What Am I Doing Here? The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
English 90, Section 12
Instructor: Professor Amardeep Singh
Taught by: Amardeep Singh, Associate Professor, English
Introduction to the Course
Since World War II, American colleges and universities have been engines of upward mobility for the vast American middle class; and they are widely seen around the world as excellent educational institutions. But in recent years — with skyrocketing tuition and a growing concern about “return on investment” — some of that luster seems to have worn off, at least if you read the debates in the media. Some of today’s students enter college thinking of it more as a means to obtaining pre-professional credentials than as a site of actual learning and personal growth. Many people today think of their education as transactional (do x, receive y) rather than philosophical or moral. The old idea that it’s important to go to college to become, generally, an “educated person” seems to be declining. So why are we all here? Is the traditional dream of a liberal arts education still alive, or is it a relic of a bygone era? This course aims to examine the fundamental values of the classic liberal arts education, conceived of not as an activity that leads merely to getting a job, but rather as a gateway to becoming a fully-developed and multifaceted human being.
We will read a selection of nonfiction essays and books dealing with these issues, starting with a couple of books that chart the history of American college life, Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, and Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education. We’ll also talk about some hot-button issues facing American colleges today, such as the turn towards online education, the perpetuation of inequality, and the debate over affirmative action admissions policies. I’ll ask you to write short responses to these various books and essays, and encourage you to have free and open debates about these issues in class.
A quick note regarding the definition of “liberal arts.” We will shortly have some readings that define just what exactly is meant by the phrase “liberal arts education.” (Many people use this phrase in a vague way without really considering what it means or where it comes from.) To jumpstart that conversation, it might be worth at least briefly defining the word “liberal” as we are using it. “Liberal” here does not refer to politics, but to the social disposition of the people involved. “Liberal” comes from a Latin word (with the same root as “liberty”); it refers to people who are free. (In ancient Rome and Greece, where the idea of liberal arts education was invented, only a portion of the population were free citizens; many people who lived in these societies were slaves.) Thus a liberal education is the education that citizens living in a free society receive; the idea is not to learn certain specific skills, but to receive a broad education that prepares you to be part of the leadership of society going forward. If we live in a society in which everyone is free (as I hope we are), then supporters of a liberal arts education would believe that everyone ought to receive a “liberal arts” education. In a moment we’ll do an exercise where you can consider how two whose works we’ll be reading think about these questions. For Martha Nussbaum and Andrew Delbanco, people need liberal arts education – not just for themselves, but for the greater common good.
In terms of the student’s experience of it, in a nutshell, a liberal arts education is a broad educational experience. You might specialize to an extent (i.e., pick a major), but your college requires you to take courses in a variety of different topics. Ideally, your college also gives you the opportunity to think about the connections between different fields of knowledge. How might sociology, for instance, link up with computer science (hint: social media companies)? How does bioethics relate to political science? By contrast, in the European model (and the model that is most common in places like India and China), when you go to college you focus on a single topic and essentially study only that topic for four years. Which system sounds better?
In addition to studying these topics objectively, I’d also like this course to be a space where you as students can pause and reflect on what it is you as a student would like to get out of your experience at this university. At the end of four years here, what would you like to have done, to have learned, to have experienced? Unlike in a college application essay, where students have to approach this question in a very particular and scripted way (again: college application essays are transactional — you write what will help you get in, not what you “really think”), in this class I want to stress that there is no “right answer” to this question. In short, in the traditional vision of liberal arts education there could be many paths to an “education”: now that you are here, what is your real vision of college life?
Somewhat more concretely, this course will leave students more confident taking on challenging arguments and articulating perspectives on claims and arguments put forward by others. (What is this person saying, and do I agree or disagree with it? What do we need to know to be able to test whether this is true or not?) By doing this, students should begin to feel more confident making claims and arguments that are derived from their own values and beliefs.
–Develop a thorough understanding of the debate about “liberal arts” education that is occurring at the present moment in American Life.
–Gain skills in analyzing and interpreting arguments written by others. Use those skills in your own writing. (Could be applicable in a wide variety of future courses or majors)
–Gain skill in discussing ideas and arguments verbally. (Could be applicable in a wide variety of future courses or majors)
–Use the above skills to develop a clear idea of your own regarding your investment in higher education; apply some of the ideas discussed in the course to your own particular approach to your college plan and future career plans.
- William Deresiewicz, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite”
Publisher: Free Press
Edition: Paperback, 2015
ISBN 13: 978-1476702728
I’ve used this book in teaching this course in the past. Deresiewicz is a former Yale professor who has dropped out of academia to become a journalist. He feels that today’s elite college students are too focused on credential and the job they’ll get after college, and not enough on education in its own right.
- Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be.
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2012.
A broad account of the American higher education system, with a good deal of
- Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education
Edition: Paperback, 2015
A defense of the “liberal education” concept from a CNN journalist who is also an Indian immigrant who came to the U.S. for college. Helpful comparisons between the Indian and American systems.
- Jeffrey J. Selingo, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students.
Edition: Paperback, 2013
This book is especially interesting for its consideration of online teaching and how technology is changing college life. Are we headed for a future in which university education will be entirely (or largely) online? What happens to all of the more conventional, social aspects of college life if so? How important is it for education to be live and in person?
- Sigal Alon, Race, Class, and Affirmative Action
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation
Edition: Paperback, 2015
In earlier versions of this course, I found that many students became interested in the question of affirmative action in college admissions. Does it really help minorities get access to better educations and better financial outcomes? Is it unfair to non-disadvantaged groups? This is a statistics-based study that works through the problem scientifically. We will not read all of it, but it will give us a helpful entry point into this important conversation.
- Elizabeth Armstrong, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.
Publisher: Harvard University Press,
Edition: Paperback, 2013
Elizabeth Armstrong’s book is a fascinating study of a group of women in a dorm at a big state school in the Midwest. She finds that students have very different experiences of college depending on the economic backgrounds of their parents.
- Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Edition: Paperback, 2010.
Martha Nussbaum’s book pushes back against the idea that education is a commodity. She argues that we need people to study and think deeply in fields whose commercial value isn’t always transparently obvious. We need philosophers and art history majors, she argues, in order to protect our democratic ideals.
August 29 First day of class: in-class group exercise: Different ideas of why we need broad, liberal arts education.
August 31 UNIT 1: What is College? What is “Liberal Arts Education,” and how did it
become the dominant concept in American higher ed.?
Reading: Andrew Delbanco, Introduction and Chapter 1 (1-36)
Sept 5 Delbanco, Chapters Two and Three (36-101)
Write: A 2 page (500 word) personal reflection. What is your ideal vision of where you will be four years from now? What kinds of knowledge and skills do you hope to acquire? What kinds of experiences would you want to have had? Reflections are due Monday night (9/4) before midnight by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will take a quick look at them before class and may incorporate your comments (anonymously) into in-class discussions. If you would prefer that your reflection not be discussed publicly in class (even anonymously), please indicate that to me when you submit it.
Sept 7 Delbanco, Chapters Four and Five (102-149)
Sept 12 Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Chapters 1-2
Sept 14 Zakaria, Chapters 3-4
Sept 19 Zakaria, Chapters 5-6
Sept 21 Preparing for the first paper: looking more deeply into the authors’ examples and
First paper due – Delbanco and Zakaria. Exploring one of the authors’ examples in detail: Monday September 25. By email. (I will give you a detailed prompt for this paper by 9/12)
Sept 26 UNIT 2: Elite Education and the American Dream
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, Introduction and Chapters 1-4
Sept. 28 Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, chapters 5-7
October 3 Deresiewicz, Chapters 8-10
October 5 Elizabeth Armstrong, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
October 10 Armstrong, Paying for the Party
October 12 Armstrong, Paying for the Party
October 17 PACING BREAK — NO CLASS
October 19 Armstrong, Paying for the Party
Second paper due: Monday October 23 – by email. American Higher Education and the Perpetuation of Inequality.
October 24 UNIT 3: Is the Future Online Learning?
Jeffrey J. Selingo, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students
October 26 Selingo, College (Un)Bound
October 31 Selingo, College (Un)Bound
November 2 Additional readings on online teaching (to be announced)
November 7 Unit 4: Debating Affirmative Action, the Greek System, and the role of College Sports
Sigal Alon, Race, Class, and Affirmative Action
November 9 Alon, Race, Class, and Affirmative Action
November 14 Alon, Race, Class, and Affirmative Action
November 16 Readings on the role of college sports in liberal arts education (to be announced)
Third Paper Due: Online teaching, Affirmative Action, or College Sports (you pick your topic). Due Monday November 20 by email.
November 21 Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
November 23 THANKSGIVING BREAK — NO CLASS
November 28 Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit…
December 5 In-class workshops: preparing for final papers
December 7 In-class workshops: preparing for final papers
December 14: Final papers due by email