The foes of liberal education have a clear focused message – education is about jobs and liberal arts majors don’t get as many jobs or as high salaries as vocationally oriented majors do. They back that up with figures from hiring and salary surveys. You know the stuff, though it’s worth looking at it again to see what we are up against. There is an overview in the last New and Noteworthy Newsletter: http://hosted.verticalresponse.com/1109165/c3328410a6/520044277/76b428fcde/
Earlier postings on this blog point out the weaknesses in this simple minded approach, and provide some anecdotal and argumentative responses. But it still looks to me as if the advocates of liberal education are going into the ring with both hands tied behind their backs. One hand is tied by reluctance to talk about “outcomes.” Advocates say the results of a liberal education are “subtle,” “may not emerge for decades,” and must never be “utilitarian.” Maybe, but that lets the opponents of liberal education define the goals of higher education. And you can bet they will do it in the narrowest possible way. They won’t talk about using evidence, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, ability to write and speak effectively, clarity about values, or any of the other things a liberal education can help students develop. These may be “by-products” of mastery of a field of knowledge, but they are not to be shrugged off, or passed over in silence.
The other hand is tied by reluctance to use quantitative evidence. The evidence is now available to show that students in the traditional majors of the liberal arts and sciences show greater gains in critical thinking and analytical reasoning than those in more vocational fields. Take a look at the tables in Richard Aum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, (http://www.amazon.com/Academically-Adrift-Limited-Learning-Campuses/dp/0226028569
)or a more recent study by Jeffry T. Steelde and Michael Bradley “Majors Matter.” It’s at http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/files/Majorsmatter.pdf Their conclusion “… students studying natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and languages scored the highest, and students studying business and education scored the lowest.”
It’s time, I think, to take off the gloves, or bite the bullet, whichever metaphor you prefer. If we really care about students’ well-being, shouldn’t we be insisting that student advising and the allocation of financial resources focus on fields where students are most likely to develop long-lasting, life-enhancing capacities?