Two College Presidents, on Higher Education

Writing in response to two recent New York Times articles on higher education, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust and Lafayette College President Alison Byerly each provide a defense of liberal arts education.

First, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust rejects the dichotomy that Nelson D. Schwartz has created between STEM and humanities majors in his recent New York Times article, “Gap Widening as Top Workers Reap the Raises.” Faust argues that liberal arts education should not be understood in contrast to STEM education; rather, the two are actually neatly compatible. Faust writes:

In representing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and liberal arts education as antithetical, “Gap Widening as Top Workers Reap the Raises” (front page, July 25) reproduces a widespread and dangerous misunderstanding. A liberal arts education is one that embraces — indeed requires — broad learning across the fields of natural and social sciences and humanities.

Its goal is to create citizens equipped with habits of mind and analytic capacities to shape human experience within the context of the natural realities and technological forces — and opportunities — we confront.

The world needs scientifically sophisticated humanists and humanistically grounded scientists and engineers who can think beyond the immediate and instrumental to address the bigger picture and the longer term.

Liberal arts learning contrasts itself not with STEM fields, which it encompasses, but with purely vocational education. Its goal is not to ready its students for one particular job, but for many jobs extending over a lifetime and requiring a depth and breadth of understanding that exposure to the range of human knowledge through the liberal arts is uniquely intended to impart.

Similarly, Lafayette College President Alison Byerly responds to Kevin Carey’s July 23rd article, “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion,” which extrapolates from an academic scandal at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to argue that most American colleges and universities “are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence.” Byerly writes:

Re “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion” (The Upshot,, July 24):

Kevin Carey’s claim that universities are “not coherent academic enterprises” ironically exposes the major flaw in the vision he articulates in his recent book, “The End of College.”

Mr. Carey suggests that universities should be replaced by an inexpensive à la carte education in which students take whatever MOOCs (massive open online courses) they choose from any provider, without the additional apparatus of curricular requirements, advisers, academic support, career services, extracurricular activities or residential life.

Universities and colleges offer precisely what an “unbundled” education cannot: the coherence of an intentionally designed curriculum, sequenced courses requiring increasing levels of expertise, and a degree that certifies the student’s attainment of a consistent level of accomplishment across a range of disciplines.

Universities and colleges also offer support that promotes completion, and opportunities for leadership and social maturation that promote success beyond college.

To claim, based on one university’s lax oversight, that “most” colleges and universities lack coherent academic standards is to confuse the existence of standards with perfection in meeting them. We can do better, but not by eliminating the integrated educational structure that the university provides.

Together, these two statements present important counterarguments to recent claims that liberal arts, as well as the American higher educational system, more generally, are in decline.