The University Under Seige

The University Under Seige

The liberal arts traditionally provided the core of a college education — and the underpinnings for further study and a career. Today there is controversy, even heartache, swirling around the concept of what a modern university’s mission should be.

Harvard College, early etching.

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — We regard the venerable universities of this world as rocks, as repositories of age-old wisdom and ways of teaching it. I had the good fortune to attend such a university, Harvard. But when I went back for the 55th reunion of the class of 1960 a few weeks ago, I got quite an eye opener.

Rocks? More like rocky. They are asking themselves with some urgency: What is a great university for? And if one key role is to educate the next generation of leaders, what should that education consist of? There is no received wisdom on these issues now. Indeed, testy battles are raging around them. And the very future of the traditional missions of these great universities is at stake.

This our Harvard class of 1960 learned at a brilliant lecture at our reunion, when Graduate School of Education Professor Julie Reuben addressed us on the seemingly parochial topic of “The future of the liberal arts at Harvard.” This turned out not to be a parochial topic at all, but, rather, one that reached way beyond the liberal arts, and way beyond Harvard. It led to such broad questions as: How do the pressures of underfunding affect public education? And how do rising costs, the push for more on-line learning, changing reasons for going to college, and new funding sources affect great universities? Will education become more modular, challenging the age-old four-year residential model? Will new funders subtly alter the notion of what a major university stands for?

His firm regards admission to Harvard as a useful heuristic of talent, but a college education itself as useless.

The class had chosen this topic for one of our central sessions because most of us had been liberal arts majors, but barely 20-30 per cent of today’s undergraduates are. So what’s going on, we wondered? The definition of a liberal arts education that prevailed in our day consisted, Reuben reminded us, of “disciplines studied for the purpose of understanding rather than for vocational preparation. A liberal arts education was also understood to involve breadth — study across areas of knowledge — and depth, the study of one field of knowledge intensively. With this foundation in place, graduates would be able to continue to learn what they needed for their careers and their lives.”

Now, though, the whole idea that this is even necessary is under attack in some quarters. In a recent New York Times column entitled “Starving for Wisdom.” Nicholas Kristof notes that “a leader of a prominent internet company once told me that the firm regards admission to Harvard as a useful heuristic of talent, but a college education itself as useless.” Kristof does not agree. Indeed, he defends the liberal arts, specifically. First, because they equip students with communications skills. Second, because people conversant with the humanities are needed to reach wise public policy decisions. And third — irrespective of the impact on one’s career — “much of our happiness relies on our interaction with those around us, and there’s some evidence that literature nurtures a richer emotional intelligence.” As well, he refers admiringly to Fareed Zakaria’s recent book In Defense of a Liberal EducationKristof also notes that Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz believes both technical and liberal-arts education are now necessary to reach the top.

Harvard University campus.

But there is a problem here: what are the liberal arts now? Today, notes Reuben, “the ‘liberal arts’ is a meaningless term and desperately needs to be redefined for the future.” For one thing, “the old distinction between vocational and academic has broken down.” For instance, how does one categorize computer science or bioengineering, which involve both complex intellectual issues and the need for hands-on skills?

The central role of technology in these two fields and a number of others is what raises this question. And technology plays a host of other roles in the current upheavals. For one thing, it is being used to enhance and change the study of the liberal arts themselves. Both Yale and Princeton have “digital humanities” departments, where internet research multiplies what one can learn, and how fast one can learn it, in these ancient disciplines. Thus, ironically, the very technology that is upending the definition of “liberal arts” is also enhancing their study. Harvard is also using these new tools, Reuben says, but not as intensively as Yale and Princeton.

Critically, of course, technology can change where one gets a Harvard education. “Harvard is trying to move into on-line education,” Reuben says, but she adds, “I do not believe residential liberal arts colleges will disappear. Students who have another option will not choose to get their college degrees sitting at a computer in their parents’ basement. And their parents won’t choose this either,” she adds wryly. On the other hand, she does not believe that “Harvard students will just take four classes for four years”, on campus. “It is likely that education will become more modularized and individualized. They will have a greater mix of experiences and pathways to an undergraduate degree.” This could include some on-line learning, some time doing volunteer work overseas. Ironically, these changes are designed, in part, to maintain the relevance and appeal of a four-year residential college experience.

Reuben does see a couple of major threats that technology poses to traditional leading universities, though. One is that “the justification for universities is increasingly being narrowed to focus on their contribution to technological change. Technological innovation in some form or another is becoming the primary metric by which universities are judged and judge their own contributions to society. This poses a serious danger to the liberal arts.”

And that metric affects what new funders are willing to support. “Do these funders force their views of education or politics on Harvard?” I asked. “Harvard has a strong commitment to academic freedom,” she said. “But [in terms of] more subtle ways in which ideas are shaped and legitimated – it’s not set up to think about that. It implicitly accepts the new vision that comes in part from these funders.”

He asks ‘Is it OK, is it bad, is it being replaced — and if so, by what? A youth culture?’

And this new central role for technology in valuing the university, together with financial pressures, may hollow out the liberal arts. One of our classmates who led the session, professor emerita Ellen Schrecker — author of The Lost Soul of Higher Education (2010) — noted that “75 per cent of teaching today is done by people off the tenure track. The student doesn't talk to the same kinds of full-time professors that had once been the core of the nation's faculties." She thought Harvard might be a partial exception, and Reuben agreed. “Harvard is not in crisis” Reuben said. “But,” she continued, “the crisis of sector inevitably will impact Harvard. For example, if PhD students cannot get secure jobs, graduate education here will suffer, and in turn, faculty research will suffer, and whole fields of study will eventually die.”

Though she has no answer to what the new definition of ‘liberal arts’ should be, Reuben does have a proposal for what it should aim for. “A liberal arts education should do three things: it should orient students to the world they live in, it should empower students to imagine the kinds of lives that they want to live and feel capable of building those lives, and it should be humbling. A liberal education should expose students to complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity as well as to the best tools we have for answering questions and using knowledge to solve problems.”

One part of the wrangle over the liberal arts concerns general education – the core curriculum. “The old consensus about general education – the part of the liberal arts that provides breadth — has broken down. There is no agreed upon sense of what all students need to know,” she said. It’s so bad, in fact, that the commencement issue of The Harvard Crimson contained a long section entitled “An Autopsy of Gen Ed.”

“A question that is debated but a little less clearly,” said Reuben, “is how much a common culture is necessary for having wise, ethical people.” She pointed to the work of Daniel T. Rodgers, who has written in his book Age of Fracture about the atomization of American culture. “He asks ‘Is it OK, is it bad, is it being replaced — and if so, by what? A youth culture?’ ”

Source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

When we were undergraduates, we were required to take three survey courses: one each in a natural science, a social science, and the humanities — no matter what our majors were. This broke down during the protests of the late 1960s, when the students felt the survey courses were irrelevant to their lives. But Reuben believes there should be a core curriculum, consisting of courses that will help students reason about important aspects of their future. “For instance,” she said, “one such course might be on climate change.”

Importantly, she chided Harvard on how it sees its role in the larger world. “For too long,” she said, “elite universities have been competing to be the best, to have the most applicants, and the best facilities, and the largest gifts, and have been ignoring their responsibility to education as a whole. We need to ask Harvard to focus less on being the leading university and more on being a leader on behalf of all higher education.”

In closing, Reuben said, “Harvard has always played a leading role in defining and redefining liberal arts education. It can do so again and we should push it to play this leadership role.”



HEIDI FISKE is a writer and a former journalist who worked for many years in publishing about the financial sector. She lives in New York.


NOTE: Our apologies for spelling 'siege' wrong in the title. Because of search engine specifics, for now we're going to leave the title as is.


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Thank you for this important report from the 55th reunion of the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of 1960. There seems little doubt that the most endangered species on the planet are the liberal arts. I believe the harbingers of the irrelevance of history, literature, foreign languages, philosophy and classical studies occurred in our public secondary schools years ago where crowded classrooms, student socio-economics, and undereducated inadequately prepared teachers replaced compelling study of the world's riches. Waving dollar bills at commencement exercises is commonplace these days and the university itself has figuratively done the same with its massive fundraising and shallow pursuit of the biggest applicant pool. I am sad to say I believe there is much less 'there' there.
Frances O'Neill...

As a more recent college graduate (Class of 2009!) and a current graduate student, I can fully relate to the question "What is the value of a degree?", a constant in many students' minds. This article hits home on some of the issues that college students face. With so many company founders and noted people in the media being celebrated for their lack of college education, I have had many friends questioning why a 4-year degree or graduate degree is even needed anymore. Going along with all of this inquiry is the rising cost of education. Fellow friends, including myself, migrated towards majors that led directly into well-paying jobs to immediately start paying off student debt. Often times this meant picking a pre-professional or technical major that fits into that industry. The final point made in the article, that we need to tailor the liberal arts curriculum to incorporate current trends, is key to bringing students back to some of these more thought-provoking subjects, and showing them why it will be useful in future careers.

Heidi Fiske has contributed an excellent essay summarizing and discussing points made in a lecture by Professor Julie Reuben at a recent Harvard class reunion. Perhaps it is good that Harvard, like Yale and Princeton, has moved beyond the rigid categories once required for study by undergraduates. In future, one hopes that on-line technology and the vast resources of computers will be more and more available to help ask questions and find answers in philosophy, history, literature, the graphic arts, etc. — in fact all areas of intellectual or artistic endeavor. I was delighted that Heidi Fiske provided such a succinct and well written outline of crucial issues concerning the future of higher education. — Anthony G. Henderson, Harvard '59, PhD Columbia, '67.
Anthony G. Henderson

I thoroughly enjoyed your thought-provoking piece. I'd never been away from home until I went away to college. I had never met people who made a living with ideas; never met people who lived with great ideas, until I interacted with the junior faculty at college, until I listened to lectures from the tenured profs, until I delved into the great books with the leisure I took for granted in those relatively privileged times (class of '71). Your piece makes me ask how the education I valued will survive, given the pernicious vectors you identified. All the topics you touched on — rising costs and declining funding sources, the increasingly vocational thrust of even elite liberal education, the emerging modular, off-line learning model, the emphasis on speed and measurable results, and the gutting of the core curriculum — all these struck me as foreseeable but unfortunate responses to structural changes in the economy that will, if not resisted, impoverish the lives of those who come after us.
Louis G.