Teachers in the liberal arts (and, one might add, the humanities and fine arts) are feeling under siege lately. One reason is our present cultural emphasis on the economic benefits of education, to the exclusion of other aspects of life. As pointed out often, we are more than what we do for a living, and our occupations will likely change repeatedly throughout our lives anyway. But these truths are hard to get across.
Then there is the incessant bean-counting, rubrics, and loopy taxonomies of Learning Outcomes, in fields that may not lend themselves very well to discrete categories. Take philosophy: "The student will contemplate the meaning of life and love, using critical thinking skills." Okay, the previous sentence was fabricated. But close?
As a partial antidote to our utilitarian obsession, please have a look at this article by Corrie Goldman, in Stanford News, concerning a recent address at that school by Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead, and other major works. You can get details about her views from the piece. Please read it.
Ms. Robinson uses as a yardstick, "The American Scholar," by Ralph Waldo Emerson—an influential 19th century commentary on the purpose of higher education, helping our society construct a paradigm that became the envy of the world.
It is undoubtedly quixotic to ask that the general public and political leaders follow her advice. How many voters today have heard of Gilead, Emerson's views, or what quixotic means? (This sounds snooty to ask, of course, but there it is.) Who exactly, some might ask, is out of touch?
But it's worth noting that many policy makers understand. Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, graduated from Dartmouth, which has a strong liberal arts curriculum. And Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes is a former literature professor at UCLA, and speaks eloquently on the layers of symbolism in The Great Gatsby.
It's the general public that needs a better understanding.
Somehow, for the good of posterity (one of Garrison Keillor's comic characters asks, "But what has posterity ever done for me?"), the value of a liberal education—another term that unfortunately requires explaining these days—could use defending in our communities, from educators in all disciplines. That would be us.