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The Liberal Arts Brand

So Scott Jaschik explains—in Inside Higher Ed—that parents and students still want the prestigious brand of the liberal arts college.  Lots of leaders, after all, have been educated at such schools, and the alumni and your fellow classy students will be great for networking.  It doesn’t speak well of your intelligence or your aspirations if you don’t graduate from a brand-name school.

But fewer and fewer students actually have an interest in acquiring a liberals arts education—a rigorous, text-based core curriculum and a major in history, literature, or philosophy.  What good will a degree in history or philosophy—or knowing a huge amount of history or philosophy—do you in the world of work? 

Increasingly, the emphasis on even “higher education” is directly “vocational.”  What do I have to do in college to get a good job?

The result of this emphasis is that many of the liberal arts colleges are dramatically changing their curricula and missions—adding all kinds of technical and professional majors and gutting their core requirements.  In some cases, they’re no longer mostly about granting liberal arts degrees, but they’re still retaining the brand liberal arts college.  They appear to be giving their customers what they really think they want.

Is this false advertising?  Will people eventually catch on?  Or isn’t the American way to mass-market and vulgarize prestigious designer labels?  Ralph Lauren, for example.  But in education, and even in clothes, the label alone never turns out to be worth the designer price.

The article correctly concludes that those in charge of the so-called and the real liberal arts colleges ought to think harder about how to follow the higher road—to keep both their liberal arts brand and their liberal arts substance.

But the article is wrong that they can do so by spouting drivel about analytical and critical thinking.  They need to recover the insight—still present in some of our religious and more traditional colleges—that a liberal arts education is all about figuring out who you and what your’re suppose to do as a relational being born to love and and die—not to mention to be open to the truth about all things.

For one thing, making money is easy, knowing what to do with it is hard.  And you don’t know spit unless you know why you should practice the classical virtue of generosity and the Christian virtue of charity.


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