Academics dispute claim that liberal arts are 'dead'

by Alex Belser | 11/8/04 6:00am

The "liberal education" might not be dead, but it might require some changes, professors argued at a weekend conference on higher education held at Dartmouth. "Liberal Education: Dead or Alive?" featured 16 speakers, but only one who claimed seriously that the concept of a liberal arts education is dead.

The conference centered around a series of four panels held this weekend at Filene Auditorium that addressed the past, present and future of liberal education.

The conference opened with a faculty-only dinner and speech by Steven Pinker of Harvard at the Dartmouth boathouse on Friday night, and College President James Wright gave the opening address on Saturday.

"Are the liberal arts still relevant? I would say yes, unequivocally," Wright said.

Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, argued that the current structure of universities is obsolete. Admitting that he intended to be provocative, Negroponte said colleges should reinvent themselves as research institutions where students "learn by doing," reducing the role of the liberal arts.

On the other hand, Louis Menand, Harvard professor and writer for The New Yorker, noted the recurring danger of the liberal arts' being marginalized by more practical avenues of learning.

"We should just teach whatever we think is useful for young people to know and teach it as well as we can," Menand said, indicating that the liberal arts could be taught in a more practical manner.

Dartmouth professor Marcelo Gleiser brought students into the debate by presenting results from a survey taken in his "Physics for Poets" class.

Gleiser said almost all of the students expected a well-rounded curriculum, while a sizable majority of the 127 respondents didn't think colleges should respond to so-called "market trends" in constructing their curriculums. Eighty percent thought Dartmouth fulfilled their educational expectations, he reported.

Gleiser noted, though, that juniors and seniors, coming closer to the job world, tended to want more practical education.

One audience member questioned the lack of administrative participation in the conference, although organizer and English professor Jonathan Crewe noted that speaker William Kirby '72 works as a dean at Harvard and that a few Dartmouth administrators attended.

Former Dartmouth professor and 2001 National Medal of Science laureate Gene Likens said administrators used to be intellectual leaders but are now preoccupied by another pursuit.

"Unfortunately, many of our academic leaders now are forced to spend 80, 90, 100 percent of their time fundraising," he said.

The re-election of President Bush seemed to be something that weighed on the minds of the speakers, many of whom came down against the president.

One audience member questioned the seemingly liberal leanings of the professors, while another worried that academics can't reach people "falling into the third-world solution of hope and faith."

The panelists could not agree on an easy solution to the question of the liberal arts education, but Wright said he thinks the question is one worth asking.

"I think the critical thing is not to just talk about these things at a conference, but the whole year," Wright told The Dartmouth.

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