It's Not a Liberal Arts College If It Doesn't Have Liberal Arts Majors
Gen ed isn't enough
At this point, there’s nothing all that surprising about a small private college or university slashing programs in the arts and humanities. But I’m still fuming about one such decision from one of Bethel’s peer institutions: not just that that school eliminated its history major, but that it did so and claimed to remain faithful to its mission as a Christian liberal arts college.
Citing declining enrollment, Saint Mary’s University of Winona, Minnesota announced in May that it would focus its undergraduate efforts on business and STEM programs and phase out eleven “under-enrolled” majors, including art, English, history, music, Spanish, theater, and theology. While the philosophy major survived, the humanities and arts were otherwise decimated… at an institution that regularly heralds its commitment to the liberal arts, yet will become one of just two members of the Minnesota Private College Council not to offer an English or history major — and the other is an art school.1
Let’s not kid ourselves: if you can’t sustain meaningful programs of study in history, languages, and fine arts, you’re no longer a liberal arts college. That type of institution, said two social science professors across town at Winona State University, seeks “to educate the whole person and create citizens who are ethical, responsible, hard-working, and knowledgeable with a diverse, flexible set of skills.” Saint Mary’s, by contrast, had chosen to become “a very expensive technical school.”
Of course, not every college and university needs to be a liberal arts institution. Other, more narrowly focused models have value. It’s certainly helpful to train young people well for careers in business, science, and health care.
But Saint Mary’s is trying to have it both ways. Its president, Fr. James Burns, claimed that the university’s fundamental liberal arts orientation had not changed, despite the loss of English, history, theology, art, etc.:
…we are aligning the programs we offer with our mission as we answer the question: how can we best prepare our students for work, for a life of ethical service, to pursue the greater good and the truth in all things while answering their questions about meaning and purpose?
How could the university prepare students in this way without arts and humanities majors? The press release promised a revised general education curriculum and pledged that “Saint Mary’s commitment to Lasallian Catholic values as well as Character and Virtue formation will remain at the forefront and will be infused into all offerings.”
It’s a seductive notion; even I can see the appeal. After all, gen ed is already the place where most college students encounter the disciplines of the liberal arts; I’m happy to have the chance to teach history to future accountants, doctors, engineers, and social workers. Religious colleges like Saint Mary’s and Bethel often claim that their spiritual values and virtues undergird courses having nothing to do with theology; when I led our workshop on faith-learning integration this summer, almost all of the participants came from professional and STEM fields. So why not cut unpopular programs, shift resources to meet student and industry demand, and let gen ed do the work of the liberal arts?
There are lots of problems with that logic. For the sake of space, let me confine myself to three.
1. General education alone isn’t “liberal arts”
This fall one of my nephews will matriculate at the University of Minnesota. He’s going there to get a bachelor’s (and perhaps master’s) degree in architecture, but alongside all that pre-professional training, he’ll also take about forty additional credits of “liberal education.”2
As his uncle and as a citizen of the state of Minnesota, I’m glad to know that our land-grant university expects future professionals of all types to dabble in subjects like art, languages, and history. But it’s just dabbling: like tens of thousands of his classmates on the Twin Cities campus, Nate is going to the U not for broad learning and whole person education, but to acquire the relatively narrow set of knowledge and skills necessary to do a very difficult, highly lucrative job. He’ll do great, but he won’t be doing “the liberal arts.”3
Will a business or nursing major at Saint Mary’s be any different?
At least my nephew will have the opportunity to switch to a music or Spanish major if his early gen ed experience shifts his academic interests. As a top-tier research university, the University of Minnesota is expected to maintain strong programs in most academic disciplines. Far crueler to tell students that they’ve come to a liberal arts college to discern their “meaning and purpose,” only for a first-year gen ed course to kindle their passion for a field they can’t keep studying.
2. The liberal arts must be liberating arts
In any case, the liberal arts is about something more than providing breadth. Yes, it offers a “well-rounded education.” But that’s too tame a phrase to capture the liberating effects of the liberal arts.
That kind of study is liberating because it liberates students to become more fully human themselves and to treat other humans with greater empathy and respect, to recognize and live out the inherent value of humanity. And, in a Christian setting like Bethel or Saint Mary’s, to know and serve the God in whose image all humans are made.
In the words of Bethel’s longest-serving president, Carl Lundquist, the liberal arts release us from “the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness” and free us to achieve “our unique and creative best for the glory of God.”
That commitment can certainly give shape and purpose to general education. But to let students partially focus their studies on arts or humanities is a far more powerful (and, these days, sacrificial) way of asserting this value. Having the ability to major in English, history, or theater — to add depth to part of gen ed’s breadth — assures students that it’s worthwhile to spend a pivotal moment in their lives simply learning about what it means to be human.
To take that choice away and relegate the arts and humanities to gen ed service is to communicate a different message: that students’ own value is defined in more narrowly economic terms, as customers and as workers. Read Saint Mary’s press release again, and you’ll see clearly that its leadership has decided that the liberal arts matter to the extent that they:
(a) meet consumer demand — i.e., not enough to justify arts and humanities majors; and
(b) supply well-trained labor, through general education that serves to meet employers’ “real need for excellent skills in areas such as communication, processing and analytics, ethics, and organizational development.”
That’s limiting, not liberating.
I happen to agree that a liberal arts education does prepare students well for multiple careers. Indeed, anything calling itself a liberal arts college ought to encourage its students to study whatever of the arts, humanities, or sciences most interests them — in the confidence that they’ll simultaneously acquire the skills and traits necessary to navigate the twists and turns of their half-century in the workforce.
But a liberal arts college also needs to equip students to ask larger questions about the economy itself: Does it serve the greater good, or deepen inequality and injustice? Does it treat people ethically, or exploitively? Does it lead to human flourishing, or dehumanizing alienation? Does it have a purpose beyond profit? A meaning beyond materialism?4
Perhaps a gen ed curriculum alone can do this. But any institution that — for the sake of aligning itself with market forces — strips away some of the disciplines best suited to raise such questions cannot be all that committed to answering them.
3. You can’t do the liberal arts without arts and humanities faculty
In and of itself, cutting arts and humanities majors doesn’t actually save much money. Virtually all of the fiscal benefit comes from cutting faculty positions, thirteen of them at Saint Mary’s.
Perhaps that university will retain a handful of professors from the defunct majors to teach in the new gen ed curriculum. Or perhaps it will assign more of that work to overworked, underpaid adjunct faculty. Either way, something will have been lost that is indispensable to the liberal arts.
First, while I’m sure those full- and part-time teachers who remain will do their very best to convey the importance of their disciplines, students will decide for themselves the value of courses that are detached from any program and taught by faculty unmoored from any disciplinary community. If they choose not to prioritize their work in such unchosen classes, they’ll just be taking their cues about educational priorities from a university leadership that has already made clear the overriding importance of student preferences.
Moreover, any vestigial remnant of arts and humanities professors will likely struggle to play the other kinds of roles that typically make them so important to the functioning of a liberal arts college. I fear it would be asking far too much to expect the shell-shocked survivors of the coming cuts to continue to tell Saint Mary’s 110-year story, to help interpret and articulate its distinctiveness as a Lasallian institution, and to infuse its Catholic values into teaching and scholarship across the institution through faculty development. Finally, they’ll be in the weakest possible position to engage in the important work of shared governance.
That last role is perhaps most important. After all, it’s not just in the classroom and curriculum that students learn to seek “a life of ethical service, to pursue the greater good and the truth in all things while answering their questions about meaning and purpose.” Liberal arts colleges can claim to fulfill that mission with integrity because they ask questions of others that they show themselves willing to ask of themselves: Are we behaving in ways that are consistent with our values and contributing to the greater good? Are we being truthful? Is our work meaningful, and flowing out of our purpose?
I hope that the science, nursing, business, and other professors who will now dominate the Saint Mary’s faculty will try to play that role. But such questions come more naturally to the lips of artists and humanists who already ask versions of them in their teaching and scholarship.
Yet having just been told that they are second-class citizens on the faculty, how likely is it that they will remain so committed to their institution that they will sustain the critical engagement necessary to its continuing integrity and ongoing improvement?
Or if they do, will their voices even be heard by leaders who so misunderstand the arts and humanities that they think the liberal arts can survive without them?
It’s not just that set of private colleges. By my count, 87% of Bethel’s peers in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities offer a History major — 93% if you count History & Politics and History/Social Studies Education majors. All eight CCCU members that offer History as only a concentration or minor, or not at all, are significantly smaller than Bethel.
Dabbling can be meaningful! My dad’s love of opera was sparked by a music appreciation course he had to take at the University of Minnesota. But that was entirely incidental to his educational goal as an undergraduate: to acquire as quickly as possible the scientific and mathematical knowledge necessary to succeed in medical school.
It’s not just the economy. The liberal arts also equip citizens who ask hard questions of their government. The Christian liberal arts also form followers of Jesus who ask hard questions of their church.