It is certainly correct to say that many of us in the liberal arts today are concerned about the future of our disciplines as they currently exist in the academy. College enrollments continue to decline, and small liberal arts colleges and liberal arts majors have been particularly hard-hit. Those students who do attend college are encouraged, quite reasonably, to choose majors with a clear vocational track – those majors that seem most likely to result in job opportunities that will enable them to pay back their often onerous student debt.
The rhetoric and outcome of the recent presidential election only exacerbate these concerns. The once unimaginable possibility of a return to loyalty tests and blacklists poses a grave threat to the liberal arts, while the president’s choice both of cabinet members and policies on education (at least those of which we are thus far aware) bode similarly ill.
It is, therefore, difficult to argue with the first of Dr. Strosnider’s premises – that those of us in the liberal arts must try something to “break out of this miasma of negativity.” It certainly also seems true that increased community engagement offers an important path forward, both to enhance the public’s awareness of the value of the liberal arts and to increase the number of college students who choose to major in liberal arts disciplines.
However, emphasizing only the “exceptional skills” mentioned by Dr. Strosnider cedes too much ground to the mode of thought that emphasizes only the supposedly practical, vocational outcomes of a college education. To be sure, liberal arts education promotes the interlocking skill sets of research, using that research to analyze and craft an argument, and effectively communicating that analysis and argument. However, these are merely happy side effects of liberal arts training. The true value of the liberal arts extends much farther than that. It is only through serious, careful, and systematic inquiry into the presuppositions and precepts of the world around us that we can begin to really understand that world and, in so understanding it, make it better.
In my experience, this most important defining trait of the liberal arts – the questioning of our assumptions – makes true community engagement, the kind that serves both the community organization and our students, difficult to achieve. Dr. Strosnider’s example of a local historical society provides an excellent case in point. I myself serve on the board of a local historical society and have made several attempts to engage students in the types of projects Dr. Strosnider mentions. Some of these projects have been beneficial to both student and community, such as when one history major helped with the research that led to the successful application for a Pennsylvania state historical marker near a former tuberculosis sanitarium.
More often, though, I find it difficult to reconcile the goals of the community organization with my pedagogical goals as a professor, putting the student in a confusing and difficult position. For example, one summer a student and I wrote a short blurb about a local steel magnate who is a donor to the university where I teach, Charles Schwab. This blurb is housed at a small park the university created to serve both the university and local town residents. The sign posted in the park, however, mentions only the positive, non-controversial aspects of Schwab’s life – his successes in industry and the donations he made to the university. Neither the park designers, nor the university’s marketing department, nor the newspaper reporter who interviewed me about Schwab were interested in Schwab’s role in crushing labor union strikes or his years-long extramarital affair with a New York opera singer. Although the information about Schwab’s private life might amount to mere gossip, the implications of the union controversies are much broader. What would it mean for the denizens of our town to understand that “Charlie” not only brought natural gas infrastructure to our town (so that he could light and heat his mansion here), but also simultaneously worked to systematically oppress their ancestors’ right to collective bargaining? It might mean quite a lot. It might help them reconceive their relationship with the structures of capitalism. This kind of information, however, is not what the leaders of our historical society, or local reporters, or university administrators, want to disseminate. It is, apparently, not “marketable.”
We in the liberal arts need to consider some of these issues for ourselves, and then figure out how we can help students reconcile the crucial, though unmarketable, work we do with their very real need to demonstrate marketability. Doing so would help us communicate our relevance to administrators and policymakers – if we properly publicize our efforts within and without our institutions. One starting point might be to actively engage our students in the sort of dialogue that Dr. Strosnider and I are having here – asking questions about marketability and the liberal arts, problematizing the notion that the “market” should be the final arbiter of what we produce. We could and should also engage our colleagues in the STEM fields by asking them – how do they involve students in the type of projects that garner positive publicity and make those students seem “marketable”? How do they effectively communicate their relevance to policymakers and administrators?
Do the liberal arts need to be “marketable” to survive? If they do, must the liberal arts change into something different from what they are now? If those of us in liberal arts fields within higher education do not continue to have support (financial, to be sure, but also cultural and psychological) to carry on the questioning of assumptions that can lead to real social change, then who will do that work?
Editors Note: This article is a response to “Community Engagement for the Liberal Arts?” by William H.J. Strosnider.
Denise Holladay Damico is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Saint Francis University (Pennsylvania). She has published on the environmental and legal history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. She is currently researching the cultural, environmental, and social history of the margarita.