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Who Killed the Liberal Arts?

And why we should care

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Whether students today, despite all their special tutoring and testing, are any better than those of earlier generations is far from clear. Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater. Usually propelled by the desires of their parents, they form a meritocracy that, in Delbanco’s view, as in that of the English sociologist Michael Young whom he quotes, comprises a dystopia of sorts, peopled by young men and women driven by high, but empty, ambition. “Are these really the people we want running the world?” Delbanco asks. Unfortunately, they already are. I am not the only one, surely, to have noticed that some of the worst people in this country—names on request—are graduates of the Harvard and Yale law schools.

Attending one of a limited number of elite colleges continues to yield wide opportunities for graduates, but fewer and fewer people any longer believe that someone who has finished college is necessarily all that much smarter than someone who hasn’t. With standards lowered, hours of study shortened, reports appearing about how many college graduates can no longer be depended upon to know how to write or to grasp rudimentary intellectual concepts, having gone to college seems to have less and less bearing on a person’s intelligence.

Studies cited by Delbanco in his footnotes claim an increase among college students in cheating, drinking, and depression. In their book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska argue that the gain in critical thinking and complex reasoning among the majority of students during college years is very low, if not minimal. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education drawn from their book, Arum and Roska write:

Parents—although somewhat disgruntled about increasing costs—want colleges to provide a safe environment where their children can mature, gain independence, and attain a credential that will help them be successful as adults. Students in general seek to enjoy the benefits of a full collegiate experience that is focused as much on social life as on academic pursuits, while earning high marks in their courses with relatively little investment of effort. Professors are eager to find time to concentrate on their scholarship and professional interests. Administrators have been asked to focus largely on external institutional rankings and the financial bottom line. Government funding agencies are primarily interested in the development of new scientific knowledge. .  .  . No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduates’ academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence.

What savvy employers are likely to conclude is that those who graduate from college are probably more conformist, and therefore likely to be more dependable, than those who do not. Paul Goodman, one of the now-forgotten gurus of the 1960s, used to argue that what finishing college really meant is that one was willing to do anything to succeed in a capitalist society. In getting a college degree, Goodman held, one was in effect saying, I want in on the game, deal me a hand, I want desperately to play. Education, meanwhile, didn’t have a lot to do with it.

Not everywhere in higher education have standards slipped. One assumes that in engineering and within the sciences they have been maintained, and in some ways, owing to computer technology, perhaps improved. Relatively new fields of learning, computer science chief among them, have not been around long enough to have lost their way. Medical and legal education are probably not greatly different than they have traditionally been. Chiefly in the liberal arts subjects do standards seem most radically to have slipped.

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