocabularies of disciplines and positions--students have more pressing concerns about this interrelationship than does either of the other two groups. They know they want something from the educational establishment that will be of utility in the economic marketplace. In the students' vocabulary these desired attributes are known, with literal accuracy, as "marketable skills." But while students know they want these skills, they do not always know what these skills are or whether or not they have achieved them by the time they complete their educational traverse (or at least their first traverse; as we know with more certainty than they, we are likely to see them return to the mountain more than once). Placement centers and vocational counselors struggle directly with this issue as they encourage students to identify the skills they have developed and help them articulate them in convincing form on job applications, interviews, and resumes.
Caught directly in the middle of this haphazard dialogue between the harrowed halls of ivy and the competitive ferment of the marketplace, liberal arts students are the most disadvantaged of all. Having followed a highly revered tradition of education, liberal arts students are verbally rewarded for preserving fundamental cultural traditions, achieving well-rounded educations, pursuing knowledge for its own sake, developing into esteemed generalists, getting "highly desirable" backgrounds. Often purposeful enough to stay away from rigidly structured vocational and pre-professional programs, liberal arts students still are likely to be unclear or confused about potential career choices, curious about a wide variety of subjects but indefinite about the relation of these subjects to their futures. This is inherently an uncomfortable situation: On the one hand, liberal arts students get highly respectful messages encouraging this educational path, but on the other hand, there often follows on an awkward silence when pressed for the kind of job they might expect to achieve upon graduation.
Yet, by whatever routes they travel and no matter how many times they switch directions, students willing to remain in the liberal arts are important. In fact, they are essential. This is recognized on both sides of the heavily trafficked, poorly regulated intersection between academia and society. Many people, and certainly most academics, are strongly committed to the fundamental purposes of a liberal education--understanding the past, enlightening the present, humanizing the future, appreciating the great breadth and depth of human experience. It is an article of democratic faith that the larger community is well served when men and women are able to bring to the practical events of life a thoughtful capacity for humane understanding and intelligent response. Known to possess these qualities and capacities in ample quantity, liberal arts graduates are often sought by both the private and public sectors. Many organizations know well the value of seeking outstanding young men and women from the liberal arts to fill important and critical positions. Experience has shown both them and us that students successful in the liberal arts will have developed the abilities and the capacities required to fulfill the demands and possibilities of these positions.
But while members of both the academic and the larger community know this, the unsteady enrollments in the liberal arts suggest that many students do not. The important abilities that comprise a liberal arts background--what the liberal arts graduates are able offer the "position market"--are almost totally camouflaged within institutions of higher education. Having not operationalized these abilities and capacities, educators seldom set up learning experiences that overtly develop them; in many instances faculty have not even identified them. No wonder then that students are not informed in coherent or credible ways about the skills they could learn. Except with outside aid from placement and counseling services, most liberal arts majors are hardly aware that they might have these abilities or the prospects of developing them. As a result, students are largely incapacitated from conscientiously attending to their own educational experiences. It is as if a complete set of these abilities should somehow just fall out of the educational process--perhaps critical thinking from Introductory Philosophy, maybe communication from English Lit 101, group processes from team assignments, resource management from maintaining a 3.5 GPA while taking 18 credit hours and working full-time. In truth, these abilities sometimes do fall out, but neither regularly, necessarily, nor predictably do they fall together.
Defining the problem as one in which the parties are speaking past one another suggests that at least a partial solution lies in refashioning a common vocabulary and initiating a mutual dialogue. We need first to rethink what we intend and desire of a liberal arts education, and then we need to communicate this new vision in clear and credible ways. The key to such a more viable and common language, I think, is revealed in the students' widespread currency of the phrase, "marketable skills." Beneath the perfunctory gloss of those two words lies a wise guide for direction.
If we could forego the puristic and egocentric commitments to our disciplines and instead, acting as professional educators, identify the capacities, abilities, and qualities of a liberal arts education in terms of the contemporary skills valuable to both the individual and to the community and its institutions, if we could convince both students and employers that we know what these skills are, and if we could introduce more effective methods of developing these skills in our students, I believe we could move the liberal arts much more fully into the contemporary world. If we did all this, then we could develop programs for liberal arts majors within our educational institutions which would enable them to become aware of what they should be learning, how their learning fits together, and what their possible--and practical--goals could be. Students could then develop some overall sense of what they were trying to do while they were doing it, and they could then connect up liberal arts skills with marketplace opportunities. Liberal arts students would then be able to build on the important distinction between doing something and knowing what it was that they were doing.
Therefore, as professional educators, the central responsibility is ours: What is it that we want the liberal arts students to be doing? The answer I would suggest is that they should be developing a coherent body of process skills within the context of the best intellectual and cultural traditions of the West, and I include in this the Western tradition of an increased understanding and appreciation of cultures not our own. This is a large expectation, and one that we cannot hope to fulfill until we know and can clearly say just what these skills are.
What follows is a statement of what I, as just one educator, see as the essential skills of a liberal arts education. These are: competencies in leadership, decision-making, group processes, interpersonal relations, oral and written forms of self-expression, self-reflection and assessment, discipline, long- and short-range planning, conceptualization, data gathering and integration, logistics and resource management, critical analysis and evaluation, problem solving, and life-long learning. In addition, our society is in great need of generic understanding about such matters as adult development, the dynamics of social change, cross-cultural differences, and information processing and delivery systems.
Any such list as this should and will be critiqued, expanded, modified, debated, and elaborated upon. Ongoing debate and dialogue would stimulate the articulation and examination of a liberal arts skills repertoire still further. Different institutions, and different parts of the same institution might experiment with different configurations and emphases of liberal arts skills.
But whatever skills we might include in a representative list, they need to be understood as skills of process. And however rooted in and communicated through substantive content, we need to attend to them as process. In American education we have concentrated on specialized emphases within confining disciplines and have lost sight of what the overall effect of a solid liberal arts education should be. If it should be anything at all, certainly it should be liberating. We need to free our students from our own inherently restricted academic training and limited commitments. We need to mitigate our time-honored emphasis on content as the focus of learning. We need to educate our students not only in the what but in the how. We need to clearly see specific bodies of knowledge as the means of imparting the fundamental skills of doing, relating, manipulating, managing, thinking, evaluating, creating, contributing. And we ourselves need to introduce to the liberal arts tradition those very process skills that we wish our students to learn and emulate.
How can we do this? I can only offer a glimpse of various possibilities from the perspective of my own discipline, sociology. For example, in a seminar on charismatic leadership I could become less theoretical and historical and instead address more pointedly the issue of what leadership is, the mutual obligations of leader and follower, how leaders actually make decisions and try to implement them, what elements enter into good or bad decisions. I could strive to move the students to the level of analyzing his or her (or even my) own leadership, of giving leadership opportunities to members of the class, of critically examining the daily leadership behaviors of current local or national leaders. In my classes on sociological theory I could address even more directly than I now do the generic idea of concepts and the activity of conceptualizing in relation to contemporary issues and events, demonstrating how this ability gives us increased leverage over aspects of our environment, showing the relationship between how a thing is thought about and how it is reacted to. This could lead, in turn, to self-reflection and assessment--what concepts are we each already using and how do they influence our behavior? Or this could lead to problem solving--how are our solutions dependent upon our definitions of the problem? Data gathering (what kind of information do we need?) and integration (in what ways can we recombine this information?) might follow. Many classes readily lend themselves to the writing of reports, but I could require students to use their reports, written and oral, to try to persuade others to their points of view. Some classes introduce students directly to the use of the computer, but I could try to expand their understanding of what computers can do so that students could extrapolate ways in which the electronic processing and communication of information might further transform our immediate classroom activities. Suddenly we are into long-range planning, critical analysis, social change.
In all of these activities I am moving away from defining a liberal arts education in sociology (or any other discipline, for that matter) as an accumulation of a body of knowledge or an assemblage of facts and moving closer to experiencing a liberal arts education as the ability to work with people, to examine and implement ideas, to develop resources, to respond to challenges, to continually increase and improve one's own capacity and understanding, to what Wittgenstein would call a way of life. In this reformulation knowledge is the medium; competencies in these crucial skills is the message.
These brief remarks barely scratch the surface of what might be possible. Many educators have already moved in many of these directions, limited only by creative energy, material resources, and institutional constraints.
What has yet to be done, however, and what is still badly needed, is boldly to assemble these elements into a coherent and compelling vision of what the liberal arts uniquely can offer. It is not enough to present students with a major, or a body of knowledge, or even entry into a specific occupation or profession. What they need from us, and what we increasingly need of them, is a set of resources with which to respond in intelligent, informed, and creative ways to the possibilities of the future. This set of resources would enable them to fill positions, and, even more importantly, to fulfill themselves, in the public and private roles which will give that future shape. This is the true promise of the liberal arts: a set of resources that takes us beyond our purchase on the present toward an enabling capacity for the future. Our students can achieve these resources, utilizing the solid background of liberal arts content to bring a constantly expanding set of process skills to the fore, if we--as their mentors, coaches, and models--successfully confront the challenge and responsibility of doing so ourselves as the first and essential step in the process.
*Parts of an earlier version of this paper were read at the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, April 1982.