The Relevance of Liberal Arts to a Prosperous Democracy: Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter’s Remarks at the Annapolis Group Conference

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The Relevance of Liberal Arts to a Prosperous Democracy: Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter’s Remarks at the Annapolis Group Conference

June 22, 2010

Thank you, Mark, for that gracious introduction. It's a pleasure to be here today to meet the Annapolis Group, to discuss the significance of the liberal arts in general, to address what I think are several popular misconceptions about liberal arts colleges and universities, and to open a dialogue with you to reach President Obama's 2020 goal.

First, I want to speak in particular to two ideas that seem to be fast becoming part of the conventional wisdom in higher education. The first is the notion that a liberal arts education is no longer all that relevant in today's competitive global economy. The second, related idea is that the administration undervalues the importance of the liberal arts and the teaching of the humanities in favor of STEM, pre-professional courses and career-oriented training.

In my view, these beliefs are misguided, if not counterproductive. Yet those critiques do contain kernels of truth that the presidents and provosts of liberal arts colleges and universities can leverage to help their institutions meet the challenges of our knowledge economy.

Twenty years ago this summer, a study in the College Board Review by David Breneman provoked a debate over whether liberal arts colleges were in fact disappearing. Last year, Roger Baldwin at Michigan State and Vicki Baker Sweitzer at Albion College extended Breneman's work. They concluded that the 212 classic liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified nationwide in 1990 had declined by more than a third by 2009, to 136 colleges.

In recent months, articles with plaintive titles like "The Death of Liberal Arts" and "Why Liberal Education Matters" have appeared in Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. Numerous newspapers and trade publications have reported on the shuttering of Classics departments, or the elimination of French, German, and Philosophy from the curriculum.

In several respects, these obituaries are premature. It is true that the number of liberal arts colleges has declined significantly by some measures. It is also the case that the proportion of students who major in one of the humanities has dropped in the last 40 years--while the proportion of students majoring in business and management, the most popular major on campus, has shot up.

But, in fact, the liberal arts are not going the way of the Oldsmobile. Outside of traditional liberal arts colleges, the number of students majoring in the humanities has undergone something of a quiet resurgence in the last two decades, after plummeting between 1967 and 1987.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier this year that bachelor's degrees in English and history, as a percentage of all degrees, fell by more than half from 1967 to 1987. But The Chronicle's analysis also found that the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the humanities grew from 10 percent in 1987 to 12 percent in 2008.

Since the mid-1990s, more than 70 university-affiliated honors colleges have also opened around the country and adopted key elements of the liberal arts college model. And I can tell you from my own experience, as a chancellor of a large community college district in California, many community colleges have flocked to provide liberal arts offerings. The federal government still heavily invested in the humanities, though not in the way you might think. Nationwide, nearly half of all undergraduates studying in the humanities—just over a million students—currently receive Federal student aid.

The news stories about the purported demise of liberal arts colleges share common themes, one of which is aptly captured in the title of Martha Nussbaum's new book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. As Nussbaum's title suggests, skeptics now treat the study of liberal arts and humanities as luxuries that are not especially germane to preparing students to compete with peers from other nations in a global economy rocked by recession. In a recent article supportive of the liberal arts, columnist David Brooks summed up the prevailing thinking as: "When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting."

The implication of all this is that liberal arts colleges provide a boutique, if charmingly antiquated, education for the 21st century. Liberal arts colleges are said to be institutions where learning, outcomes, and educational accountability are ill-defined—or so the argument goes.

Facts, though, are stubborn things. And anyone making the case for the irrelevance of liberal arts colleges cannot explain away the oversize contribution that graduates of liberal arts colleges continue to make to commerce, science, technology, the arts, and higher education.

As you know, just 3 percent of American college graduates are educated at a residential liberal arts college. Yet the alumni of liberal arts institutions account for almost 20 percent of all U.S. presidents. Roughly 20 percent of Pulitzer Prize winners from 1960 to 1998 in drama, history, and poetry earned their baccalaureate degrees at liberal arts colleges and universities.

On a per capita basis, liberal arts colleges today produce nearly twice as many doctorates in science as other institutions. And by some estimates, about one in 12 of the nation's wealthiest CEOs graduated from a liberal arts institution.

At the same time, many of the key instructional breakthroughs in higher education—the freshman seminar, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses—were all first pioneered at liberal arts colleges. It is telling that in China--where officials are frustrated by the nation's comparative lack of Nobel prizes and innovation among university graduates--has now opened its first liberal arts college.

The obvious question that this record prompts, is, why have the graduates of liberal arts colleges flourished? The answers are several--but all of them highlight the continued importance of the liberal arts model.

One of the special virtues of liberal arts colleges is that they show the power of cross-disciplinary learning. As Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities has said, "the most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, though we may not know it at the time. Maturation is the tying together of threads of learning."

Let me repeat that last sentence: "Maturation is the tying together of threads of learning." I don't think it is mere coincidence that a Bowdoin graduate, Geoff Canada, went on to develop an extraordinarily comprehensive and innovative cradle-to-career anti-poverty initiative like the Harlem Children's Zone. His breakthrough insight was to tie together the most effective parenting, pre-school, after-school, and support services with high-performing schools.

I will never forget first reading Mary Catherine Bateson's book 20 years ago, Composing a Life. It beautifully articulates the art of improvisation and the power of interdisciplinary learning. A number of the most important advances in higher education since then have borne out her belief that a new melding of the arts and sciences "at the margins of the disciplines" can foster an explosion of creativity and innovation resulting in new fields of study.

It is not always visible, but with little awareness, society regularly benefits from the power of interdisciplinary learning. To take one example, quality arts and music instruction have a well-documented impact on student achievement, discipline problems, and college graduation rates. Visual arts instruction improves reading readiness, and learning to play the piano or master musical notation helps students to master math. In James Catterall's well-known longitudinal study, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, low-income students at arts-rich high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students at arts-poor high schools.

The truth is that an excellent case can be made for turning the critique of liberal arts colleges on its head. Studying the liberal arts, in other words, is in fact invaluable for students who wish to succeed in the global economy. As my boss, Secretary Duncan, has said, he and President Obama "reject the notion that the arts, history, foreign languages, geography, and civics are ornamental offerings the information age, a well-rounded curriculum is not a luxury but a necessity."

It may be hard to quantify, but a liberal arts education is often especially useful in today's job market. One of the most consistent findings of surveys of employers, the most recent I saw done by AAC&U, is that businesses are seeking college graduates with stronger analytic and communication skills, the capacity to work in teams, and the ability to write and think clearly. All of those skills are the quintessential hallmarks of a liberal arts education.

Those same surveys also document that employers are desperately seeking college graduates who can adapt and innovate because most employees today will work for multiple employers, often in multiple careers. It is well-known that advanced STEM courses develop critical thinking and problem solving skills in math, spur innovation, and enhance self-direction. And just to be clear, I don't want to diminish the importance of advanced STEM education.

Fortunately, as Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, has pointed out, superior arts education also teaches many of those same skills. High-quality arts and humanities instruction is almost perfectly suited to stimulate imagination, creativity, and the ability to find adaptive solutions. Like Daniel Pink, I believe in enhancing "STEAM" in our institutions of higher education--with an extra "A" in the center of STEM incorporating the Arts as central.

Finally, the value of a liberal arts education cannot be minimized without also minimizing the lessons of history, literature, and science for the present-day. There is a reason why Congress created the National Endowment for the Humanities. I don't ordinarily quote from statutory language to explicate the value of education, but the provisions of the U.S. Code outlining the purpose of the NEH bear repeating. The law states that Congress finds "an advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." Democracy," the statute goes on to state, "demands wisdom and vision in its citizens."

The founders, from Thomas Jefferson on, understood that the study of the liberal arts and civic obligation was important-- not just to learn the lessons of history, but to preserve a functioning Republic. Walt Whitman once called America "an aesthetic democracy"-- and that is a pretty good metaphor for the intellectual life of a liberal arts college.

Today, the liberal arts are just as essential to developing leadership, and promoting civic involvement and civil discourse, as in Jefferson's time. President Obama himself experienced their enduring importance firsthand. People sometimes forget that the President spent the first half of college at Occidental College, before transferring to Columbia. How did his time at Oxy affect him? The President, by his own account, arrived at Occidental as a rebellious teen who didn't take himself or his studies too seriously. He didn't know where he was going in life or what he would do.

But his two years at Occidental changed the future president. The President has described Occidental as "a wonderful, small liberal arts college. The professors were diverse and inspiring...and those first two years really helped me grow up." As he recounted at Wesleyan University's 2008 commencement, the values his mother had taught him about hard work, honesty, and empathy "resurfaced after a long hibernation" during his two years at Oxy. "Because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends," Obama recalled, "I began to notice a world beyond myself."

At Oxy, the president became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa. He stopped going by his nickname Barry--and started going by Barack. By the time he graduated, the president was "possessed with a crazy idea—that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change."

Learning to notice the world beyond oneself—in the President's words--is part of the essence of liberal arts colleges. In the post 9/11 world, that cross-cultural competence and multilingual understanding, the building of bridges to other societies, is even more important today than in Jefferson's time.

Under the Department of Education Organization Act enacted thirty years ago, the federal government does not get involved in curriculum or the specific promotion of liberal arts and civics instruction in higher education. The federal government does, however, invest significantly in strengthening foreign languages and international studies in higher education through its International Education and Foreign Language Studies (IEFLS) Domestic Programs.

Thinking back to Jefferson's day, I can say that I am glad that we don't settle political differences in America anymore with duels, as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did. Still, in today's polarized politics, we urgently need more civil discourse and informed discussion of differences in the tradition of inquiry at liberal arts colleges.

To cite just one example, the present trend on both sides of the political spectrum to cavalierly label political opponents as racists, Fascists, or Socialists can only be maintained through a studious historical ignorance of the actual meaning of those terms.

I agree with Jim Leach who said last month that "if 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands more gave their lives to hold Communism at bay, and if we fought a civil war to preserve the Union, isn't it a citizen's obligation to apply perspective to incendiary words that once summoned citizens to war?"

As a liberal arts education teaches us, empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy. George Orwell famously wrote that "to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration; so...the fight against bad English is not frivolous."

I agree—and I applaud liberal arts colleges for teaching students to think critically and write succinctly. To do so, helps us build the foundation for vigorous but respectful debate in our democracy.

To sum up, I don't think that liberal arts colleges are destined to be the educational antiquities of the 21st century. But in the spirit of that informed debate, I want to also challenge liberal arts colleges to do a better job of making the case for their continued vitality. Parents, students, and lawmakers have raised legitimate concerns about liberal arts institutions that college presidents and administrators need to address. Fortunately, a number of liberal arts institutions are adapting and evolving to meet those concerns.

There is considerable public impatience today with the idea that the value of a liberal arts institution is ineffable. This defensive notion--that learning and institutional performance are too ill-defined to capture--is the real educational dinosaur here. Quality in higher education can be defined and measured, however imperfectly. Every liberal arts college can and should articulate sensible outcomes with respect to student learning, college access, attrition, retention, graduation rates, faculty performance, post-college employment and contributions to the greater good of our democratic society. Just like every other institution in higher education, liberal arts institutions need to better account for and be transparent about their performance.

To cite one example, liberal arts institutions are often criticized for their high cost. As you know, sticker price shock can substantially exaggerate the actual cost of liberal arts colleges, once scholarship aid and student loans are included. But public unhappiness with access and the rising costs of liberal arts colleges is not baseless. The Pell Institute recently reported that while the number of Pell Grant recipients rose by almost 40 percent from 1993 to 2008, the number of Pell Grant recipients dropped at two-thirds of U.S. News & World Report's top-ranked liberal arts colleges during the same 15-year period. This is a wake-up call for liberal arts institutions to increase the number of low-income students who are admitted each year.

Much like other institutions of higher education, liberal arts colleges and universities also need to do a better and faster job of shuttering weak programs that lack academic rigor or interested students. Woodrow Wilson, himself a former college president, reportedly once quipped that "changing a college curriculum is like moving a graveyard—you never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move them."

As a former chancellor and college president, I understand that sentiment--and it is true that liberal arts colleges face many new market pressures. But it is also the case that some wounds at liberal arts colleges are self-inflicted.

Bill Chace, a former Stanford provost and president of Wesleyan and Emory whom I've known and admired for many years, described such self-inflicted wounds in a piece he wrote last year for the American Scholar on the decline of the English Department.

Chace warned that "English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit." The problem, Chace said, was that "no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English... is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that."

Fortunately, many liberal arts institutions are adapting to these new realities while still maintaining the essence of a liberal arts education. At Southern Vermont College, my good friend Karen Gross is seeing to it that solving practical problems and career exposure is woven into the curriculum through the use of project-based learning in fields like nursing and criminal justice. Southern Vermont is now reaching more first-generation college students--and is significantly boosting its first- to second-semester retention rate AND its first to second year persistence rate over the last few years.

Many liberal arts colleges have similarly developed strong internship and study abroad programs. I see this added emphasis on career and practical exposure as well as on the acquisition of global competencies not as a departure, but as change in keeping with John Dewey's formative ideas on experiential learning in the liberal arts. CIC is doing an excellent job of profiling the success stories of many of your institutions, but these are stories that need to be told to wider audiences in our nation.

As you can see, there is much to celebrate about liberal arts institutions and their extraordinary contributions to America. Yet, misinformation and challenges abound.

Today, liberal arts institutions have a unique opportunity to make an enormous difference to shape our nation's future by reaching President Obama's 2020 goal. A few months after taking office, President Obama said that "America cannot lead in the 21st century unless we have the best educated, most competitive work force in the world" (April 24, 2009). He said this amidst the tragedy of looking up and down the education pipeline where more than 30% of children are not ready for kindergarten, where 4th and 8th grade reading, writing, math and science achievement levels have remained stagnant for years, where 27% of high school students drop out, many in the 9th and 10th grades, in some cities and town more than 50% leave high school, in fact, we lose a high school student every 22 seconds, where 50% of undergraduates don't finish in six years, and where half of doctoral students leave without a Ph.D.

President Obama has set a goal that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Secretary Duncan calls this our North Star, and we need your best ideas, your leadership and your help to reach this goal.

The President's fiscal 2010 budget has already provided $129 billion in new grants, loans, and other assistance—a 32 percent increase since fiscal 2008 to enable more than 14 million students to enter higher education. By opening your doors to more of these students, selective liberal arts institutions can be the life-changing opportunity for the new generation of graduates.

To meet the President's goal, we anticipate that 8 million more students beyond the expected enrollment due to population growth will need to complete a college education by 2020. We have an unprecedented opportunity to change the future of our country and, as the nation's academic leaders, we cannot look the other way.

America's liberal arts colleges and universities can lead the way. And I hope you will. The future of our democracy depends upon the next steps we take.

Thank you.