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Will Liberal Arts Studies Survive?

Aug 08, 2018 12:00AM
By Gary Jobson

Enrollment at liberal arts colleges has been declining for the past nine years according to St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s President, Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan. She says, “Our curriculum needs to be updated to prepare graduates for jobs soon after college.” With college loans crippling young graduates with debt, and good jobs becoming increasingly scarce, liberal arts programs are being stressed. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), the number of humanities graduates nationwide has been falling since 2006. In contrast, the number of medical science and engineering graduates has increased during the same period. But science programs have also been challenged. The Trump administration has been attacking science-based study of climate change and many other environmental problems. Trump and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, claim that studies showing a trend in global warming are a hoax. This regressive policy is certainly discouraging students from pursuing careers based on environmental science, and liberal arts at large. Education is a fundamental driver for improving lives in America. If America is going to grow and prosper we need to understand how to keep education at the forefront of our national priorities. And liberal arts must be part of the equation.

Building a strong education program has been a core American value since World War II. Explaining the level of education during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, No Ordinary Time, writes, “Of the 74 million Americans 25 years or older, only two of five had gone beyond the eighth grade; one of four had graduated from high school; and only one out of twenty had completed college.” Today, one third of adults have a degree. Earning a college degree is essential if one aspires to have a more lucrative career. Graduate degrees are even more valuable. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published figures stating that 67 percent of high school graduates have jobs, while 83 percent of college graduates have jobs. Also, college graduates earn 56 percent more money on an annual basis. If we are to improve our standing in the world, and compete in the global economy, good education is vital.

The definition of “liberal arts” is derived from Latin “liberales,” which translated means: “worthy of a free person.” The liberal arts curriculum has nothing to do with political liberalism. Liberal arts include a broad range of majors in literature, language, philosophy, history, math, and science. Vocational, technical, and professional majors are generally not considered to be liberal arts.

Historically, liberal arts colleges have focused on critical thinking which eventually leads to advanced degrees. Dr. Jordan observes, “It’s a slow process. We need to think in shorter time periods.” Some colleges are switching away from humanities programs to more vocational courses. Certainly, students are better prepared for specific industries when a curriculum is in sync with an industry. About 20 years ago, my alma mater, State University of New York Maritime College, was struggling to operate at full enrollment. There was even talk about keeping the college open. A committee was formed, that I was invited to join to see what needed to be changed. After some study, we realized that shipping was booming, but not all cargo was moved by ship. The rise of FedEx, United Parcel Service, and other convenient logistics companies needed highly educated workers. The college added non-regimental students, expanded liberal course offerings, and added courses geared toward logistical problem solving. Industry seminars were established on campus to bring top managers to interact with students. The initiative took several years to integrate into the college’s academic program. Today the college reports 100 percent of graduates are recruited for high paying jobs. Even The New York Times has written about the success of SUNY Maritime. (“The Young Mariners of Throgs Neck,” NY Times, March 16, 2017).

There are a number of reasons for declining enrollment. A disturbing reason is that liberal arts colleges have been under attack by conservative groups. Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, co-founded an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) in 2001. Their mission was to expand conservative voices on campus. The New York Times described the group, “As a conservative nonprofit devoted to curbing liberal tendencies on campus.” The ACTA is an associate member of State Policy Network (SPN), a right wing think tank funded by the Koch brothers. In the spring of 2013, St. Mary’s College suffered a significant short fall in admissions for the coming term. There were a number of reasons for the unexpected decline in enrollment. Not to miss an opportunity to exploit the problem the head of ACTA at the time, Anne D. Neal, wrote a scathing opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun claiming, “St. Mary’s has the highest tuition of any public education in Maryland. And what do you get for all that tuition? Not much.” This was harsh in the view of many St. Mary’s graduates and over the next few weeks, after the Neal article appeared, many St. Mary’s graduates wrote their own letters to the editor singing the college’s praises. In the Spring of 2018, the college reported that admissions at St. Mary’s have stabilized.

"Our curriculum needs to be updated to prepare graduates for jobs soon after college.” —Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan

Another enrollment problem is tuition costs. Then-governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley demanded that Maryland colleges freeze their tuition fees for in-state students. The trade-off was to dramatically increase tuition for out-of-state students. St. Mary’s has long attracted out-of-state students to Maryland but the dramatic increase in tuition resulted in a steep drop in out-of-state applications. 

The question that needs answering: Are liberal arts colleges relevant and are they worth the cost? Two important military institutions, the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Naval Academy, understand the need for strong liberal arts curriculums. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranks the Naval Academy as one of the top 15 liberal arts colleges in the country. Critical thinking on the battle field is important when there are many choices of action, and none of them are easy. The Naval Academy offers degrees in English, political science, history, economics, and language (Arabic and Chinese). Understanding history, for example, helps military leaders avoid mistakes. After all, history does tend to repeat itself. Naval officers with an understanding of Chinese or Arabic languages would be a major asset if a conflict broke out in the Middle East or Asia.

No matter what field a graduate pursues, good communications skills like researching, writing, and public speaking are important assets. Everyone needs to be a sales person in some form. One must be able to sell their services and ideas. St. John’s College, based in Annapolis, might be considered the ultimate liberal arts college. The curriculum is based on teaching the great books. Through intense seminars, students become problem solvers, leaders, thinkers, and communicators. About 70 percent of graduates pursue advanced degrees. St. Mary’s College also has a high ratio of students going on to graduate school. Neil Irwin, a writer for The New York Times, and a member of St. Mary’s Class of 2000 gives a strong endorsement, “St. Mary’s College offered a unique combination of intellectual vigor and close-knit collaboration and support. My time there made me a better thinker, a better writer, and a better person.”

Graduate school does not guarantee a high paying job, but the chances are greater of earning more income with a post-graduate degree. Sometimes a specific course major will not help initially after graduation, but in time, education becomes helpful in unforeseen ways. This was the case with my own career. After graduation from the Maritime College, I attended graduate school for Political Science. My focus was on world communism. My idea at the time was to understand America’s enemy, teach about our rivals at an academy, and maybe coach a sailing team on the side. My career on the water and in the media ended up being a long way from Communist thought. But the lessons learned in graduate school have helped me in my business, and also understanding how to work within a board of directors. The combination of learning a trade as a licensed merchant marine officer and studying Political Science has served me well over the past 45 years.

Priorities in the education universe are always evolving. America is strong as a direct result of our many, high level colleges and universities. A robust liberal arts program is essential if we are to prepare leaders for the future and use the lessons of the past to guide our way forward.