How the liberal arts can save higher education
January 17, 2023
Excerpted from Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm by Gayle Greene. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.
One of the shocking things I discovered, writing this book, is how much of what we read and hear about education is simply not true. Mainstream media turn to business leaders, politicians, tech moguls, for “expert” opinions. They’re more likely to accept a press release from a billionaire-funded think tank or foundation than ask an educator, so they perpetuate the narrative of higher education as a “broken fiscal model” that needs to be transformed, to be made more like business.
They feature attention-grabbing stories of admissions scandals, athletic scandals, snowflake students, “cancel” culture — “if it bleeds, it leads” — stories that highlight what’s wrong with higher education, but have little relevance to the experience of most undergraduates. The media give disrupters inordinate air time. Kevin Carey, author of The End of College, and Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, advocate doing away with “bricks and mortar” colleges and “unbundling” higher education into online learning and workplace-directed programs. For them, as for [Bill] Gates, the “value” of higher education is measurable and monetary, training that yields maximum return on investment.
Society has ceased believing in a liberal education, and educators are losing heart. Higher education has allowed itself to be defined by educrats, ideologues, politicians who would have us produce workers “job-ready on day one,” in the words of former President Barack Obama, whose Education Department was packed with Gates Foundation people. We in the liberal arts watch as enrollments plummet and humanities courses and programs are replaced by degree programs with “product-market fit,” as the Charles Koch Foundation advocates. The assault on the liberal arts is bipartisan, one of the few things Democrats and Republicans can get together on; and it’s been extremely effective.
Students are flocking to majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) because they’ve been told this is where the jobs are — when in fact, there are more STEM graduates than there are jobs. They’ve been told the humanities offer poor job prospects — when, as Karl Voss explains in the Hechinger Report, “Employers consistently say that they are looking for employees who can analyze complex, multifaceted problems, are creative and innovative, have good communication skills, are willing to learn, work … with a variety of people, see the larger setting in which decisions are made, and understand the ethical dimension of decisions and interactions” — all of which the liberal arts develop. “The difference between humanities majors and science majors, in median income and unemployment, seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina,” writes Benjamin Schmidt in the Atlantic: “If someone told to me not to move to Charlotte because no one there can make a living, I would never take them seriously.”