Liberal Education

The Dangerous Assault on Disciplines Basic to Democracy

This summer began with a riveting crisis at the University of Virginia. On June 10, the board of visitors, prompted by a small group working offstage and independently of any formal meetings or motions, dismissed the widely admired president of the university, Teresa Sullivan, after barely two years of service, “largely because of,” according to the Washington Post, “her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.” While the “dramatic” cuts under discussion were never officially described by any of the principals, President Sullivan hinted at her own perception of at least one of the issues at stake when she responded publicly to the board of visitors’ actions. “A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university,” she wrote in mid-June. “Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.”

The board of visitors’ actions provoked an unprecedented backlash—on the campus and beyond—and, fortunately for the University of Virginia, President Sullivan was quickly reinstated. But the assault on what Sullivan described as “the full range of arts and sciences” continues without cessation in American public discourse and across virtually all sectors of American higher education. That assault certainly did not begin with the visitors of the University of Virginia. Rather, their disputes with President Sullivan show only that the steady drumbeat of denigration now threatens to shape self-destructive choices and actions, even at one of the nation’s most distinguished research universities.

Of course, the assault is not really on the sciences or STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at all, although even STEM fields now are suffering from the economic drought that affects the entire educational sector. Rather, it is the humanities and several of the social sciences that many public leaders have come to see as irrelevant (or worse) to America’s future.

The ongoing assault began on the right, as conservatives took issue with the fierce light that “diversity” and multicultural studies had cast on the less than admirable aspects of this nation’s ongoing struggle toward recognition, dignity, and equal opportunity for people of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities. It gained ground in policy circles as leaders of all kinds began to focus with new anxiety on the US competitive stance in the global economy. Somehow, these policy and economic leaders seem to have persuaded themselves that Americans could lead in a global economy without learning much of anything at all about global histories, cultures, religions, values, or social systems—the very subjects that the humanities and social sciences help us explore.

As AAC&U (and I) observed in a series of public dissents, the 2006 Spellings Commission report on the “future of higher education” simply dismissed the humanities and social sciences entirely, apart from a nod to the need for foreign languages. Ethics, civic learning, intercultural learning (and the related disciplines) were left off the table and out of the report. The national effort to create Common Core Standards for the schools continued in much the same vein, focusing on language arts, mathematics, and science, but deliberately sidestepping any attention to Americans’ need for a thorough grounding in history, cultures, the humanities, and social systems—US and global.

Last year, the National Governors Association issued a report that called for investment in college studies plainly tied to labor market demand, while noting that the United States would need to cut back on its traditional embrace of the liberal arts. The governor of Florida spoke out publicly against anthropology as an academic field, and the US House of Representatives went on record with its judgment that political science should no longer be eligible for funding from the National Science Foundation. The Republican leadership is once again promising to eliminate the tiny fragment of funding that remains for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

My colleagues and I have been thinking hard about AAC&U’s own responsibility to engage this trend as we move toward completion of a new strategic plan for the years 2013–2017. Our board of directors devoted parts of its last two meetings to this topic, and, through a series of vigorous roundtable discussions at the “business meeting” session within the annual meeting in January, our members were forthright in urging us to make the future standing of the liberal arts a central theme in the next phase of our work on Liberal Education and America’s Promise, or LEAP. And this is exactly what we intend to do.

In that spirit, I want to describe briefly our views on the role of the liberal arts and sciences, with special attention to the humanities and social sciences, in the larger project of providing a liberal and liberating higher education. Since the founding era—witness Jefferson’s vision for the University of Virginia—the liberal arts and sciences have rightly been seen as absolutely essential to America’s future. The sciences have helped us create unprecedented power and material wealth, among other benefits, while the humanities, arts, and social sciences have taught us to ask probing questions about the very meanings of “progress” and “value” and about what it takes to create generative human relationships and communities. The humanities especially are the envisioning disciplines; they invite us to ask not only what is, but what might be, and even, as we probe fundamental principles, what ought to be.

Together, the arts and sciences continue to provide foundational knowledge that Americans need for civic and societal responsibility and for creative leadership, at home and abroad. Although the arts and sciences necessarily evolve as knowledge itself expands, our need for the broad explorations they enable remains a constant. The liberal arts and sciences are basic to participatory democracy because only these studies build the “big picture” understanding of our social and physical environment that everyone needs in order to make judgments that are fundamental to our future.

AAC&U has long taken the position that the aims of liberal education—broad knowledge, high-level intellectual skills, an examined sense of civic and ethical responsibility, and the capacity to adapt learning to new challenges—should be addressed across the entire curriculum, in professional and career fields as well as in arts and sciences disciplines. Liberal education across the curriculum will continue to be the central focus of our LEAP endeavors. But we also intend to assert—far more forcefully—our corollary view that no student can be well, or even minimally, prepared for twenty-first-century challenges absent a strong grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, across both school and college.

It is time for all American educational leaders to say plainly that the current policy assault on the liberal arts and sciences is dangerous—dangerous to the quality of higher education, and dangerous for America’s future. The liberal arts tradition helped make American higher education the envy of the world. American society needs to own that tradition and to reinvest in its future vitality and generativity across all colleges, universities, and community colleges. Anything less will cede this nation’s educational leadership to others—and put this democracy’s future gravely at risk.

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