- Guest Editor's Note
Seeking Common Ground in Discussing the Liberal Arts
These seven articles emerged out of a conference organized as part of the centenary celebrations of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in September 2010. Spearheaded by Dr. John Coates, that conference—entitled "Looking Back and Moving Forward: The Next 100 Years of Liberal Arts—Confronting the Challenge"—sought to address a number of key issues that bring pressures to bear upon the tradition of liberal arts as it has been taught: internationalization, corporatization, diminishing government funding, and the legacies of religious involvement. Some of the papers with concerns particular to Canada have been collected and edited by Coates for a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education: the essays presented herein seek to address more general questions, albeit often drawing on the Canadian experience for examples.
There is little need to reiterate the crises (or the claims thereto) the liberal arts faces: I suspect one could easily advert to parallel crises having existed in one manifestation or another since the earliest memory of this journal's oldest reader. Most frustrating is that the value of the liberal arts either is axiomatic or is not. Those who firmly hold that there is not only a contemporary place for the liberal arts but also, more importantly, a need for it maintain that its value is self-evident: those who do not seek suasion. The onus thus falls (as it rightly should) on those within the liberal arts to articulate that value in a manner convincing to those outside.
There are a number of traps one can fall into in this effort. The first is to dismiss the very questioning of its value as emanating from a place of Philistinism. By doing so we not only open ourselves to a charge of elitism: we blatantly commit it. The liberal arts has to engage with other areas of inquiry and praxis within the academy and beyond, admitting that the liberal arts is but one of many legitimate realms of human achievement and that its "distinctiveness" demarcates it as different without suggesting that it sits on a different hierarchical plane. [End Page ix]
The second trap is to be reductionist, to distill a liberal arts education to a mere form of skills acquisition. Skills are surely developed—the interpretation of a situation, the organization of thought, the marshaling of sources in defense of an argument, the articulation of propositions, alongside even more practical skills like word processing, PowerPoint, and database navigation—but expressing an education in such a checklist manner seems to do a disservice to the very tradition of liberal arts that took those skills as a means to a more noble end and not the end themselves.
The third trap is to shift to the abstract and to speak only of the lofty goals of forming generations of well-rounded, cultured, global citizens, without suggesting how these philosopher-regents will find work. This is the obverse of the reductionist trap: a legitimate balance needs to be struck between idealism and realism, between theory and praxis, for us to dare engage with a larger cultural matrix that has moved beyond education as the privileged domain of a leisured class.
The fourth and, for our purposes, final trap is to fear the other three and to not engage in the debate at all.
The issue of liberal arts "value," in all its senses of the word, ranging from an ideal to a return on investment, strikes home in a variety of ways. From our funding agencies to our federal, state, and provincial governments, leaner resources demand an ongoing justification of expenditures on activities without immediately self-evident benefits, such as patents, the training of highly qualified personnel, and classes of licensed professionals. Similarly, when departments put in for retirement replacements or additional members, we must articulate our value within our own institutions, at times against our colleagues in the next building. At these moments we are most likely to wave our sabers and decry the move toward a spreadsheet lens of the world. But we must have at our disposal a similar answer when prospective...