A Modern Disaster, Where the Arts Lose the Sciences
Dr. Jeff Greenberg
I have just recently participated in a wonderful seminar-workshop that explored the concern that the Liberal Arts (LA) is quickly eroding in our (USA) education community. The data that indicate a rapid invasion of professional programs (not just pre-professional) into the previous realms of LA is indisputable (Ferrall, 2011, Liberal Arts at the Brink). The motives creating this shift are considered by many of us, insidious. Selfish consumerism and personal wealth aspirations are driving out the assumed altruistic basis for LA.
The Liberal Arts is a concept with many definitions and most center on the ideal of education for whole-person development, including other intangible attributes, such as “character,” altruism, circumspection, critical thought, discernment, etc. An extreme advocacy of LA makes anything even slightly suggestive of career orientation anathema. The opposite extreme is demonstrated by the sales pitch from recently ascended institutions (Univ. of Phoenix, DeVry Univ., and a myriad others less prominent). The demand for employment opportunities has exploded with the disillusionment of global recession. No one can blame people for wanting to be fed and housed by their own labor.
Are LA and professional training necessarily antithetical? The corollary question is whether every person could be and ought to be offered a quality (equals) LA education? We can arrive at a bimodal system, perhaps like the European classic of “elite” LA-like schooling for the few with everyone else, less positioned or able, going the career-training route. W.E.B. DuBois (1903, The Talented Tenth) recognized through his own experience that the LA track was needed for any culture to develop a cadre of leadership, equipped with LA characteristics. His great hope for bringing African Americans out of the horrendous legacy of slavery was for an enlightened leadership class. Many other commentators on LA in our era are calling for all citizens to have this superior form of education available. Of course, it only takes a brief look at the logistical concerns to realize that the icons of LA institutions are very expensive in terms of financial and human resources.
Wheaton College does have its more professional and pre-professional units. However, the traditional core of LA is still our banner and brand. I received quite a relevant call from a student’s father about two years ago. This man wanted to know why his child was not receiving a “valuable-useful” education, especially at the rate of tuition at Wheaton. He had just read a Wall Street Journal commentary that asserted less employability for LA degrees than those in the career-training fields he read about. My response was, I hope, a good foil for the WSJ. I simply said that the LA schooling we offer has proven to prepare leaders, managers, supervisors, etc. for academia, industry, government, and ministries. Short-term cost-benefit analyses of a quality LA degree may not indicate the higher starting salaries or immediate availability of a high-demand work force. To put it more crassly, the “trade school” kids will eventually be working for our LA graduates.
My main take away from the seminar on LA, was that at best, we can strive for a happy balance between LA as foundation but include other academic units that are more professional. In fact, the career-oriented students should gain greatly from the character development emphasis. To completely exclude career vectors at Wheaton College would not, in my thinking, be any advantage. In fact, I personally am dubious of the ultimate worth of “Great Books” programs and others that beckon back to the good ole days of classical learning (note for example the arguments of E. Brann in an essay, Eight Theses on Liberal Education, 2000). If nothing else, certainly strong, quantitative thinking is lacking from such an extreme emphasis.
I am an Earth scientist. My academic bias is that no one should be more liberally trained than a geologist. We deal with the physical, chemical, biological diversity of Creation, and at Wheaton College we deeply desire to build our study and practice around the teaching of Holy Scripture. This means that Biblical ethics causes us to integrate the role of humankind into all we think and do. To understand the World in its grand complexity, we must gain knowledge of human history, cultural geography, political and economic dynamics, and, of course, aesthetics. The LA context provides our Geology majors arguably the best background for serving God’s Kingdom. Beyond the LA core in general education, electives and possible double majors or minors, our majors are expected to practice concrete skills needed to analyze this world and solve its myriad problems. The scientific, hands-on experience is not a LA distraction but an essential for their particular calling-vocation. The Christian, Biblical foundation sets the ethical dimension of which problems were engage.
The “disaster” referred to in this essay’s title is significant and relevant in the broader LA discussion. To explain the concern, consider a true, contemporary-context story as example. Facebook as social medium is a marvel, both loved, hated, and all other evaluations between. My unique collection of “friends” includes all sorts of folks, including those at both poles of the nation’s political spectrum. Most recently, I have been agitated by people that I respect for many good qualities but that confound by their lack of discernment. Some very highly-(LA)educated individuals write blogs online and as mirrors of their status as experts. In one particular case, the topic of “fracking” has been completely vilified by a regular blogger. This opinion is not isolated or only held by the most extreme environmentalists. In briefest summary, fracking is the now-common practice of injecting sands and various chemicals into the ground in order to make more oil, gas, or water available at pumping sites. The practice is not new, but its proliferation is occurring rapidly to extract as much fuel resource as quickly as possible. Energy-industry profit is certainly the main driving force. The reality of potential environmental damage, including threats to human health from fracking, is real. The insistence that all fracking is dangerous and wrong is unreasonable. Unfortunately, without any scientific understanding, the assets gained from the Humanities are incapable of rationally deciding the case of fracking. It may even seem ironic that people, liberally educated and so obviously intelligent, should function with dualistic certainty and ignorance of all pertinent data.
I’d like to take this case one step forward. The State of Illinois just passed the nation’s most comprehensive law governing the practice of fracking. Note again that fracking has already been operational in Illinois as well as all over the globe. Certain environmental groups and their vocal advocates have condemned the new law and even cynically attributed it to sinister, industrial collusion. In fact, Illinois’s regulations finally apply controls on the nature of drilling and require penalties for all damages that can be demonstrated (scientifically). A key drafter of the legislation is an environmental attorney, previously Chair of the Christian Environmental Council, and staunch defender of human and Creation’s health. Our environmental organizations should applaud and not condemn this well-informed effort. Without the real data from scientific investigation, any contrary decision is premature at best.
A great many other cases could be made to reiterate the need for scientific skills as vital components of good LA schooling. The opposite case of technological training without the humanizing influence of LA is considered just as deficient. Let someone else make that case.