This past weekend the Wall Street Journal published a group of articles on the coming year. They asked me to participate in this journalistic symposium, and I offered an optimistic perspective on a “comeback” for liberal education. I cross-post it here.
Wesleyan’s president argues that 2016 should be the year we resist efforts to steer higher education toward pseudo-practicality
After a decade in which broad, conceptual learning was often bashed, 2016 will see a resurgent commitment in higher education to a pragmatic liberal-arts education. Not only traditional classrooms but also new pedagogical tools like MOOCs (massive open online courses) will be used more extensively to teach everything from Great Books to transformational historical trends to landmarks of scientific thinking. In 2016, liberal education, American-style, will flourish.
Many liberal-arts colleges have been under extraordinary duress in recent years, while many big public universities, when not just focused on specialized research, seem to have abandoned broad, contextual learning in favor of vocational majors, TV-friendly athletics and cultivating a party atmosphere for millennial customers and their hovering parents.
But liberal education in America has been under pressure before, and this is one of those moments when it can emerge stronger than ever. The stakes in 2016 are high, from a national political debate desperate for critical thinking to an economy eager for innovation. This should be the year we find the courage to resist those who want to steer higher education in the direction of a pseudo-practicality. A strictly utilitarian education produces graduates who will conform to the status quo, but in our period of extraordinary change, the status quo almost immediately becomes obsolete.
Liberal-arts education today can be pragmatic, empowering students with potent ways of dealing with the issues they will face at work and in life. In the years ahead, liberal learning will link engineering with design and economics, the arts with computer science, the study of philosophy with building more just institutions. From Thomas Jefferson to W.E.B. Du Bois to Jane Addams, Americans have recognized that a broad, contextual education protects against mindless tyranny and haughty privilege. In 2016, we can recognize again that liberal learning in the American tradition isn’t only training; it is an invitation to think for oneself—and to act in concert with others to face serious challenges and create far-reaching opportunities.