Engagement, Higher Education

Practical vs. Liberal Arts Education

Well, I am back from my respite in the tropics, where I had time to read several books, some of which were about education.  In an interesting history of higher education in the United States, I found myself laughing aloud, as I read that the demise of liberal arts education has been railed against since at least the 1860s.  Charles Dorn’s, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017), flags the Morrill Act as a pivotal moment in this argument.  The Library of Congress describes it here:

“An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts

Largely celebrated as an act that represented a commitment to education as a public good, it is about as clear a commitment to practical/applied education as there could be.  Even before this act was established, alarms about practical education were being raised. Dorn recounts a speech by John C. C. Hamilton on this very issue.

The numerous schools and colleges scattered over the vast expanse of our country, the liberal encouragement which they receive from the public, and the munificent patronage lavished on them by the various States, amply attest to the value which the American people place on their system of general instruction. And yet, whilst the importance of the subject is recognized in this practical and substantial manner, and whilst we fully understand the great agency which the enlightenment of the citizen is to exert on the progress and final success of our peculiar form of government, it is surprising to see how great a prejudice exists against the liberal studies. The pursuit of them is regarded as a waste of time. We are told that they contribute nothing towards what are vaguely called the practical purposes of life; that they are too tedious to suit the active spirt of the American youth. [An Address Delivered before the Philodemic Society of Georgetown College, D.C., by Joh C.C. Hamilton Esq. of Washington, D.C. (Washington, DC: Henry Polkinhor, 1862), 3-4.]  (as cited in Dorn, p. 68)

So, there it is.  We have always been torn between learning things that are good for us and learning practical things. But Hamilton does not just reflect a sense of longing for liberal arts; he is also recounting a public sentiment about the temperament of the learner. Well, if the liberal arts were “too tedious to suit the active spirit of the American youth” in 1862, then it is the “same as it ever was” (apologies to Talking Heads).

What strikes me is this: with the exception of those very few people who get to spend their lives thinking about one area of study, uninterrupted by commerce or teaching, we are always juggling the love of pure inquiry with the practical use of that inquiry.  For most of us in higher education, the juggle is not practical vs. liberal arts.  It is really about dividing our thinking between our field of study and how best to teach about it.  Frequently, the best path to that teaching is helping students see the value of what they are learning.  Guess what? They frequently find that value when they understand how it might be useful to them.

Whether we are teaching about nursing, accounting, art, philosophy, or history, most of us spend a lot of time considering where the points of engagement might be.  You see, after we get over the notion that everyone finds our discipline exciting (usually in one’s first semester of teaching), we get obsessed with how to help our students feel the excitement that we feel. We usually stumble through many strategies, testing out assignments of various types, trying to get our students to understand what is important or interesting about the subject at hand.  Whatever the assignment, that moment of understanding often comes when students can connect the knowledge to something tangible in their own lives.

So, our nursing students endure anatomy and physiology because they know it is a means to success in their profession.  But what about that art history course?  Can we help them see a purpose for this knowledge without demeaning the pleasure of just encountering some of the great works of art? For those who are pursuing degrees in literature, can we help them see the poetry in math, or at least connect it to their daily realities?  For the psychology major, can we offer a music class that fully engages them with the role of music in our culture, without turning it into preparation for future trivial pursuit games?

I guess what I am trying to say is this; it is all practical or useful in some way.  Indeed, much of what we teach is downright magical in the ways in which it can help us build an understanding of our lives.  Some things are directly useful in particular professional contexts. Others are a different kind of useful as they help us process cultural and emotional responses to all sorts of things. And those much maligned symbols of the true liberal arts, philosophy and history, have never been any more or any less useful than they are at this exact moment in history.  They are filled with opportunities to understand the world around us.

So, let’s not spend another minute arguing about practical vs. liberal arts education. If we continue to commit to a balance of major and general educational experiences, we will be just fine.  Instead, let’s think about how to create learning experiences that help our students discover the practical value that every discipline provides. After all, we don’t actually want them to find this stuff “tedious.”

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