The Liberal-Arts are Not New

In a recent, July 2018 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan offered a significant historical perspective on the liberal arts, one aimed to demonstrate that costly, private liberal-arts colleges in the U.S. are in no way the sole promoters of this type of multi-faceted and often interdisciplinary curriculum. The authors state that, “From the beginning of the 20th century, students have studied philosophy, mathematics, English, chemistry, sociology — indeed, the full range of the liberal arts — in all kinds of access-oriented institutions of higher education: vocational programs, night schools, technical institutes, adult extension programs, teachers’ colleges, branch campuses of state universities, and community colleges.” However, despite this historical reality about education in our country, the authors contend that, “public discussions of higher education increasingly imagine that these kinds of institutions focus solely on an instrumental, economy-determined training skills required for specific jobs.” Buurma and Heffernan argue that despite the fact that the liberal-arts have been taught at a wide range of schools, we allow “vocational education to be redefined to mean the narrowest kind of job training” at least “Partly because we’ve enshrined the liberal-vocational opposition in the way we talk about education.” The authors suggest that this binary does not reflect the reality of vocational education for either its teachers or its students because these individuals “know that in practice, people pursuing vocational education are learners, not only trainees, and that liberal and vocational education are part of the same story.” Buurma and Heffernan emphasize throughout their piece, that “Instead of assuming that liberal education — especially the humanities — was born in and belongs to elite schools and occasionally spreads democratically outward after the middle of the 20th century, we could step back to tell a much richer, and more accurate, narrative . . . . The liberal arts were not once pure and autonomous and only belatedly adapted to the more pragmatic needs of mass education.” I believe that this revisionist view of the liberal arts is not only beneficial for the humanities. At a time when humanities scholars and professors are across the board worried about job prospects and placement, here we see that these disciplines have always had and very much still have, a place in a wide range of institutions of higher education.

One Reply to “The Liberal-Arts are Not New”

  1. Thank you for sharing this post. My field, science and technology studies, is an interdisciplinary program, which explores how science and technology (STS) shape and are shaped by society. STS relies on multiple perspectives from philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, etc. I am interested in my expertise in liberal arts regarding science and technology can help STEM students. I believe that liberal arts can broaden their perspectives by helping them look beyond technical issues.

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