Liberal Arts, a Lost Cause?

New York Times contributor and James L. Knight Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication at the University of Miami Joseph B. Treaster interviews Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia David W. Breneman, 25 years after he published a controversial report lamenting a shift away from liberal arts towards more practical majors.

In this interview with Breneman for the New York Times, Treaster asks the former Dean of the School of Education and Director of the School of Public Policy at the University Virginia about the state of the liberal arts in the U.S. higher educational system. Breneman and Treaster also discuss the case of Sweet Briar College, which has experienced significant difficulties in the wake of America’s shift away from liberal arts education. For selections from this interview, see below:

What does the trend away from liberal arts tell us about America?

I don’t think one should get melodramatic about this, but we are drifting toward turning college into a trade school. And that is ultimately harmful. The original ethos of education was that it prepared people for citizenship, for enlightened leadership, enhanced their creativity. There was a tradition going back to Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, that a liberal arts education was the core of our democracy. If we lose an educated populace, we’re open for demagogy. We need broadly educated people.

In 1990 there were thought to be 600 liberal arts colleges. You looked at their curriculums and said there were really about 200. Three years ago, researchers counted 130. Where are things heading?

Most of the very fine liberal arts schools are going to survive. But some of them are verging more into professional fields. In 15 years, the number of liberal arts colleges might be down to 120 because of the pressure to add more practical offerings. And the closure of small private colleges that morphed out of liberal arts long ago is going to continue.

Why are students turning their backs on the liberal arts?

The cost of college has soared and students are having to borrow more. These things tend to make the liberal arts look like a luxury. The economics profession has had a severe influence on this. Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist, used the term “human capital.” He looked at education as an investment, like buying a machine. He won a Nobel Prize. We’ve got a whole way of thinking about college that focuses on the rate of return. And that dismisses the intangible benefits.

To access the full interview, see here.