Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: liberal arts

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

December 04

Defending Liberal Arts: Try Using Data

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.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

December 06

The Benefits of Liberal Arts: Are Humanities Fit for Purpose?

The “liberal” in “liberal arts” derives from the latin root for “free,” but not the way that most people think. The medieval Liberal Arts were not free in the sense that they promoted freedom or free thinking, but rather in the sense that it was the education that “free” people (i.e., the rich) chose to pursue. The term connotes conspicuous consumption rather than freedom.

Because Liberal Arts – and in particular the humanities – were always the preserve of the elite, they have retained an aura of providing people with “higher skills”: creativity, critical thinking, cultural awareness, problem solving, communication skills, and so forth. But in the modern university, this puts teachers in the Liberal Arts in a bit of an anomalous position. Think about this for a bit: we get engineers to teach engineering, doctors to teach medicine. But we leave creativity, critical thinking and problem solving to… classicists? English teachers? It is not belittling these disciplines in the slightest to ask why it is that we think that people trained in these areas have some gifts for imparting creativity, etc., that professors trained in other disciplines do not.

Obviously, humanities disciplines do inculcate these skills to some extent. The work of Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, bleak as it generally is, makes it pretty clear that students in these disciplines seem to have better educational outcomes in terms of cognitive development. Whether that’s due to something innate in the disciplines or something innate about the kinds of young people who enrol in these courses is a bit of an open question. At best, you can say that creativity, critical thinking, etc., are poorly-understood epiphenomena of the humanities.

I’m fairly sure we can do better than this. Let’s say there is something innate in humanities disciplines that promote critical thinking, etc. If what we care about is the outcomes, rather than mastery of the disciplines themselves, shouldn’t we design curricula specifically around these outcomes? Shouldn’t professors in these disciplines receive instruction at some point in how to develop these skills?

Of course, the problem is that at Canadian institutions most of our Arts faculties offer students smorgasboards of courses rather than curricula per se. And many professors would be offended at the notion that they are primarily in the business of teaching transferable skills rather than teaching mastery of a discipline. Yet, justifying the Arts in terms of precisely these transferable skills has become routine.

It raises an inevitable question: if that’s the justification for the liberal arts and humanities, is the professoriate in these fields actually fit for purpose?

Geneviève Bergeron
Hélène Colgan
Nathalie Croteau
Barbara Daigneault
Anne-Marie Edward
Maud Haviernick
Maryse Laganière
Maryse Leclair
Anne-Marie Lemay
Sonia Pelletier
Michèle Richard
Annie St-Arneault
Annie Turcotte
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

December 05

Liberal Arts: A Global Trend?

One of the really interesting mini-trends in global higher education these days is the recent spread of Liberal Arts colleges into parts of the world where there is no tradition of such institutions. Singapore has invited Yale to set up a Liberal Arts college at National University Singapore, with the stated aim of creating an Asian model of Liberal Arts. In Europe, the newly-created Amsterdam University College has brought a new and very structured approach to Liberal Arts. And, as we reported in our inaugural issue of the Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor, Aseshi University in Ghana was recently established to try to bring a new high-quality professional education with a strong moral dimension.

What’s somewhat interesting about this development is that these new institutions are justified primarily on instrumental grounds: that Liberal Arts provides certain skills, that these skills are advantageous for the economy, etc. This kind of rhetoric isn’t entirely absent from the Liberal Arts discourse in North America, but more often over here, such programs are justified in terms of their social and moral benefits (see Martha Nussbaum, ad infinitum).

It’s important to note that the term “Liberal Arts” isn’t interpreted consistently around the world. The original Liberal Arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) was at least as much about science as it was about what we know call “the arts.” Some programs have kept this designation; certainly, in the United States there is a greater tendency to include the social sciences and sciences in the mix, and the new Amsterdam University College is very explicit in its focus on math, statistics and science. In Canada, on the other hand, Liberal Arts has drifted in meaning so that it is sometimes indistinguishable from the humanities.

Steve Jobs, famously, praised the humanities as a source of inspiration and meaning – but if you read the full quote, he was praising the value of the marriage of the humanities and technology. Globally, the Liberal Arts are starting to take up the engagement with science and technology. But in North American and especially Canada, there’s a tendency for the humanities to et squeamish about engaging with science and technology, because (to paraphrase Louis Menand) there is a misperception that there’s some inherent conflict between things that are practical and things that are true.

The Liberal Arts have a lot to offer the 21st century. But as the new Liberal Arts curricula in Europe, Asia and Africa are showing, the hang-ups about purity and engaging with the practical have simply got to go.

September 09

Why so Dismally Ahistorical?

If there is one thing that drives me nuts about defenders of the humanities, it’s their insistence on nailing their argument to an appeal to “historic values” which simply don’t exist.

Take a recent essay pro-Liberal Arts essay in the National Post by Simon Fraser University professor Patrick Keeney, who writes, for instance, that liberal education is an “ideal that goes back to the Greeks.” That simply isn’t correct. Liberal education is a medieval invention – and it wasn’t all that liberal in a modern sense either, consisting then of astronomy, music, geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic and grammar. Socrates, if you’ll recall your philosophy 101, kept getting his butt kicked in the marketplace by the sophists, who taught skills that were actually lucrative. Plato may not have liked the sophists – they were of course among the many Athenians who opposed his proto-fascist plans for the place – and painted them in a negative light for all eternity but there’s no question whose services Greeks actually preferred.

Then there’s the predictable yarn about how the historic mission of universities is being “bulldozed in the name of… economic pragmatism” as universities turn into mere “vocational schools.” Leaving aside the scorn for vocational education, this commonly held assumption is similarly at odds with the historical record. The earliest university faculties were entirely professional – law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, religion at Paris, and so on. Universities founded on liberal education principles were relatively rare until nineteenth century America – a time and place in which universities were arguably at their most elitist.

And then there’s the gall of arguing that governments that are to blame for convincing people that universities ought to have a professional focus. Universities have succeeded at attracting public funds by arguing that they can best create job-ready graduates. That’s always been the trade-off for public funding. There was never an era when governments sough to invest billions so every third teenager in our society can take four years to develop a life of the mind.

As the focus and function of the university continues to evolve, it’s essential that the public discourse about the role of higher education ground itself in accuracy. It shouldn’t be too much to ask defenders of disciplines in the humanities (which includes the discipline of history) who seek – in their professional lives – to uncover truth to actually get their facts right.

To put it another way, if there has been, as Keeney argues, “a widespread drift away from the arts and humanities and toward professional, applied and vocational study,” it is nothing more than a return to the university’s roots.