The Bogus Discussion of Liberal Arts

by Steve Jackson

It was my second job as a consultant in curriculum when I faced down the specter that haunts nearly every discussion of college education in the United States today.

What is the liberal arts and how can we make sure our department’s curriculum is liberal enough?

This question was in a small packet I was handed when I was hired by Hudson University* to aid the department of Arts** in creating a new and innovative curriculum to turn around a steady decline in enrollment.  The faculty had bogged down on a few questions, but in terms of hours spent in discussion, the main problem was obviously this one question pressed forward by two faculty.

I started going through the curriculum and was impressed.  The committee chair and her three associates had rapidly identified the model for students they successfully retained, then used a combination of industry peer reviews, faculty visits from other colleges, and discussions with working artists, to create a wonderful concept of the entrepreneurial artist who could find self-employment through developing paid projects.  In terms of the basic liberal arts (which of course was part of their question), the program they taught was clearly grammatically based, as was their student body. This was successfully operationalized by having most courses being hands-on operational courses.  To the very strong and pointed core they had hung a small set of rhetorical and logical courses which would take the skilled artists and give them the idea they also needed to be a working artist, and what this meant.

The problem was that two of the four members of the committee had backed away from the final design and sent the discussion into a long existential discussion of the liberal arts.  This was not wrong for them to do.  More than once I have walked in on programs which make so many foundational mistakes that fixing it by minor tweaks is impossible, only throwing out the previous design and starting over will bring it forward.  To determine why the two faculty had backed out of the original plan, I read the minutes as closely as I could, looked at the old curriculum, and then talked with the dissenting faculty.

The old program had been a general arts degree with three concentrations based on the artistic background of the three of the five original faculty: graphic design, fiber arts, and sculpture.  One interesting feature of the older program was that the degree core consisted of six classes, four drawing courses and two art history courses followed by a single course in graphic design, fiber arts, and sculpture.  These nine classes then allowed four area specific courses.

This is like finding fired tile near a water source for an archeologist.  The curriculum reviewer can often suggest a theory of how this model came about.  In the original curriculum drawing was considered the core skill of art.  That was why it was at the middle of the program.  The art history courses is common in art colleges, and two are often required for a fine arts degree.  So to the original designers, this was the art degree, and the concentrations was an addition made to act like an elective.

The new curriculum was harder hitting.  Fiber arts, whose professor was no longer present, was dropped from the concentration.  The committee members then decided that a student could work in the digital realm or the physical realm.  The core was now a drawing class, a digital class, a physical arts class, a single art history course, and an arts business course.  Digital and physical arts now had six courses in a strong curriculum that centered on a new maker space.  A capstone then finished the student’s studies.

The two faculty who had backed out of the process and created the deadlock thought that the elimination of drawing and art history classes turned the major into a “practical” instead of a liberal arts major, and that the rush to make the art program popular by making students in the program able to find and retain work was missing the point of an art program.  The term starving artist existed for a reason, and a good liberal arts program did not promise the student would be able to work in the field of their art, only that they would be aware and able to appreciate art when they saw it.

In almost every consult you arrive knowing that there is only about fifty-percent chance you will be able to help.  Most faculty are not keen to listen to outsiders even in situations where listening could result in sustained employment, and there is often underlying issues that issues like “the liberal arts” hides.  In this case though the faculty were not all that biased.  They had real concerns and wanted answers themselves.

The answers were not hard to provide either.

The liberal arts has made shifts over the centuries in meaning.  The original Greek concept of the liberal arts was that in order to seek meaning in a complex universe one must know how to use technology to send, receive and record information (collectively grammar), to process the information seeking deeper meaning in its recorginaztion (logic), and to then clearly communicate to others your findings (rhetoric).  This carried through until after the European renaissance.

Many American scholars are unaware that their own understanding of the liberal arts is strained through the filter of slavery in the United States.  While European universities adopted a strict understanding of the liberal arts as a set of tools that equip the user to determine objective truth, American universities in the years, lacking huge endowments from the eras when faculty where priests who could pray for hire, were dependent on enrollment money in the form of tuition.  Before the Civil War the most reliable source of enrollment money was the extremely wealthy slave holding families of the south***.

Almost all college students in this era were wealthy unless they were being subsidized by a church with the intention of being a pastor.  In terms of individual wealth, southern plantation owners were the key to many college enrollments.  These students were often being sent to get an education since they were the second or third sons and could not expect to run the plantation.  Unless they sought out military service or entered church service, few could expect to be anything other than members of the slave owner society.  Slave owners saw themselves as aristocracy, and like to follow the fashions of European gentry.  One of those fashions was that a lack of education among the idle gentleman class was uncouth.

The expectation of these young gentleman was not that they were learn useful skills to sustain an income producing career, but that they would learn enough culture so as to not embarrass their families when they returned home.  Thus the liberal arts went from a set of tools that allowed an objective thinker to solve problems, to the idea that the student was being prepared for polite society.  Working skills such as engineering were the bane of slave culture in any case, so there was little call for the student to return home with them in his possession.

Thus the idea of the liberal arts being divorced from technology, or divorced from practicality, has more to do with the dead slave holding culture than modern society.  The main goal then is to explain this to faculty so that they understand that the tight shackles of the liberal arts are an illusion crafted by people long dead.

Cutting the shackles in this case was relatively easy.  Hudson University, like most universities, had a “liberal arts” core which is claimed in its catalog “aided a student to develop a liberal understanding of the world required to survive in modern society.  The logic here was obvious.  If a student spent a third of their credits to attain the liberal arts core, then why would a department have to duplicate this?  Either the university was failing to deliver a true liberal arts experience in that core, in which case the solution was not to create a mini-core in a major but to correct the main core. On the other hand, if the university core was being well done, then there was no need to worry anyway.

At this point the argument of liberal arts was a dead letter.  As often happens in these discussion, the liberal arts turned out to mean whatever each faculty member meant it to mean to support  their argument.  When the rhetorical tool was removed the conversation got more honest.  For example, the argument on drawing courses did not actually hinge on the liberal arts, but on the employment of three adjuncts.  Fewer courses meant that each adjunct would not likely get their desired number of classes.  And this crosses a basic idea of professional curriculum design – curriculum is created to teach students, not to employ faculty.

In the end it was the issues of what classes the faculty were willing to teach, and how many adjuncts would be needed to teach core classes, that defeated the curriculum change proposal.  The next year a new committee met and developed a new curriculum than changed class titles but remained otherwise the same.  The program ended up being closed two years later as its could no longer sustain the department size without new majors, but the work was not lost, one of the faculty members later created the same program at a new university proving the concept.

Just to close out this missive.  A friend of mine once defined liberal arts as, “anything which allows me to teach what I want, when I want, and to whom I want.”  While a bit bitter in tone, the curriculum designer should understand that the basic idea of liberal arts is sound, and that even the trivium is a powerful tool for designing hard hitting majors, but that the buzz word is hard to deal with when it is used to close down discussion.

*Hudson University is a tip of the hat to DC Comics and the television series Castle.

**It is my normal practice to use the Department of Critical Studies to identify the program I am hired to work with. In this case the arguments were discipline specific and there are art programs around the United States, there is no way the reader will be able to identify the particular program unless they happened to be present during my visit.  My apology to people who will write claiming to have been present and to want to discuss points of the visit.  To maintain my contractural obligations any discussion of this sort will be in the abstract and not about any specific event.  This is done with full knowledge that the reader may have been sitting around the table and been party to the discussion.

***European aristocracy were the old world equivalent.  Blessed with huge incomes and little real work, a scion of a great house was expected to do something useful.  A few years reading at a college was seen as a civilizing influence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *