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Are liberal arts degrees in peril?

Ripon College and UW–Stevens Point recently announced changes to their liberal arts programs. Could it happen here?

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Declining enrollment

The programs being eyed for elimination at UWSP represent less than 6% of the school’s current enrollment. Of the students admitted this fall, only 3.6% expressed an interest in majoring in one of the programs being discontinued. Last fall, of 2,100 new freshmen enrollees, only five indicated they wanted a philosophy degree, while twice as many freshmen chose music over art or history.

“[Plato’s idea], brought up to current times, is that a liberal arts education is necessary for an informed citizenry.” — John Karl Scholz, dean, UW–Madison College of Letters and Science

Students deviate from those career paths all the time, Patterson acknowledges, which makes a liberal arts background even more essential. “When people talk about graduates needing to write, communicate, present persuasive arguments, or understand computations, they’re absolutely right,” he says, “but those skills shouldn’t be limited to the 6% majoring in liberal arts. They should apply to every student who graduates from the university.”

Isn’t it more important, he wonders, to prepare a student not just for graduation, but also for a promotion 10 years hence?

“If one of our graduate accounting majors works her way up the corporate ladder and one day takes her rightful place at the head of the boardroom table, many might consider that a success, right?

“But I think what really counts is that when she takes her place at the head of that table, she also recognizes the Van Gogh painting on the wall. That’s when we should check her off as a success.”

While he agrees that pairing philosophy with business or political science as a double major provides an attractive, rich education, the question, Patterson asks, “is can we afford to do that? We really can’t.”

For now, UWSP’s proposal is moving through the necessary checkpoints. Its common council (campus governance committee of faculty) wrote a response in spring and formed an ad hoc group to continue studying the issue. The student government association has also weighed in. Patterson hopes to receive a more substantive response about alternatives by the end of the summer so a formal proposal to the Board of Regents can be made this fall.

“We’re proposing a new kind of university that not only prepares people for a career path — not to be confused with technical college preparation — but also shares and enhances liberal arts preparation for every major at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.”

Could it happen here?

Highly unlikely, opines UW–Madison College of Letters and Science Dean John Karl Scholz. “There’s a lot of confusion about liberal arts,” Scholz says. “It has a venerable tradition all the way back to the ancient Greeks.” In his day, Plato identified seven subjects that provide the education worthy of a freethinking person: arithmetic, geometry, logic, astronomy, grammar, rhetoric, and music. “The idea, brought up to current times, is that being that a liberal arts education is necessary for an informed citizenry,” he adds.

“It’s important to understand that liberal arts has nothing to do with ‘Liberal’ in a conventional, left-right political sense, nor arts, like a painting or sculpture. Rather, it’s an approach to thinking about the world.”

“We believe there’s more to education than [jobs]. That’s important, but not the only focus.” — Scott Flanagan, president, Edgewood College

​Scholz cites a Google study conducted in 2008 called Project Oxygen, which sought the top attributes of a Google manager. “I think everyone was surprised by the results,” he says. “There were eight key characteristics. Technology expertise came in at No. 8.”

The top seven were soft skills: being a good coach; empowering a team/not micromanaging; creating an inclusive team environment; being productive and results-oriented; being a good communicator that listens/shares information; supporting career development/discusses performance; having a clear vision or strategy for the team; and finally, having the technical skills to advise the team.

“Employers were saying, ‘we can teach the technical aspects in business, we need people who think out of the box,’” Scholz says. The ability to respect differences, gather information, and interpret and think critically about issues is the essence and value of a liberal arts education.

Sure, many of the majors in UW’s College of Letters and Science are less immediately vocational than others, he agrees, but “that just puts the responsibility on us to help students translate the skills they learn to potential employers that they’ll create value out of the gate.”

History majors, for example, are well adept at writing, communications, and analytical skills, and history is the study of change, he notes. “What organization doesn’t have to adapt to change?” In fact, he explains, the ability to make connections across disparate pieces of information is the hallmark of a high-quality liberal arts education. “We need to get out of the mindset that a history major only has seven things to go into. That’s absolutely, unnecessarily limiting.”

The challenge is convincing others to believe in the value of a liberal arts degree.

“I have to be able to look at a parent and say that for the right student, philosophy can be a magnificent major. We have philosophy graduates at Google and in med school and in the tech industries, but I have to be able to back that up, too.

“The holy grail is avoiding the student that comes in after graduations asking, ‘What now?’”

To that end, UW–Madison’s College of Letters and Science, which offers 62 undergraduate majors, recently opened SuccessWorks, a career center designed to help liberal arts students better articulate their knowledge into careers after graduation. Major employers such as American Family Insurance have partnered on the project.

Scholz can’t imagine a day when the University of Wisconsin would not offer liberal arts majors, which, he reminds, also includes computer sciences. “Our students are in high demand and they’re getting good jobs. They go everywhere.”


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