A confession: I love liberal arts. I am fascinated by, and passionate about, literature, science, mathematics, social sciences, and philosophy, which I studied as an undergraduate. I have always loved school, and I loved college even more. If I could get paid to be a professional student, it would be my dream career. My liberal arts education has made my life invariably richer and more rewarding.
Sadly, liberal arts is not for everyone. Many students find the way schools are designed and their focus on liberal arts incredibly frustrating. Their interests are different from mine. They do not enjoy writing literature analyses of The Canterbury Tales, conducting social science research, or learning advanced statistics and calculus.
Even though the world demands a variety of skills and benefits from a variety of personalities and interests, the American education system is decidedly uniform. There is one degree, the Bachelor’s degree, to rule them all, and anything short of that degree means not having access to the middle class. A more dynamic post-secondary education system would help students develop skills that prepare them for the marketplace and decrease the college dropout rate. It would also provide some of our neediest citizens — who do not perform well in a liberal arts environment — with an avenue to gain valuable skills that allow them to improve their lot in life.
It is difficult to understand the higher education problems we face without some historical context. When universities first began accepting large numbers of students, around 1900 or so, only the very best and brightest attended four-year universities. Those students had an enormous amount of academic potential. For them, a liberal arts post-secondary education was fitting. Moreover, low-skill labor, such as assembly line work, was a viable pathway to the middle class. Today’s economy demands high-skill labor, while low-skill jobs are largely outsourced or mechanized. Post-secondary schooling is today what secondary schooling was three or four generations ago: a prerequisite to becoming a middle-class citizen. But our model of post-secondary schooling hasn’t yet reflected the fact that college is now the expectation, not the dream. As more students enrolled in universities, we have had to invest more resources in remediation and re-teaching. Today’s typical college student has a hard time writing a clear English sentence.
The result: nearly half of college students become dropouts. Even more drag their education out longer than five years. Why are so many students dropping out? First, primary and secondary schools are not sufficiently preparing them. Second, we have unrealistic expectations about the entire population’s ability to enjoy and perform well in liberal arts college courses. Many students do not learn best by going to class, studying textbooks, writing papers, participating in discussions, or taking standardized tests. Instead, they may learn by doing things that are hands on, require technical knowledge or social skills.
Despite this, I agree that it is absolutely essential for students to be exposed to a wide variety of subject areas during primary and secondary education. Students should be exposed to literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science during this time. Without exposure, it would not be possible for students to determine what interests them. However, we should not pretend that a liberal arts post-secondary education is for everyone. Instead, we should invest in a dynamic system of post-secondary schools that reflect the high-demand skills in the marketplace, changing curriculum in response to innovation. Liberal arts education will always have a place in our society and it will remain a viable option for many of our best and brightest students. But, one size does not fit all, and for many, the current system is not fulfilling its purpose.
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