Liberal arts for all?
Recently contemplating a New Republic piece by William Deresiewicz, For a Good Education, Avoid the Ivy League.
A colleague asked me, “What should we do about this?” The article certainly makes the case for the public liberal arts college. There is really nothing in this piece I didn’t already know, as someone who has studied elite education (what sociologist call social reproduction theory, the ways in which elite status is reproduced through education in exactly the way the article describes).
However, my school probably attracts few of the kids the article is talking about. According to the data we collected on family income for a campus climate study in the fall of 2012, my school, the University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts college in Virginia, has 26% below 60K, 27% between 60 and 100K in family income, 21% between 100 and 150K, and 26% above 150K (median household income in the U.S in 2012 is 53K). Bearing in mind these are slightly unreliable self-reports by college students, we still attract a fairly affluent study body, though not the echelon of elites that are discussed in the article. My guess is we primarily we attract the children of well off managers and professionals, but I think this is changing to encompass more students with less well-off backgrounds.
For a few years now I have been thinking my school could be (or is) moving in one of two somewhat opposite directions. Once we decide which of these ways we are going, though, it’s pretty much a nuclear option.
One: we take this article as our guideline. We focus on this: “The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think…an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance…There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self…it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being — a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.” “College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.”
Hmm… this is so easy for academics to say. We know it’s true, and it actually IS true. Wealthy parents know it’s true, and urge their children to attend elite liberal arts colleges (or major in the liberal arts at HYP etc.) not because they really care about the liberal arts, or think that their children will really learn the liberal arts at those places, but because the liberal arts positions them well. They want the Ivy League credential and the connection that provides maintenance of elite privilege. The liberal arts elements are tangential, and probably just shore up what their children already have, with a strong elite cultural capital already in place. But what about everyone else?
The problem dogging us all the time: How do you find students who can afford not to worry about return on investment? The rich parents want to continue to invest, so pay for the Ivy League although it doesn’t really enhance one’s intellect. They know that a liberal arts education is important. But those without money can’t afford not to invest as much as they can, to take the risk of a liberal arts education, though we know it will pay off.
The author of this article points to “leadership with a higher meaning.” This approach is akin to what they have been talking about at places like Brown and Bennington: how do we use the liberal arts to anticipate and ameliorate the problems of the future? How do we use the liberal arts to train students as innovators and problem solvers? How do we create a critical involvement in decision making, a civic mindedness about engagement in the world and enhancing the public good? “The challenge: to figure out what it will take to actually do something that makes a significant and sustainable difference.”
The focus here would be on admissions – stuff all the money we can into attracting those it would take more effort and money to find. Probably a few different types of students:
• Students with some money, but who really want a good education and will commit themselves to public service of the type eschewed by the kids in this article – social work, teaching, academia, science, politics, religious work – in some ways, that’s our niche; we’ve filled it for a while and can continue to fill it and focus on its significance.
• Students with no money (and by no money, I mean middle class and below), but with potential, who are overlooked by others – white and non-white students from the working or middle class. They’ve also overlooked us, because they haven’t really thought about a public LA college, didn’t even know they wanted or it what it can bring them. They have to be taught that. Students who are willing to take risks – we take a risk on them.
• Continue to recruit international and out of state students, especially as they fit those other two profiles.
If we want to put attention to liberal arts and service, we will need to beef up scholarships considerably, perhaps for students who pledge to do public service after graduation. Having more large scholarships brings in more than a handful of students, because even if they don’t get that one, they may still come here once they’re hooked.
But there’s a second avenue.
Option two involves really changing what we do, stuffing all the money we can into retaining and helping those students we are currently attracting.
This can also be a honorable and valid option, especially to the extent we are not merely attracting the less well prepared younger brothers and sisters of the same social class of students we used to get, but over time actually switched to different student population – more of the non-elite, more first generation, more immigrant, non-traditional college student than we ever have.
These students are equally (if not more) in need of a liberal arts education. The positive of actually helping more of the non-elite achieve a liberal arts college education = yay. However, they are going to require a different approach:
• They have vague if indeed any ideas about the liberal arts, and may not have the liberal artsy public servants notion of our earlier students, and so will need to be taught why a liberal arts degree is important.
• Although UMW is relatively cheap, this group has less wealth, less to fall back on, and less economic security. This might more anxiety and fear Although they may have the money to pay for college lower retention.
• They are more likely to be working, more likely to focus on degree, money, and jobs, rather than long term careers
• Though more focus on the vocational aspects of college, may not be reaching high enough in job choice.
• Psychological issues and lowered emotional well being rates manifest differently than for the elite, but are still there.
• Working and lower middle class students have less cultural capital; less likely to ask for help or use college services, or see that they are for them in the way that middle class people take for granted.
So to that end, we focus on retention and career services because that is what these students will need. Educating about students in the liberal arts – a lot of these students did not choose UMW because it was a liberal arts college, but for a whole host of other reason. Show them how to value the liberal arts how to get jobs that use those skills.