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Insight On The Use Of A Liberal Education

October 4, 2007

An InsideHigherEd piece from Wednesday, Oct. 3, contained a Q&A with Dr. Rudolph H. Weingartner. Dr. Weingartner recently wrote a book, titled A Sixty-Year Ride Through The World Of Education, and was interviewed by Insidehighered’s Andy Guess about it. To me the book sounded very similar to William Chace’s 100 Semesters, a work I’m currently in the middle of reading. In sum, both authors are retired, upper-level higher education administrators reflecting on the good and bad old days.

But on the Weingartner interview, the question and answer below caught me eye.

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Q: What is the connection between the decline in esteem for liberal education and economic factors? Is there any way to reconcile them?

A: There is a short answer to this and a long answer. Tuition and other college-related costs have gone up so fantastically, that those who have to pay this freight — the parents, note, not the students themselves — feel they have to get their money’s worth. The easiest way to interpret that desire is to ask that the institution prepare their kids for a decent job they will get when they graduate. Not many parents think of a lifetime of jobs, unless they think profession: law, medicine, engineering. When that is envisaged from the beginning, that liberal education doesn’t seem so bad, since, if properly configured, it prepares for professional school.

I’ll only outline the long answer. Since the days when liberal education stopped being the only undergraduate education there was, its proponents have done a lousy job in selling it. The issue is not first job; the issue is a long trajectory of jobs. When I was dean [at Northwestern] and spoke to the parents who visited their freshman kids for the first time — an organized set of activities, including a speech by me. Among other things, I asked them to raise their hands as to who was now doing the kind of work they started out doing after graduating: very few hands. Then I asked: how many are working at jobs, activities that didn’t exist when you graduated? A lot of hands.

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Great response. It makes me want to read the book.

I use different, less-direct terms than Dr. Weingartner, but he outlined something I talk to my students about as much as possible. My subsistence work as a student advisor forces me to be a salesperson for higher education in general, and the liberal arts in particular. At my university we have a core curriculum, which helps in foisting—unfortunately—a liberal education on undergraduates. I know my institution is not alone in this predicament.

As Dr. Weingartner suggested, we need to do a better job of persuading our students. I’m not saying my institution always does a poor job of selling its liberal education qualities. But I nevertheless find myself regularly reminding students of the advantages of studying the liberal arts. We must be more consistent and persistent in our persuation. Weingartner’s notion of our “long trajectory,” or “lifetime,” of jobs can only help in that endeavor. – TL

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