Liberal arts education still needed by the younger generations

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Many former students will recall reading an essay on “the Saber Tooth Curriculum.” It was a discussion about how curricula can become outdated and useless with the passage of time and the consequent changes in one’s environment. In a sense, such an essay will always be relevant. 

 The subject of subsequent curriculum revisions has rightly long been under scrutiny, especially by colleges and universities for generations. On one hand, there are many who feel that the curricula at colleges and universities should be scaled back so that students can graduate within two or three years rather than four years. They point to the fact that the money saved by students and parents would be substantial. The change would also enable workforce shortages to be more quickly addressed, if not avoided all together.

From another angle, some have argued that curricula should be revised, adding more job skills courses in the place of much of what is considered core curriculum or liberal arts education today. Their argument is that students would enter the working world more prepared to function on the job. There would be less need for on-the-job orientation.

Both of the positions cited herein take aim at the required liberal arts courses. While the writer is in agreement that there needs to be periodic revisions to the curricula of colleges and universities, it should not be at the expense of liberal arts education. As a matter of fact, there is a need for a more in-depth understanding of the liberal arts rather than less. Nevertheless, many institutions are diminishing the role of the liberal arts on their campuses. 

The heart of the liberal arts curriculum is understanding the humanities, that is, the concepts and values that help students develop as humans. This function becomes more crucial as each generation is challenged to interact and get along with more diverse populations on planet earth and other inhabitable bodies, as that possibility opens up. To expose students only to vocational education, even if it is the more highly professional areas such as engineering, medicine, and law, while diminishing their exposure to the humanities will result in developing individuals who are likely to be more efficient like a machine or work animal than in developing more moral, compassionate, and thinking humans. We need more humans, not more who are merely machines.

It is also important to realize that with the rise in robots and the need for workers to update their training and even change careers several times in a lifetime, the value of becoming fully human through the humanities or liberal arts education should be evident. It has long been one of the arguments favoring the development of college-educated workers.

Even as one argues the case for the humanities or liberal arts education, however, he/she has to recognize the need for revision in that curriculum. For example, one can see that if students are to be taught world history, the task becomes more than staggering as the added years, events, and human groups have to be considered. Do the teachers try to cover it all, knowing that as the years pass, the body of knowledge multiplies? Deciding which civilizations to cover becomes an issue, not wanting to diminish or bypass the rest of the world. The same problem is encountered when it comes to philosophy and world literature. Then there is the matter of exposure to and/or appreciation of the art and culture of others around the world. It is surely no easy task to produce a well-informed and open-minded generation of students, but the alternative is decline and doom.

An equally important challenge for colleges and universities is how to help students become so grounded in their personal culture and group that they are well-adjusted and proud of who they are. In other words, students need to be well-grounded and at the same time knowledgeable enough of others to be not just tolerant but fully functional fellow human beings.

Considering the world today and the one likely to become more of a reality for the younger generations, the idea of burying one’s head in the sand through the idea of opposing “critical race theory,” burning objectionable books and the like, is not just short-sighted but counterproductive. The future depends upon students becoming human through greater understanding of the humanities.

In the 1960s and 70s, two curriculum revision ideas – a humanities program and a thirteen colleges curriculum program – were experimented with at several Black colleges, including Jackson State College. Though no longer existent, the ideas offered promise in meeting the challenges of emphasizing liberal arts education without increasing the credit hours needed for a student to graduate. 

The humanities program combined world history, world literature, art appreciation, music appreciation, and philosophy. The idea was to coordinate the events, literature, and culture with the philosophical orientation of various peoples during particular eras. It was an idea in its infancy which did not last long enough to reach its maturity. It, nevertheless, was an idea which, if based upon significant themes like war and peace, oppression and freedom, family and community, worship and beliefs, law and governing, and economic productivity, could greatly inform students of their link to people of other times and places, for their own adjustment, survival, and prosperity.

This kind of thematic approach could be used for the teaching of world history. The thoughts as expressed in the literature, art, and music could thus undergird and illuminate the story of humans despite their different times and places on earth. It would perhaps be much more meaningful than the separate courses in history, literature, music, art, and philosophy. It could reemphasize the humanness of all individuals and cultures.

On the other hand, the thirteen colleges curriculum program was an approach to curriculum that encouraged the instructor to teach the basic concepts of the various disciplines by using examples and subject matter from the culture of the students involved. In this case, African Americans were not compromising the subject matter of the discipline being taught but were on more familiar ground as a starting point.

In 2022 and beyond, rather than Jackson State University and other heavily non-white populated colleges and universities watering down their core or liberal arts curriculum, they would do well to find ways and means to make them more relevant for easy consumption and more unified for universal understanding.

There is no reason for these institutions to cut off the nose to spite the face by imitating what some other larger, predominately-white institutions may be doing in this regard. By cutting back on the liberal arts, in addition to producing less humanized students, they may also cripple them when it comes to various standardized, career-opening examinations. By denying them of a systematic understanding of what it means to be African and what it means to be human, students are left more vulnerable to the sole attraction of material possessions and to being taken in by those with power and/or the gift of gab. 

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Liberal arts education still needed by the younger generations

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 22, 2022