Monday, June 9, 2008

Liberal arts, con and pro

A skeletal or rudimentary liberal arts education is apparently being required for entry into, or advancement within, a widening range of occupations. Should a nurse have read Hamlet or Hemingway? Should a future highway patrolman have to go to a college to be marched, very possibly against his will, through the Iliad or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Or forget Hamlet and the Iliad: Should an 'expository writing plus research' course be mandatory for those aspiring to jobs where they won't have to write research papers? Who or what do these sorts of requirements serve, other than the bottom lines of certain colleges? These are among the questions raised in a provocative piece in The Atlantic called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by an adjunct English instructor writing as Professor X. The piece is a mordant and scathing description of the frustrations that occur when often ill-equipped students meet a teacher committed to maintaining academic standards. A hat tip to the friend who e-mailed this article to me.

the other hand, when students actually want to study the liberal arts and are not just being forced to accumulate a certain number of credit hours, the story is different: see, for example, this New York Times piece on the boom in philosophy among undergrads at some schools such as Rutgers. (The one flaw in this article is that the reporter draws too sharp a distinction between studying classic texts and contemporary problems.)

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