High School: A New Home for the Liberal Arts Curriculum?

Cross-posted on Education Week

My older son went to the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). Toward the end of the first year, he called me up. He was obviously nervous. He told me that wanted to major in electrical engineering. If he changed colleges within UCSD, he could get out in four years. But he had enrolled in Roger Revelle College at UCSD, and that college required its members to take a full load of liberal arts courses in addition to the major requirements. If he stayed in Revelle, which he wanted to do, it would take him five years, not four years to get his bachelor’s degree. He was very happy when I told him that I was up for him staying in Roger Revelle. He retired in his mid-30s having had a brilliantly successful career as a computer chip designer and has now taken up oil painting in a serious way and that career, unaided by much formal instruction, is coming along nicely.

The liberal arts are out of fashion these days. The entire education system is now a vocational education system, in the sense that virtually all education these days is pointed at preparing people for careers. But we are constantly told that people will have shorter and shorter careers in the fields in which they are trained. So what is going on here? Why is there ever more emphasis on training people specifically for careers, which are on average, lasting shorter and shorter times? Why does a major in the liberal arts seem more and more of a self-indulgent luxury, when our career paths seem to demand the very flexibility that a liberal arts education is supposed to provide?

When I went off to college, in 1957, the proportion of the population with a four-year college degree was much smaller than it is now. The sixties witnessed a vast and steady expansion of the economy unprecedented in American history. College graduates were in a perfect position: demand was high and supply was low. The situation has changed now. The proportion of the cohort with college degrees is much higher and the economy is no longer roaring.

Because the supply of college graduates is high and demand is low, the graduate, who used to be in the catbird seat, is no longer; the employer is. In fact the supply of potential candidates is so large that the employer’s big problem is how to sift through the wellspring of candidates most efficiently. The easiest and cheapest way to accomplish the first stage of selection is to do an automated review of formal credentials. There will be so many who get through that screen that the employer will not feel that he or she is denying themselves access to someone who might do very well at the job. This part of the selection process involves, however, more that the simple act of checking to see that the students’ major corresponds with the nature of the work to be done. By looking at the major, the institution and the program in the institution, the employer can easily—and cheaply—make a set of inferences about the candidate that go way beyond a simple correlation of major and work demand. Based on the relative standing of the institution and program and what the employer knows about how hard it is to get into that institution, and the criteria the institution uses to admit students, the employer can make some very important inferences about the candidate’s general intelligence, persistence, determination, ability to focus, get work done, identify and use relevant tools, negotiate a complex organizational setting, compete with others who are similarly dedicated and ambitious, and so on. The employer is relying on the institution to perform a whole set of very important screening functions that have nothing to do with the substance of the curriculum or with the cognitive demands of the job, but have everything to do with many characteristics of the student that are nevertheless very important to the employer. Add to this, for the highly selective institutions, the fact that they typically screen also on creativity, innovative capacity, the contribution the student has made to his or her community, personal initiative and so on, and the screening function of the educational institution becomes even more important to the employer.

So the student is actually in a double bind. He or she needs to present an appropriate job-related credential to even get in the door. But it won’t be long before that same person, once hired, finds out that the virtues of a liberal arts education, now in disfavor, are actually more relevant than ever. When I asked my older son recently what made him so valuable to his advanced electronics employer, he said that it was not his skills in electrical engineering. He was on top of his game in that department, he said, but there were many other engineers in his firm who had comparable skills. What set him apart was the fact that he related to his team members and his superiors well, he was highly disciplined, he could make the crucial creative contribution at the moment it was needed and, in a business in which communication among technical teams was an essential requisite of success, he was a very good communicator. My older son’s decision to take another year at UCSD so he could get a good liberal arts education as well as sound training in electrical engineering paid off handsomely for him, and is continuing to do so as he takes up a career in the arts.

So let’s stand back for a moment and see how this narrative plays against the current scene in American education. In the schools, the way the United States has chosen to implement the accountability movement has put us in a situation in which a greatly intensified focus on basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics has, to a significant degree, pushed science, history, economics, sociology, civics, art and music out of the curriculum. At the higher education level, the rapid increase in the price of education, the consequent increase in the loan burden borne by graduates and the intensified competition in the labor market have all combined to turn higher education into a vocational education system, all at the expense of the liberal arts.

One might think that this increased emphasis on practical skills at the expense of the qualities so dear to the liberal arts would be good for employers and American industry, but that is not the case at all, for all the reasons suggested by the examples I have chosen above. The question is, what should we do about it?

Though there are some colleges—including some very good ones—still devoted to the liberal arts, and although it is still possible to get a good liberal arts education in the colleges of a few universities, the game is over for the vast majority of institutions, which long ago gave up any ambition to define what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and are happy to provide a smorgasbord of specialty training programs for the students who are all too eager to take advantage of them.

It would make more sense to me to reconceive the last two years of high school as serving the same purpose that we used to allocate to the first two years of college: providing a solid base of knowledge and skill that can be used throughout one’s life, no matter what path that life takes over the years. The International Baccalaureate is a very good example of what a curriculum of that sort might look like. So is the Advanced Placement International Diploma program of the College Board, as is the international “A” level program of the University of Cambridge. The fact that these are diploma programs is very important. They specify a set of courses, usually with some limited options, that constitute a coherent, powerful program of studies, which, taken together, provide a very solid base for a lifetime of learning.

Perhaps the liberal arts curriculum is not dead, just looking for a new home.