Instead of being the vehicle to join the middle class that it once was, higher education is now an obstacle that actually prevents access to knowledge and reinforces existing privilege. This was the powerful message of a compelling Economist cover story last year titled America’s New Aristocracy.
The essay argues that college in the U.S. has become a class distinction – a marker of privilege, the way it has traditionally been in England.
The catastrophic rise in tuition is one major factor. Over the past decade, Michigan’s in-state tuition has doubled. During the same period, state support for universities has been cut in half. That shift in funding places the financial burden heavily on individual families and leaves countless students with crushing debt.
The Economist says another part of this problem is early education. Young children with exposure to the best kinds of learning opportunities are much more likely to achieve success as college students. This institutional reality needs to be challenged. That’s where the liberal arts education comes in. It has the potential to enact great structural changes in the way young people from all backgrounds learn about and participate in the larger world.
Developed in Europe around the 9th century, the liberal arts curriculum originally had two main areas of instruction: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). The goal was to cultivate a particular quality of mind, a wider worldview. In medieval Europe, though, the aim was to preserve things the way they were, to keep everyone in their social order. Thus the liberal arts curriculum was taught exclusively in Latin, the language of the gentry.
It wasn’t really until around a hundred years ago that the liberal arts curriculum got more forward-thinking. This is the revolution that John Dewey launched with the 20th century Progressive Education Movement. He believed in a “see one, do one, teach one” approach to learning, where student apprentices received a hands-on education and then went on to teach future generations with the same approach. This model persists today in medical education, which requires that young doctors train by working alongside their experienced elders.
Dewey reimagined the liberal arts curriculum as a foundation for the professions – a way of giving us better teachers, engineers, and specialists of all kinds. This mode of education celebrated the cash value of ideas –the better an idea, the bigger value it had in the real world. To this end, Dewey wanted his new learning system to produce a middle class of socially responsible, well-informed citizens with common values. At a moment when everyone talked of the rise of the American century, the middle class was to be the foundation of intelligence and productivity.
A century later, liberal arts education has undergone yet another transformation. In many ways, it’s a good change; today’s liberal arts curricula embrace both the social responsibility of Dewey and the wide worldview of trivium and quadrivium. But the downside is that, as Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco tells us in the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower, today’s youth are underprepared for the responsibilities of adult life, and college does little to help. That film ultimately suggests that universities have become a playground.
With a liberal arts education increasingly out of reach for underprivileged students, state support on the decline, and student debt on the rise, it’s time to rethink not only the curriculum itself but also the way we teach – and who does the teaching. Here are three things our universities can do to reinvigorate the liberal arts education at this critical moment.
Drop the one and done model
Let’s try developing curricula that work like Legos™, each individual component a small piece that we can recombine within the larger system to produce an infinite number of creations. This will provide teachers with new tools to respond in real-time to the concerns and demands of the outside world. It will also allow for more cross-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation. In promoting this model of perpetual growth, we need to incorporate continuing education – ongoing certifications and opportunities for students, teachers, and professionals to update old expertise – so that learning carries on beyond the classroom.
Flip the classroom
Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), including TED, Coursera, and edX, reproduce tired models of teaching by featuring talking heads delivering lectures. Methods like those used by the Khan Academy represent a radical change in the way we imagine the classroom. In this model, students receive the primary course material to read through and learn before coming to class. This way, during actual class time, the instructor can work with the students in applying the shared concepts to real situations. This flipped-classroom approach is essentially applied liberal arts: the high-mindedness of trivium and quadrivium meets the practicality of John Dewey.
Put faculty insiders on the outside and outsiders on the inside
The best teachers have had meaningful experiences related to their field of study out in the real world. Let’s cultivate professors who are also professionals, and professionals who are also professors. Some people call this person the pracademic (“the practical academic”). Seeking out and nurturing pracademics will bring together universities and their immediate communities. Through initiatives like Collaborative Open Innovation Networks (COINs), professors can make new connections with unlikely intellectual partners as they move in, across, and outside of the academy.
The liberal arts curriculum is not a fixed set of universal ideas but an ever-changing model of approaching our world’s most important issues as the issues themselves evolve. The more fluid we are with our teaching, the more open-minded and diverse our students will become. It’s imperative not only for instructors and university administrators but also for public officials and parents – for all of us. The semester is already –indeed, always – in session. Let’s get to work.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan