In Criticism of the Liberal Arts

The Jerusalem Post recently ran an editorial making the case for strengthening the liberal arts, because of its (real) importance in forming broad-minded, knowledgeable citizens. The editorial bemoans the tendency of Israeli university students to pursue practical, “no-nonsense” subjects as opposed to their American and European counterparts (Go Israel!). By doing so, goes the refrain, Israeli students miss out on the benefits of LA education, including critical thinking, writing abilities and deep understanding of the human condition.

As a lover of the humanities, my heart goes out to this effort. Nevertheless, I believe it to be fatally flawed. This is for the following reasons:

Degree Fetish:

The JPost falsely assumes that only people who get a full, three-year degree in a humanities field can gain the benefits LA has to offer, so the emphasis should be placed on this. But this misunderstands the point of a university degree nowadays for the majority of students.

Today, the purpose of a university or college degree is to provide students with specific skills and knowledge which they can use in the workforce. A law degree prepares one to be a lawyer, a medical degree a doctor and so on. A humanities degree is good for precisely two things: a teaching job or going on to a graduate degree. No amount of pontificating about the beauty of the humanities changes the fact that from an economic standpoint, a full degree is not worth the investment for most students.

Instead of constantly trying to prop up a product of decreasing value (ie the BA), humanities departments would be better served by changing their business model and presenting better products. This can include:

  • A very rigorous core curriculum for all, free of flaky and trendy courses, which would provide students with the best the humanities has to offer.
  • Publishing material in more popular venues and in readable language for an interested public, rather than just in ridiculously expensive scholarly journals in language that requires its own dictionary.
  • Providing individual and/or online courses for the general public, not just students but also interested educated laypeople.

Liberal Arts Ain’t What It Used to Be:

Another issue that the JPost article does not address is the fact that while in theory LA studies provides one with better critical thinking and writing abilities, this is not the case in practice. When I was at Bar-Ilan there were no writer’s workshops which could provide training in how to write, edit and present your work. Aside from a brief bibliography course which focused on academia’s favorite and useless obsession (ie, writing proper footnotes), there was no-one to talk to for advice on this.

The same goes for “critical thinking”. Back on my old blog, I wrote about how the majority of the students were stenographers. The lecturers did little to change this, rarely challenging students to think or work. The number of courses where I really had to work hard can be counted on one hand – and those are the courses I remember fondly because I actually benefited from them. From what I’ve read and heard, the situation is no better in other universities and other departments.

I don’t know why this is, because most of my teachers were quite brilliant and creative. Maybe it’s because humanities departments are so small, they’re afraid of scaring away what little clientele they have left. Maybe they’re only interested in the top 10% of students who will go on to academia (or die trying). Whatever the case may be, most humanities departments don’t really work hard enough to actually provide BA-only students with the skills they claim to bestow. No wonder many people gravitate towards them because they’re “easy”.

I agree with the Jerusalem Post that liberal arts and humanities are important for society in general and our leaders in particular. But if LA is to truly attract people “like the old days”, they’re going to have to get their own house in order first.

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to In Criticism of the Liberal Arts

  1. fred says:

    i have yet to hear a compelling argument exclusively for la.

    did your father have writers workshops?
    in a sense you need trendy courses, as la trends in various ways; this is a way of keeping up with the field.

  2. AIWAC says:

    Fred,

    “i have yet to hear a compelling argument exclusively for la.”

    I didn’t really make one :). I’ll probably make a case for it (for a very select few) later on.

    “Did your father have writers workshops?”

    My father had far better writing instruction in his day, period. There is no comparing HS composition classes and and college composition requirements today to back then. He was also required to learn far more foreign languages.

    “in a sense you need trendy courses, as la trends in various ways; this is a way of keeping up with the field.”

    Not before, or in place of, the main meal. Trendy courses are the dessert.

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