Conservatives like N.C. Budget Director Art Pope — who visited UNC’s campus on Tuesday — point to high rates of post-graduate unemployment and soaring student debt as incontrovertible evidence of the failure of the liberal arts education.
In many ways, this debate has wrestled over metrics. How do we measure the value of a liberal arts education, both for the student and for the state? But they tend to be metrics without context.
We blame the fact that recent graduates are struggling to find jobs on their course history, not the economic recession and the rise of precarious and underpaid forms of waged work. We blame the skyrocketing debt on these elite institutions that exploit students for every dime while ignoring the ways in which the heartwood of the liberal arts — strong faculty that immerse themselves in their teaching — is also being squeezed.
I do not wish to hold up the liberal arts as a flawless and universal paragon, a pure well from which each individual should choose to draw deeply and often. Today’s university isn’t merely under attack from without; it is also dealing with an interior crisis.
In many ways, undergraduate academics have fallen under the influence of individualistic competition that the market attempts to inculcate. Students and professors alike are governed by the metrics — grades, pass rates, course averages, percentiles.
In my coursework, completion and proficiency matter more than exploration and intellectual risk; students are rewarded for synthesizing the canon rather than for engaging with the material creatively. And pushing the intellectually curious toward higher-level scholarship oftentimes leads to more theoretical grand-standing than it does collaboration.
I want to take an unorthodox stance. What the university needs is more of the liberal arts, the liberal arts not merely as an amorphous degree but as an engaged intellectual project. We need to put our focus back on teaching students how to think.
What makes the liberal arts so strong is its mode of critical engagement with the world and our places in it. Pre-professional courses tend to focus on deliberative thinking: progressing step by step toward pre-selected ends within clearly-defined and rigid frameworks.
Intellectual scholarship revolves around the pursuit of good questions. Only then does it require that students figure out for themselves how best to chase answers to the questions they are asking, whether that be across great texts or in research labs.