Measuring liberal education – Andrew Delbanco
In this context, purveyors of liberal education, including the humanities departments in leading universities, have not done a very good job of articulating the value of what they do.
So for a variety of reasons, I think there is, as you say, a legitimation crisis, and it’s up to us to be more persuasive about why liberal education matters. It’s a difficult task because we’re in a cultural moment where quantifiable metrics of assessment, correlations between inputs and outcomes, are all the rage, and it’s very hard to quantify the effects of liberal education. How do we assess when it works? Should we measure the income of graduates of a college with a liberal arts curriculum versus the income of graduates who have taken an exclusively technical curriculum, and thereby draw some conclusion about which is the better or more worthy institution? Any kind of reductionist thinking along those lines is dangerous, but it’s also tempting and increasingly widespread.
We don’t want to be a society where things we can measure are going in the right direction while things we can’t measure are going in the wrong direction. I try to argue in my book that the college classroom at its best is a very good rehearsal space for democracy. It’s a place where students learn to speak with civility, listen to each other with respect, learn the difference between an argument and an opinion, and most important, perhaps, learn that it’s possible to walk into the room with one point of view and walk out with another—or at least with some fruitful doubt about the perspective with which you began.
I think everybody, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, can agree that those are qualities we could use more of in our public discourse. We need a citizenry that can tell the difference between a demagogue and a person trying to make rational arguments about complicated problems. I think there’s good reason to believe that when college works as well as it can—and it certainly doesn’t always—it’s an institution that contributes to the general welfare in this way, among others.
So there’s an argument for liberal education as essential to citizenship. But in any conversation like this, we should also try to be clear what we mean by “liberal education.” It can be confused with a certain kind of very traditional curriculum, whose virtues I happen to believe in; it can be understood as meaning exclusively the humanities, but it should be obvious that the benefits I’ve just been describing can also be derived from, for example, the study of science.
It would be a travesty, a disaster, if the kind of education I’m talking about were to become restricted to the coddled and privileged and denied to everyone else. That’s the whole point of the argument for access. We don’t want to become a society where a small handful gets this elite education, and everybody else is tracked into a vocational program of one sort or another. There’s no reason why the two can’t go together.