A few weeks back, I wrote about the Liberals Arts/humanities, and some really bad arguments both for and against them. As usual when I write these, I got a lot of feedback to the effect of: “well, how would you defend the Liberal Arts, smart guy”? Which, you know, fair enough. So, here’s my answer.
The humanities, at root, are about pattern recognition in the same way that the sciences and the social sciences are: they just seek patterns in different areas of human affairs – in music, in literature, and in the narrative of history. And though humanities cannot test hypotheses about patterns using the same kinds of experimental methods as elsewhere, they can nevertheless promote greater understanding of thorough synthesis. Or, to paraphrase William Cronon’s famous essay, the humanities are about making connections, only connections. In a networked world, that’s a valuable skill.
None of this, to me, is in doubt. What is in doubt is whether this promise made by the humanities and Liberal Arts is actually delivered upon. Other disciplines synthesize and make connections, too. They promote critical thinking (the idea that other disciplines, disciplines founded on the scientific method, don’t promote critical thinking is the most arrogant and stupid canard promoted by people in the humanities). What the humanities desperately need is some proof that what they claim is true is, in fact, true. They need some data.
In this context, it’s worth taking a look at the Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts education. This was an elaborate, longitudinal, multi-institutional study to look at how students in liberal arts programs develop over time. Students took a battery of tests – on critical reasoning, intercultural effectiveness, moral character, leadership, etc. – at various points in their academic career to see the effects of Liberal Arts teaching, holding constant the effects of things like gender, age, race, prior GPA, etc. You can read about the results here – and do read them, because it is an interesting study.
At one level, the results are pretty much what we always thought: students do better if they are in classes where the teaching is clear and well-organized, and they learn more where they are challenged to do things, like applying theories to practical problems in new contexts, or integrating ideas from different courses in a project, or engaging in reflective learning. And as can be seen here in the summary of results, the biggest positive effects of liberal arts education are on moral reasoning, critical thinking, and leadership skills (academic motivation, unfortunately, actually seems to go down over time).
So: mostly good for Liberal Arts/humanities, right? Not quite. Let me quote the most interesting bit: the research found that “even with controls for student pre-college characteristics and academic major, students attending liberal arts colleges (as compared to their peers at research universities and regional institutions) reported significantly higher levels of clarity and organization in the instruction they received, as well as a significantly higher frequency of experiences on all three of the deep-learning scales.” In other words, the effects of Liberal Arts on students in Liberal Arts colleges are significantly greater than the effects on students studying similar programs in other, larger institutions. That is to say, it’s the teaching environment and teaching practices, not the subject matter itself, which seems to make more of a difference.
Now, this does not suggest that Liberal Arts/humanities can’t deliver those kinds of benefits at larger universities; it’s just to say that for it to deliver those benefits, the focus needs to be on providing the subject matter using quite specific teaching practices and – not to beat around the bush – keeping class sizes down (which may in turn have implications for teaching loads and research activity, but that’s another story).
There are some good stories for the Liberal Arts in the Wabash data, and some not so good stories. But the point is, there is data. There are some actual facts and insights that can be used to improve programs, to make them better at producing well-rounded critical thinkers. And at the end of the day, the inquiry itself is what’s important. Humanities’ biggest problem isn’t that it’s got nothing to sell; it’s that too frequently they act like they have nothing to learn. If more institutions adopted Wabash-like approaches, and acted upon them, my guess is the Liberal Arts would get a lot more respect than they currently do.