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The Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Research University Today: Histories, Challenges and Futures

May 30, 2013

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

I was invited to attend a conference in Ann Arbor last week hosted by the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and sponsored by the arts and science deans of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC).  The conference provided a forum for a serious conversation about the value of an education in one of the arts and science disciplines.

At issue was a sober question: Do we believe what we profess, that is, the basic skills and special knowledge provided to arts and science students are the building blocks of intellectual creativity and the civil society? If so, what are the opportunities, constraints and challenges we face in communicating these messages to our internal and external constituents? What is the larger political, social and economic context in which we operate?

As at any gathering of leaders in the liberal arts, there was a great deal of powerful rhetoric about the exigencies of our current situation.  We heard talks from the presidents and leaders of foundations (i.e., Mellon, ACLS), professional associations (i.e., AAC&U), universities (i.e., Michigan, Virginia, Berkeley, Dartmouth), colleges (e.g. Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Yale) and distinguished scholars (i.e., Berkeley, Penn State, Chicago, Michigan, Vanderbilt) who shared insights on the nature of the current student and faculty bodies as well as the position and future of higher education.

The meeting reinforced three insights I have. The first is that we need to own the liberal arts and make a strong case for what we do.  This act may mean crafting better and more nuanced arguments than some of our tired “we teach critical thinking” approaches. This approach may also mean that it is acceptable to quantify the benefits from a liberal arts education and not all of the benefits are economic ones.  And we need to make our case in the terms of what matters in the world. In the epigraph to one of his books of poetry, William Butler Yeats says “In dreams begin responsibility”.  Our dreams for the arts and sciences bring the responsibility of not only doing what we do but defending its purpose and value in a number of venues.

The second insight is that having the highest levels of university leadership—our Presidents and Chancellors—speak about the value of the arts and sciences for the university and for the society is key to our success.  It always seemed to me that presidents plan for 30 to 50 years ahead for their institutions whereas a dean needs to be focused on the next 20 years or so.  Both leaders need a clear-eyed sense of what the environment is telling us in order to craft the best the vision for the future of our particular colleges and university.

The third insight is that most of our students live their adolescent years in a media-saturated world where they do not develop their analytical abilities to read and understand complicated texts.  The most able among them have mastered the 5 paragraph essay which they can churn out without deep reflection.  This research was conducted at the University of Chicago, one of our elite educational institutions known for promoting ‘the life of the mind’.  Considering the backgrounds and experiences of our 21st century students is vital as we consider what we should do as educators. We need to develop their skills as broad, abstract cognitive thinkers. With this commitment, the college has undertaken changes in what and how subjects are taught.

We often discuss lifelong learning as one of the benefits of a liberal arts degree. And I had that chance last week to learn from some of the best.

Read Previous Posts By Dean Fitzpatrick.