Among the various titles that I’ve acquired over the years is Pre-Law Advisor, a job that brings with it responsibility for guiding undergraduates through the law school admissions process and, sometimes, helping them decide if they want to go to law school in the first place. The last few years have seemed like a roller-coaster ride for people who do this work. Not long ago, the number of students applying to law school was at a record high. Now, as we emerge from the “Great Recession,” applications to law school are down, and down by nearly half since 2004 (“Law Schools’ Applications Fall…” New York Times, January 30, 2013). This is a serious concern for many law schools, and it is just as much of a concern for any university or college where the liberal arts are taught.
Liberal arts professors preach the gospel of knowledge for its own sake. In fact, most of us cringe just a bit when our brightest students tell us they are applying to law school, but the truth is that law school has always been among the most attractive options for our students after graduation. The even uglier truth is that we all tout our own disciplines as ideal “pre-law” preparation and try to attract pre-law students to our classes and majors. Now that fewer students are planning to go to law school, this pitch has become a harder sell.
While college education can enhance employment prospects, this has not always been its only, or even its primary, purpose. As Andrew Delbanco discusses in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton 2012), Americans have long believed in the “college idea.” Beyond getting us a job, a college education is supposed to prepare us to be engaged and thoughtful citizens of a democracy. It helps us develop our ability to evaluate conflicting claims and to “tell the difference between demagoguery and responsible arguments” (29). Even more fundamentally, an education should shape and form our character. It provides “...a hedge against utilitarian values… It slakes the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been to articulate by and for oneself… it is among the invaluable experiences of the fulfilled life...” (32).
This type of education—in fact, any type of college education—was once the privilege of the rich. But in the last half of the twentieth century, federal programs such as the GI Bill and Pell Grants opened access to higher education to many who could never have afforded it otherwise. New kinds of colleges—including regional state universities and community colleges—let students live at home and work full-time jobs while also working on their degrees. But this democratization of higher education soon came into tension with the college idea, one aspect of which holds that higher education is best pursued within a certain kind of community of learning.
The American image of the ideal college campus is shaped by both the Christian model of monastic communities and the Socratic model of education through dialogue. A college campus is supposed to be a place where young people with different backgrounds can live together in a safe and secure environment, somewhat removed from the “real world.” In this semi-monastic isolation, they can learn from one another at the same time as they are learning from faculty members with whom they have daily, face-to-face, in-person interactions (Delbanco 53–54). This is a compelling image of how to go about higher education, but it is also an expensive way to go about it.
As access to higher education increased, more Americans begin to think about education primarily as a means to achieve social mobility and financial stability. It became an investment in the future, and the point of any investment is, of course, to create return. That reality encourages many students to choose a field of study with the best job prospects as well as to consider less expensive means of getting an education. In short, the goal is to get the most bang for your educational buck. The traditional college idea of schools with beautiful campuses isolated from the outside world where students and professors could leisurely chat about the meaning of life is not always the choice that makes the most financial sense.
For many students, of course, where to go to college and what to study is not simply a financial decision. Lots of liberal arts colleges are still doing quite well and even small public institutions and community colleges offer degrees in the humanities, but in recent years the old college idea has started to look like a much riskier investment. The economy, though recovering, is doing so slowly, and the fields that are producing the most new jobs are those that usually require some sort of specialized technical training. Universities are facing increasing pressure to give students marketable skills and to train workers for the fastest growing industries. Last year in Florida, a commission appointed by the governor to propose reforms in the state’s educational system recommended holding down the cost of degrees in science, technology, and health-care fields, but charging higher tuition to students who majored in the humanities (“Pricing Out The Humanities,” Inside Higher Education, November 26, 2012).
At the same time, new technologies are changing how young people think about education and information. Whether or not online schools provide the same kind or quality of education as traditional schools, the reality is that there are cheaper, faster ways that young people today can access almost all of the information that they think they need to further their careers and go about their lives. The monastic model of education does not interest many young people anymore, and, even if it did, schools couldn’t really offer it to them anyway. The quadrangles at the heart of many college campuses once served two purposes; they kept the world out, and the students in. Today, they can do neither.
Unfortunately, a few universities are responding to these challenges by cutting their philosophy, classical languages, arts, and other humanities departments. But don’t count out the liberal arts yet. While schools cannot ignore their students’ desire to enhance their employment prospects, these students should not be forced into an either/or choice between preparing for the job market through mastering science and technology or preparing for life through the liberal arts. They must have an opportunity to choose both, and universities today are developing curricula that make this possible. Even the very distinction between professional and liberal arts education is less sharp than it once was. The best professional-education programs today incorporate collaborative learning, development of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, service-learning projects that address real-world problems, and training in ethics, as well as engagement with both the sciences and the humanities through complementary course work.
As for the liberal arts faculty, many of us are still purists who believe that a liberal arts education, even with little emphasis on acquiring practical skills, is the best thing we can offer our students, and we often argue that it is the best preparation for almost any career. Yet, we are well aware that out students still have to find that first job. To help with this, many programs are encouraging, often requiring, students to take advantage of internships and civic-engagement opportunities that expose them to the practical working world and give them a chance to learn how their intellectual skills can be assets in the workplace. Many schools are creating interdisciplinary majors that combine professional training, scientific literacy, and liberal arts coursework into a single program. In his book, Delbanco describes the many experiments that liberal arts educators are making in their efforts to help students—as well as policy makers—recognize the value of the liberal arts.
American universities and colleges will change, because they must. They will learn how to combine professionalization and liberal education, and they will learn to use technologies in ways that enhance communities rather than undermine them. They will find new ways to make higher education affordable not only to the wealthy and privileged but to students from every level of our society. They will meet these challenges because the people who work at these institutions continue to believe in the college idea—as do many other Americans. They believe that our system of higher education can and must offer everyone both a chance to make a good living and the possibility of living well.