Last year, when he announced a plan to link federal student aid to ratings of universities, President Obama shook up higher education and sparked a national debate on the value of a college degree, and of the liberal arts in particular.
In response, Fordham has launched an effort to deeply examine liberal arts education and articulate its value for students. At the request of Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, Stephen Freedman, Ph.D., provost of the University, convened the Fordham Task Force on the Future of Liberal Arts Education.
Freedman tapped Eva Badowska, Ph.D., now acting dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, to chair the task force; she invited representatives from across the University to take part. Badowska said members are grappling with how to address the liberal arts, given the businesslike language that more people are applying to higher education.
“There’s this perception [among academics]of the language of the market, which is ‘bad,’ and the language of the academy, which is ‘good,’” said Badowska, who is also an associate professor of English. “There’s a strong concern we will fall into the trap of speaking about the value of a liberal education using market terms, and in doing so, cheapen the discourse.”
President Obama’s concentration on higher education came as the country emerged from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, business terms such as “value,” “results,” and “skills” have worked their way into the debate about higher education’s future.
“What executives want from graduates are the softer skills of liberal arts, not just technical skills,” said Badowska. “So we debated how what we teach could be labeled ‘skills.’ In some sense we can say what we teach are ‘transferable skills,’ ‘high-level skills,’ ‘intellectual skills,’ or even ‘habits of mind.’”
The task force has defined just a few of those softer skills as being able to analyze problems from several angles using distinct processes like the analytic and scientific methods. Other soft skills include writing and presentation skills and having a broad historical awareness of the world and its peoples.
The return-on-investment mindset was highlighted in January when President Obama told some General Electric factory workers that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” (The president, who was educated at two distinguished liberal arts colleges, Occidental and Columbia, later apologized for his remarks.)
“There is a prejudice that liberal education is a matter for expensive private colleges and doesn’t easily translate into careers,” said Badowska.
Several on the Fordham task force have noted that “liberal education” once denoted freedom from the manual labor of vocational trades. Members agreed that today this idea would be seen as a slight. In an attempt to recast the debate, liberal arts promoters have adopted some of the terms used to promote vocational training, such as “skills.”
Badowska said that “skills” has become a source of tension not just for the Fordham task force, but for liberal arts promoters in general, igniting a debate about how the word should be used.
“There’s been such a push toward assessment that whenever faculty hear the word ‘skills,’ there’s a kind of knee-jerk reaction: ‘Here comes assessment again,’” she said.
Nevertheless, she said, liberal arts colleges have begun to embrace this term in order to make a liberal arts degree understandable and valuable to a job-seeking public.
While Badowska said that the term “skills” continues to “wreak havoc with liberal arts,” she said it also shows the need for a better communication strategy. She paraphrased Father McShane, saying that liberal arts professors need to be “bilingual.”
“Liberal arts professors have to be able to speak the academic language that ensures intellectual credibility, but they also have to speak the language of the public debate—which is often the language of dollars and cents.”
Badowska said that to address this concern, the task force has made public relations a primary goal.
“The story in the news right now is ‘who can afford liberal education?’” she said. “It’s becoming patently clear that we are facing a future in which the few people who will be able to afford to attend liberal colleges will be the rich.”
So while the bulk of the task force’s work is to articulate the value of a liberal arts education, Badowska said that developing a strategy to advocate for the liberal arts would be just as important.
Social media and web presence strategies are being developed to ensure that the academic work of the task force (several papers are expected to emerge from the effort) will not gather dust on a library shelf, but become the basis for the University to actively participate in the national debate online.
Badowska said the task force’s discussions have been freewheeling and open-ended. She is well aware that faculty often view such efforts as idealistic at best, but she thinks the task force’s academic work will find broad support and exert influence on the shape of the liberal arts at Fordham.
The task force expects to unveil the results of its efforts by the end of the academic year.