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Ferrall On Saving Liberal Arts Colleges: Critiquing His Manifesto

May 23, 2008

Although I first pointed out his InsideHigherEd piece in February, I want to belatedly comment upon—and critique—Victor E. Ferrall‘s manifesto on saving liberal arts colleges.

Why? It does contain some valuable pieces of information and important observations. But, while I admired his overall goal (given in the title below), I found several of his subpoints both unsupportable and lackadaisically constructed. In some instances I felt he was throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Here goes—with some mild excerpting:

“Can Liberal Arts Colleges Be Saved?”

– “The 2004 Carnegie Classifications identified only 95 liberal arts colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more of all graduates are liberal arts and sciences, not career-based, majors. They accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S.”

ME: That minuscule 0.8 percent is astoundingly low. Wow. It’s like they’re already dead.

– “In a 1990 Yankelovich survey, two-thirds of respondents believed the main reason to go to college was to get the skills necessary for a good job. A 2004 University of California at Los Angles survey reported that three-quarters of all students gave as their reasons for going to college “to get training for a specific career,” “to be able to get a better job,” and/or “to be able to make more money.””

ME: Typical. I would’ve said the same thing from the mid-1980s until around the mid-1990s. Hopefully the survey excluded those, somehow, who understood what a liberal education is about but were nonetheless headed to a professional school to end up with a “job”?

– “This year, a Special Commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “to consider how best to improve our system of higher education” completed a year long study. Its 55-page report of analysis and recommendations does not even mention liberal education or the liberal arts.”

ME: That’s because your run-of-the-mill Bush administration Republican, in my experience, doesn’t think a great deal about education for its own sake. But this is just my sense from reading about, or hearing, them through the media.

– “The 95 “true” liberal arts colleges, the pure practitioners of liberal education, are in trouble.”

ME: I’d like to see “true” defined a bit more rigorously.

– “The number of persons who view themselves as liberally educated is declining.”

ME: If only 0.8 percent of college students are in these institutions, how much further can it decline if one considers that the post-WWII massive growth of higher education has leveled out?

– “The number who wish they were liberally educated is declining even faster and the number who think they know what a liberal education is, or even that they would like to know, is shrinking fastest of all. In recent years, liberal education’s slide has been masked to some extent by demographics, the upsurge in applicants for all higher education resulting from the flood of college age children produced by the baby boomers. The flood is coming to an end.”

ME: Well, it doesn’t have to be a mystery. It’s not masked if we look hard a majors chosen.

– “A career-directed education has become the goal of many, if not most, young people eager to get ahead. A purely materialistic motivation for getting an education is now the norm, not the exception.”

ME: My experience as an adjunct instructor and advisor in higher education confirms this.

– “There is economic pressure on liberal arts colleges to add career-directed courses and programs to attract students. The most prestigious colleges are to some extent relieved from this pressure by their wealth and the fact that so many of their graduates know they will go on to graduate and professional schools and therefore feel less need to collect a commercial credential at the undergraduate level; to learn what Elia Kazan’s immigrant father called something “use-eh-full.””

ME: Economic pressure. Now we’re getting somewhere. If we want to save the liberal arts in general, whether via colleges or in terms of majors chosen, then let’s take some of the pressure off of students through reducing student loan debt. I wonder if anyone has calculated the percentage increase in non-liberal arts majors since the inception and rapid expansion of the student loan program? We have now have, firmly in place, a structural incentive to choose majors that will result in jobs that help avoid debt. And with the recent inception of no-debt undergraduate programs at top-tier schools (Harvard, Yale, etc.), there’s an even worse problem: the liberal arts might return, as it was in yesteryear, to those who probably already have some sense of the importance of the liberal arts—the educated elite who gain entry into these schools.

– “Even the richest colleges, however, are not immune from pressure to expand their curricula in vocational directions in order to attract students who are more interested in getting a good job and making money than in Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, and to make sure top students are not lured away by so-called honors colleges at state universities.”

ME: Speaking of philosophy, I wonder what Ferrall thinks about the recent NYT story about the rise in prominence of philosophy (covered also here at H&E)?

– “Can liberal arts colleges be saved or are they, to take Paul Neely’s apt analogy, becoming like high end passenger trains that went out of business because no matter how well they performed, consumers had come to prefer traveling by plane and automobile? Unless the case liberal arts colleges make for liberal education and for themselves is reformed, their curricula restored, and the across the board teaching excellence of their faculties secured, the answer in all probability is that those that survive will evolve into purveyors of career-directed, not liberal, education.”

ME: I disagree with this either/or scenario. To me it’s likely that they’ll muddle along, in some cases quite healthily, in this statistically small status. (But I’ll continue with the article.)

“The Case as It Is Made Now”

– “Much of the Case currently made for liberal education is internally inconsistent, cynically cobbled together to pander to the preconceptions of high school students and their parents, unsupported and/or simply not credible.”

ME: But who is making this case? Recruiters, staff, or faculty from liberal arts colleges? High school guidance counselors? Career consultants?

– “As the steady decline in the demand for liberal education shows, the Case is not persuasive to those who are not pre-sold, i.e. those who need to be persuaded. Consider the following Case elements:”
– “(1) Even though it won’t get you a job, a liberal education really is useful because it teaches students how to think critically.
– “The “critical thinking” mantra is an especially good example of embracing a bad argument solely because it is not laughable on its face. Never mind that no one knows what “critical,” as opposed to plain good, thinking is, or that there is no reason to suppose that one is more likely to become a critical thinker studying English literature than business management, or that there is certainly no reason to suspect that English literature professors are themselves more critical thinkers, or more capable of teaching critical thinking than business management professors. Yet no single assertion is more central to the Case made for liberal arts educations than the claim it will make you a more critical thinker, whatever that is.”

ME: A bad argument? No one knows what critical thinking is? No reason to suppose that business management does not teach good critical thinking? There are answers to these questions, but Ferrall refuses to acknowledge them. This Britannica article offers some help, as does this Wikipedia entry (see especially the references). The topic seems to, at least, go back to the 1940s with a book by Edward Glasser. But apart from the particular terminology, Ferrall clearly does not understand that critical thinking means philosophy and core humanities (literature, history, theology, etc.) On business management, that’s an arena where critical thinking and philosophy skills are applied, not taught. The same goes in any non-humanities course.

– “(2) A liberal education best provides oral and written communication skills.”
– “It is certainly true that a liberal education can provide these skills, but is it more true than for career-based education (or for that matter for the education that comes from being in the workplace)? There is no convincing evidence that the liberally educated are more effective communicators and the fact that the assertion is totally unsupported undercuts the Case as a whole.”

ME: Again, career-based education is where writing skills are applied, not taught. What school is Ferrall using as his paradigm for liberal education—such-and-such CC or DeVry? Every humanities course with which I’ve been involved normally requires 2-3 papers every term, not including any final paper research products. Those courses also generally involve group discussion, one-on-one speaking up, and perhaps presentations. How could this practice, in an assessment setting, ~not~ help one improve their communications skills?

– “(3) Liberal arts colleges provide an international education.”
– “We live in a global world and it behooves liberal arts colleges to internationalize their curricula to the maximum extent possible. This does not mean, however, that the following common liberal arts promotion makes sense: “The globe is shrinking, we live in an international world, and our college recognizes these important facts by encouraging all students to spend a semester abroad.”…”

ME: Here I completely agree with Ferrall—provided this rule generally applies. I don’t think does, but I won’t argue it.

-“(4) You can study the subjects you like best and are most interested in.”
– “In an effort to attract students, liberal arts colleges have reduced, and some have even eliminated, course requirements. To the extent they do so they turn over liberal education curriculum design to students who by definition are not yet liberally educated and virtually insure that their education will be less broad, less liberal. Maria Montessori’s maxim “follow the child” may make sense in first grade, but not at a liberal arts college unless, of course, the college’s education philosophy is that students will find liberal education on their own without the college’s guidance, in which case why should they spend $200,000 for 26 months?”

ME: Again, if this point were universally true of liberal arts colleges, I’d agree—but it’s not. Ferrall needs to call out those schools who have reduced or eliminated course requirements in a negative way. A great many schools, liberal arts and otherwise, have core curricula. These “core/s” generally require either one full or one-plus academic years to complete.

“(5) You will get good grades and this will help you get into the graduate or professional school of your choice.”
– “Colleges don’t explicitly include grade inflation in their pitches to students, but everybody knows it is going on. In fact, grade inflation serves only to cheapen the value of a liberal arts degree and signals to students that a liberal education is simply a part of playing the credential-seeking game, of getting ahead. Further, since everyone is doing it, it doesn’t work very well.”

ME: Total bumpkis. No accredited school could even vaguely promise good grades and maintain their status as an accredited institution.

“The Case That Needs to Be Made”

– “In contrast to these frivolous, disingenuous or wrong claims, the distinctively desirable features of a liberal arts education are de-emphasized or omitted entirely from the Case because it is assumed by admissions staff that they won’t be believed or understood.”

ME: Of course most of those so-called claims above are unproven, but we’ll listen anyway.

– “(1) The quality of a liberal education that makes it so effective is that the subject matter studied is not “use-eh-full.”
– “It is the very “uselessness” of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand.”

ME: To me, the exact opposite claim needs to be made: that liberal education is universally useful. In contrast to point #1 under the “case made” category, my contention goes beyond job skills to everyday life. A liberal education helps one be a better mother/father, worker, citizen, driver, astronaut, custodian, deep-sea diver, politician, doctor, lawyer, engineer, machinist, and server worker. We all need a liberal education.

– “(2) The best teaching is at liberal arts colleges.
– “If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. The mission of universities is diverse and complex, the mission of liberal arts colleges is singular, to provide a liberal education to undergraduates. For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on. Universities, by their very nature, inescapably focus on specialization, not breadth.”
– “Universities are aware of their inherent disadvantages in providing undergraduate liberal arts education and in recent years some have made efforts to shore up their performance by creating so-called honors colleges and requiring full professors to teach an undergraduate course now and then. By and large, however, these are Band-Aid efforts. A Nobel laureate once complained to me about being required to teach an undergraduate seminar. “I’m a professor, not a teacher,” he growled.”

ME: This claim would have to be made very carefully. Community colleges, for instance, hire for teaching in similar ways. Universities employ some real teaching stars, so a liberal arts college recruiter would have to caveat: “on the whole,” “across the board,” “generally speaking,” etc. Would you want to oversell your teaching and set up a constantly complaining student body? If you oversell teaching, then shouldn’t the prof enable everyone to get a B or A in her/his course?

“(3) Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.”
– “There is no doubt that this is a tough sell for college bound, wealth-seeking, “what’s in it for me” philistines and their nervous parents, but enrichment is inescapably central to the value of the liberal arts. Before I came to the academy, I was a lawyer. I know to a certainty that one does not learn how to practice law until one starts doing it. It is not learned in law school. Therefore, a career-directed, pre-law program at the undergraduate level makes no sense, i.e., even though vocational, it is neither useful nor enriching. By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.”

ME: I agree completely, but one must point out that liberal arts colleges provide a venue for group reading and discussion. It must be argued that liberal arts colleges places for tugging, pulling, and gnawing on the bone/book at hand—with the help of classmates and professors. Otherwise the student would say that he/she can do this along the way to riches. Again, I’d like to know Ferrall’s opinion on the NYT piece about the rise of philosophy.

[Aside: Why not come up with 5 “needs to be made” points to balance the 5 faulty “made now” points above?]

– “Curriculum”
– “In the early 19th century, subject matter that made up the liberal arts curriculum was fixed: the ancient classics, rhetoric, logic, Greek and Latin. It was what a gentleman, a liberally educated person, had to know.”

ME: Um, it was also an environment where discipline, memorization, and learning ancient languages ruled. Not all those classics were read in English. This sentence way too nostalgic.

– “Today, while the curriculum is flexible, taking advantage of the special skills and interests of the faculty, it still defines liberal education at each liberal arts college.”

ME: “It” meaning a variation the list, comprising the curriculum, located in the prior sentence? Or just it meaning curriculum?

– “It is the responsibility of the faculty — not the students, not the administration — to create a curriculum and the goal in doing so must be to make the best possible use of the faculty to insure that the college’s graduates are securely launched on a lifetime of liberal education.”
– “Distribution, as opposed to course, requirements represent a partial abrogation of this responsibility. Perhaps after the first two or three years a distribution requirement makes sense, but course requirements come first. Elimination of requirements is a marketing, not educational, strategy. Since the objective of liberal arts colleges is to provide a liberal education the old Brown University no requirements strategy is disingenuous as well as wrong.”

ME: But this is Brown alone. Brown’s done this for some time. Again, what other liberal arts schools are advocating the elimination of all requirements?

– “A liberal education is broad, not narrow. The more major requirements imposed, the narrower the resulting education. If all departments reduced their major requirements, liberal education would be facilitated.”

ME: Stop. The terms are now switched. We went from talking about no course requirements to talking about majors. And, how does a major in philsophy, literature, or history, for instance, result in a narrower education? If one were required, as an undergraduate, to talk all of your courses in analytic philosophy, Shakespeare, or U.S. history, then yes, your final education will be narrow. But no undergraduate programs do this. [Tim scratches his head.]

– “Experiencing some depth of inquiry is a part of a liberal education, but not at the expense of breadth. Graduate and professional schools, not to mention getting a job, will give students all the depth they need. …”

ME: True, but these statements do not follow from those directly preceding.

– “Which courses offered by a department receive the greatest departmental attention — survey and entry-level courses or specialized advanced courses for major? Too often, it is the latter.”

ME: Very true on an individual faculty basis, but not a departmental basis. I know that department chairs, from personal experience, struggle to get individual faculty to teach survey courses. This is a problem at elite or aspirational-elite schools.

– “I well remember a talk given by a creative writing professor who told us that the single most important and enriching course in his undergraduate career was Astronomy 101. At liberal arts colleges, his experience should be commonplace, not exceptional. 101 courses are the foundation of a liberal education.”

ME: I don’t necessarily agree. Survey courses are often stuck at the mere survey level (meaning shallow) because of school content requirements. This waters down their liberal education potential, turning them into what Paulo Freire mocked as the banking philosophy of education (deposit/withdraw). Finally, who says that mid and upper-level courses can’t form the basis of a liberal education. If taken across the board, they most certainly can. Plus, the smaller enrollments enable greater student-teacher ratios and, consequently, closer assessment and vocal interaction.

– “Interdisciplinary courses are inherently pro-liberal arts. There are problems with them, however, including that creating a truly interdisciplinary syllabus is difficult and more work to teach, and that there is not the kind of recognition for success in interdisciplinary teaching that exists within departments. The steps colleges can take to ameliorate or eliminate these problems are obvious and should be taken.”

ME: I’m not sure I agree with this. It depends on which subjects are being melded together. And the value of interdisciplinary courses depends on the required prerequisites. I agree, however, that this is a problematic area.

– “A liberal education is best pursued when students share the learning experience. Common courses are a sound device for maximizing sharing. Similar problems inhere in teaching common courses as in interdisciplinary courses and require the same steps to remove them. …”

ME: As long as Ferrall doesn’t mean for the entire four years, I agree wholeheartedly. A shared core curriculum is invaluable when a college hopes to foster a collegial, friendly campus.

– “There is nothing wrong with career-based courses and there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to pursue them, but not in lieu or instead of liberal arts courses. “Take them in the evening, in the summer, or before or after you graduate, but for the 26 months you are with us you will pursue a liberal education full time” is the correct rule for liberal arts colleges.”

ME: I snipped this from above, under the international studies section, but I thought Ferrall was using 26 months as an epithet for shortening the college experience due to study-abroad programs? I mean, if one figures 16-week semesters, and it takes at least 8 semesters to graduate, and roughly 4 weeks equal a month, shouldn’t a degree take at least 32 months of in-class time to earn? Or maybe Ferrall is just accepting 6 weeks abroad? I’m confused.

– “No course credit should be given for non-academic initiatives. If students have excellent summer work experiences or organize successful public service programs, they should put them on their resumes, not in their transcripts. The quality of the liberal education a college delivers is measured by what happens at the college, not in a congressman’s office or at a European university. If students can get a better liberal education somewhere other than at the college, why should they attend the college at all? Off-campus experience can supplement and enhance the liberal education a college offers, but not replace it.”

ME: I actually agree with this wholeheartedly. Internships should only count toward job-oriented degrees or credential programs. Perhaps I’d make an exception for an internship in a humanities/liberal arts-based public institution? Examples could include the National Archives, Library of Congress, Art Institute, etc.

– “The Faculty”
– “Sadly, it is easier for liberal arts colleges to raise money for buildings, sports, or almost anything other than faculty salaries and support.”

ME: In the context of a large state school, or medium-to-large higher education institution in general, I agree. But with liberal arts schools I disagree. What liberal arts school, other Drake University and its Drake Relays (track and field), is known for its sports? It should, on the contrary, be the easiest at liberal arts schools to seek raises in salary.

– “If, however, liberal arts colleges do not offer the very best teaching, their prospects for the future are at best problematic. Faculties are the heart and soul of liberal education.”

ME: All too true.

– “It makes no sense to staff a liberal arts college with teachers who are not themselves liberally educated. (Indeed, if college presidents, vice presidents, deans and other administrators are to play a meaningful role in directing the course of a liberal arts college, they also need to be liberally educated.) Hiring procedures used by liberal arts colleges – posting ads that ask candidates to furnish information about their qualifications to teach a particular specialty; 20 minute interviews in hospitality suites at professional society meetings where narrow specialists gather; observing candidates teach a 50-minute class to students chosen because they are majoring in the candidates area of specialization – are not well-calculated to reveal the extent and quality of candidates’ liberal education.”
– “Certainly little that happened to candidates at the graduate schools where they earned their Ph.D.s provides assurance that the candidates are liberally educated. Graduate schools are antithetical to liberal education. They put a premium on and reward narrowness, not breadth. Indeed, most graduate schools have precious little to do with preparing their students to be effective teachers. The graduate school game is research and publication, no matter how frivolous or insignificant.”
– “Worse, graduate schools dissemble about their graduates. A letter of recommendation from a graduate school dean or professor saying a graduate will be a good liberal arts college teacher frequently really means the graduate school believes the graduate will not be a successful researcher. Graduate school deans and professors often have little or no knowledge about the potential teaching capability of their students, and care less. …”

ME: This whole section is convulated, and seemingly ends on a joke. At first it seemed that Ferrall might be arguing that liberal arts schools should populate their faculty with graduates of liberal arts colleges. I’m pretty sure, however, he didn’t mean anything that incestuous. He means that one can show the marks of a liberal education in general (I hope). Looking for those marks would certainly behoove both liberal arts schools and universities in general. They are marks of intelligence.

I hope Ferrall is joking, or being tongue-in-cheek, with regard to his assessment of graduate education. One needs the mind of a liberally-educated person to succeed in humanities graduate school programs. And if a graduate program could destroy one’s liberal education, what’s the value of a liberal education to begin with? If graduate schools had that power, then perhaps everyone should attend a graduate program. As a product of graduate history education, I can say with confidence that there is no way a solidly-educated liberal arts student will regress in graduate school because of graduate school. The regression will occur out of sloth, not higher-order miseducation.

Finally, many graduate school professors also teach undergraduate courses. Because of this, they are necessarily at least somewhat qualified to talk about a person’s teaching skills. And if the candidate hopes to end up a liberal arts school, well, they’ll tell their writers that. Otherwise the writer will of course talk about a candidates research and publication record as a mark of the candidates intelligence and ability to communicate.

– “The number of new Ph.D.’s has increased faster than the number of college teaching positions. This can put colleges in the enviable position of having a surfeit of candidates to choose from. Too often, however, this advantage is lost because a first cut is made on the basis of the ranking of the universities from which candidates’ degrees were received. There is little reason to believe a social historian from Harvard is more liberally educated or more likely to become an excellent teacher than one from a lower ranked institution.”

ME: Very true.

– “The efforts and aptitudes required to gain admission to and earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (or any other first rate graduate school) are not closely correlated, if at all, with good teaching.”

ME: Again, unless that Ph.D. is in a core liberal arts field.

– “Indeed, a respectable argument can be made that they are counter indicators. In fact, it is far from self-evident that liberal educatedness and teaching excellence are positively correlated with possession of a Ph.D. When a college has an opportunity to hire a potentially excellent teacher who lacks the Ph.D. credential, a retired judge or legislator perhaps, or a linguist or artist (even if an M.F.A. is also missing), the opportunity should be seized. …”

ME: This is an unreasonable request in today’s higher education game. The better option was stated above: look for PhDs who bear the marks of a solid liberal education.

– “Once hired, most new teachers need to be taught how to teach. This did not happen to most of them at graduate school. Throwing them into the classroom and letting them sink or swim, a traditional approach, makes no sense. Instruction of new teachers by faculty members who are skilled teachers should be intensive and continuing, not hit or miss. The progress of new teachers needs to be systematically monitored. Too often what is known about a young faculty member’s teaching skills is as best anecdotal, largely based on passing comments by students. Reliable evaluation is essential to effective training and, of course, to making sound tenure decisions.”

ME: This is a great suggestion—if it’s not done already. Many colleges and universities provide faculty with mentors and minimally, at least, hold seminars on maximizing teaching. And continuous monitoring and assessment—ideally by one’s peers—is essential to keeping faculty sharp. Here Ferrall and I are in substantial agreement.

– “In the popular press, tenure is controversial, seen by many outside the academy as an undeserved life-long sinecure. The claimed centrality of tenure to preserving academic freedom, heavily relied on by tenure supporters, is not persuasive. The freedom to assert controversial positions is not an issue for the overwhelming majority of faculty members. Instances where it can reasonably be said that, but for tenure, a faculty member would be fired are rare. In addition, academic freedom can be contractually guaranteed without tenure, e.g. “No professor can be disciplined, demoted or terminated for expressing a controversial or unpopular view.”…”

ME: Yes, it can be contractually guaranteed, but we don’t (yet) operate in that environment. In the meantime, tenure also protects faculty when they critique (occasionally in a controversial way) students and administration—no small consideration. In that way tenure affects every single faculty member. Period. It’s not about asserting positions that our society at large sees as controversial (although that’s important too, especially when trustees are considered).
The tenure discussion became a bit of a digression in Ferrall’s article, so I cut out a substantial passage on the subject.

– “At some of the finest liberal arts colleges a published book is a tenure requirement. This may make sense at graduate schools where the objective is to promote scholarship and research, not teaching. It makes no sense at liberal arts colleges. It is commonly observed that scholarship informs and enhances teaching. If this is so, as I strongly believe it to be, publications need not be considered separately as a part of the tenure review process because their enhancing effect will be reflected in the teaching performance of the candidate. On the other side of the coin, poor teachers can produce outstanding scholarship. They should be encouraged to devote their live to graduate school research, not liberal arts college teaching.”

ME: This makes sense. I’m not familiar with the intricacies of tenure decisions at liberal arts colleges.

– “The first place most businesses look to save money is workers’ salaries. Such cost cutting efforts, however, are frequently frustrated by the pressures of competition and unions. At liberal arts colleges these pressures are more easily resisted. The result is that faculty salary increases tend to lag behind other employment venues and sometimes even languish below the rise in cost of living. Since far and away the most valuable resource of a college is its faculty, this is foolish.”
– “The reluctance to grant salary increases to faculty is far less apparent in the case of college administrators. Perhaps in making salary decisions, business executive members of college boards of trustees identify faculty with their factory workers, and administrators with themselves. It has been observed that when the salary of a college or university president reaches three times that of senior faculty, a potentially destructive disequilibrium is created. This disequilibrium is becoming more common.”
– “Salaries reflect perceived value. The fact that many liberal arts colleges pay their teachers poorly reflects how the institutions value teachers’ services, and inevitably how teachers value themselves. …Faculty salaries should increase no less rapidly than those of administrators. Second, salaries of senior faculty should increase no less rapidly than starting salaries for assistant professors. Third, teaching excellence should be rewarded by salary increases, not bonuses or prizes which are always sporadic, capricious and often devices designed to portray the institution as more generous than it in fact is. Fourth, special effort should be given to encouraging donors to earmark gifts for faculty salaries.”

ME: Excellent points.

– “Conclusion”
– “A not insignificant portion of the challenges now faced by liberal arts colleges are of their own making, resulting from competition between them. Costs have been increased by the addition of programs and resources for the specific purpose of attracting students away from competing colleges. Competition has caused dollars to be diverted from important uses, e.g. for faculty salaries and support, to flashy facilities and programs.”

ME: This has not been shown above. Intra-liberal-arts-college competition for students has not at all been covered. You can’t just throw it in during your conclusion. Could it be the case that universities are doing a better job of mimicing liberal arts schools with core curricula?

-“Grade inflation and the elimination of requirements are examples of competition between liberal arts colleges that degrades the offerings of all of them.”

ME: Again, this intramural competition hasn’t been discussed. It’s totally different than the identity problems, whether external or internal, mentioned above.

– “A few liberal arts colleges are wealthy, but most struggle financially. They all, however, are threatened by declining demand for liberal education. If they have any long-run chance of resisting the vocationalizing of their curricula, they need to make common cause, to work together, not at odds with each other.”

ME: Once again, I thought they were working against prevailing ideas about the meaning of a college education (i.e. vocation/”useful” v. humanities-type education goals), not other liberal arts colleges?


I admire Victor Ferrall’s goals in this piece (namely, the admiration for and defense of liberal arts colleges). And there are some solid philosophical points and passages. But his weak or untrue premises, as well as writing style, detract from his purpose. I think the essay might be too long for its own good.

Thoughts? Other criticisms? Am I off base? – TL


Note: The link to Ferrall in the opening sentence was the best I could find.

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  1. It will take me awhile to get through all of this, but I wanted to “pre-comment” – at least to demonstrate that I was reading, and thinking.

    One of the problematic starting points in Ferrall's argument is his belief in statistics. My father used to laugh when people complained that only 1/4 of high school students in the 1960s and 1970s were doing well and how that demonstrated some educational collapse. “In 1940,” he would say, “only the top 1/4 of eighth graders went to academic high schools, so of course the average high school student did better.”

    And so, ever since the predecessor of Michigan State University was founded in 1855, the percentage of liberal arts colleges has been declining. Of course less than 1% of people went to colleges then – far less – maybe 0.8%.

    The decline is partly seen through a Utopian view of a past which never existed. Did male students in 1950 go to universities in order to get “better jobs”? Yes they did. Did females in 1950 often go to universities to find husbands? I've heard that as well. It was bemoaned then, it is bemoaned now. But remember folks, education has never been culturally valued in America. This isn't Ireland – the most creative poet is not equal in school to the best footballer. This is not Germany – Hillary Clinton can still win a primary by bashing her opponent as an “intellectual.”

    But I say this as one who walks into a “top” PhD program that operates – in my view – as nothing but a trade school for the professorate, and I find that highly frustrating. Wide ranging knowledge – and – to support the necessity of critical thinking/critical pedagogy as essential to this – wide ranging “doubt” are vital to me. (You can't really have wide-ranging knowledge without a willingness to doubt all that you see around you, otherwise the world is simply what it is.) But that does not seem to be the driving desire of most of my cohort.

    A dozen of us gather each week “wasting valuable time” in a Critical Studies Group, though, and we bring the essentials of liberal study to ourselves. And I believe that this happens, in similarly small ways, on campuses everywhere. Just as the NY Times reported this year a vast upswing in the number of philosophy major undergrads – there are counter paths to every major current.

    I'll keep reading…


  2. Ira,

    Thanks for taking the time to “pre-comment” (good one, the pun that is). This post is my attempt to rival the lengthiness of Errol Morris's NYT Zoom weblog postings.

    I look forward to your continued commentary once you're done wasting time with your Critical Studies Group. 😉

    – TL


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