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  • Who Wants the Liberal Arts?1
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

Should we be worried that fewer and fewer students enrolled in college are pursuing liberal arts degrees? Or that many private liberal arts colleges are increasing their vocational offerings? Or that some private liberal arts colleges are in danger of disappearing altogether?

As someone who has never studied or taught at a liberal arts college, it is difficult to feel the same sense of urgency and despondency regarding America’s private colleges as Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., who served nine years as the president of Beloit College, attended Oberlin as an undergraduate, and whose children also attended liberal arts colleges (Dickinson, Kenyon, and Oberlin) (x). However, as someone who is heavily invested in the future of the liberal arts in America, it is disappointing to learn that liberal arts education is under siege not just at state-funded universities, but also at institutions whose educational mission is explicitly grounded on the liberal arts. While it is one thing for students in state or private universities to increasingly favor vocational majors over liberal arts majors, it is another thing to learn that increasing numbers of students at private liberal arts colleges are also not pursuing liberal arts degrees. If the liberal arts cannot survive at liberal arts colleges, then what are their chances at more curricularly heterogeneous institutions?

Even though private liberal arts colleges amount to less than 2 percent of all higher education in America, their demise would signal a considerable victory for neoliberal, corporate education over its principal rival—liberal arts education. In addition, if one considers that America’s 125 to 250 private liberal arts colleges combined serve between 100,000 and 350,000 students, whereas the University of Phoenix alone reported a first quarter enrollment of 455,600 in 2010, then one begins to see the private liberal arts colleges as one of the last lines of defense from the final victory of corporate education and the death of the liberal arts (2). [End Page 325]

Ferrall, who practiced law for thirty years before becoming president of Beloit College, writes about the problems facing liberal arts colleges “from the perspective of an outsider with some inside knowledge” (xi). His “inside” knowledge is most evident with matters concerning enrollment patterns and financial aid, while his “outsider” perspective is most strongly betrayed by his comments about curriculum and scholarship. To wit, only someone who has not gone through PhD education and the ranks of the professoriate to a college presidency could make a comment such as, “There is a striking similarity between liberal arts colleges and for profit colleges: their overarching commitment to teaching and instruction, as opposed to research and scholarship” (94). His aim is to both point out the challenges facing liberal arts colleges, which include “slipping away into vocational instruction,” “becoming irrelevant,” or “disappearing altogether” (xii)—as well as to provide arguments as to why this should not be allowed to happen.

“Careerism is now at the heart of the demand for higher education,” writes Ferrall (50). Citing the work of pollster Daniel Yankelovich, Ferrall notes that “75 percent of high school seniors and 85 percent of their parents said college is important because it ‘prepares students to get a better job and/or increases their earning potential’” (50). However, “44 percent of students and 19 percent of their parents could not answer the question, What does a liberal arts education mean?” (50). In addition, Yankelovich’s polling indicated that “[t]he overall impression of liberal arts education among 68 percent of the students and 59 percent of the parents was negative or neutral” (50). This information, coupled with the recession of 2008, leads Ferrall to speculate that “there is reason to expect liberal arts colleges’ move toward vocational courses and majors will accelerate” (59). And the trend towards vocational courses continues.

However, none of this helps in changing either the generally unfavorable impression of liberal arts education or the increasing vocational mentality of American undergraduates. None of this contributes toward convincing students that liberal arts degrees are desirable. “To a significant degree,” writes Ferrall, “liberal arts colleges are selling a service that is good...


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pp. 325-328
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