Liberal Arts – A Lost Art

MOUNT PLEASANT, IA. — Melodies seeped through doors and floated down the hallways last week inside Old Main, the grand, three-story home to Iowa Wesleyan College’s music department.

Despite renovations and fire, this 160-year-old building — the second oldest on campus — has retained its beautiful, historic wrinkles. So the music made here beneath a tiny gold dome isn’t trapped within modern, acoustically sealed studios.

Old Main exhales the sound of its aspiring virtuosos into the world at large.

It’s an apt metaphor for how Iowa Wesleyan music graduates in turn have educated generations of music students around southeast Iowa and beyond.

And it helps demonstrate why beloved Old Main has been a symbol at the epicenter of this college’s financial crisis.

Iowa Wesleyan President Steve Titus announced last month that half the college’s major programs (16 of 32, including music education) would close as the college sheds jobs: 22 of 52 faculty and 23 of 78 staff, for a projected $3 million savings.

Sociology, history, pre-law, studio art, philosophy of religion and communication are among the other programs to be scrapped.

Titus and the board of trustees — which voted unanimous approval — more or less have been able to sell the plan with another statistic: Only 52 students out of about 600 at the United Methodist Church-affiliated school (less than 9 percent) are enrolled in the majors to be cut. And 17 of those students will graduate this year. Popular programs such as business administration, education and nursing will forge ahead. [Kyle Munson, Des Moines Register, Feb 16 2014]


What draws liberal arts to the forefront of the mariner’s mind is Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. Zakaria is one of mariner’s favorite authors. His books are lucid, insightful and easy to read. Zakaria says  liberal arts education is more important than technical training or job-based education. He writes:

“Engineering is a great profession, but key value-added skills you will also need are creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling, and, more than anything, the ability to continually learn and enjoy learning – precisely the gifts of a liberal education.”

From the inception of the United States, the keystone that differentiates it from all other countries is that it provides a liberal arts education. This emphasis on broad knowledge and thinking skills produces a nation known for its free thinking, creative, and even futuristic society. The edge the nation holds among nations is the ability of its workforce to capture the latest ideas, to innovate new solutions, and to sustain a free-thinking culture – until now.

The failure of small liberal arts colleges is a bellwether. The small liberal arts college is most vulnerable to financial issues. One cannot blame students for seeking job-enhancing education. For forty years, the nation has been losing jobs for a shrinking middle class, computerization, manufacturing moves to less expensive labor markets and, since 2005, the American economy. In addition, larger institutions have the ability to compete in a dollar race with other institutions because they have large trust funds, government subsidy and a formidable advantage over small colleges in tuition from thousands of students – a tuition that inflates beyond inflation every year.

It may be a romantic notion. Perhaps it’s time to move on to dollar-efficient training of students for jobs that do not require wisdom or creativity. Fareed quotes William Bennett while Bennett was interviewing North Carolina’s Patrick McCrory:

“How many PhDs in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked – a sentiment to which McCrory enthusiastically agreed. (Ironically, Bennett himself has a PhD in philosophy, which appears to have trained him well for his multiple careers in government, media, nonprofits, and the private sector.)

As liberal arts education declines, so will the free thinking element of US democracy. Disappearance of liberal arts is indeed the bellwether behind a significant number of news headlines today. Exclusive boundaries are growing stronger around increasingly narrow minded groups. One example is the creationist battle in Texas for dominance in history books. Because the Texas School Board orders so many books, publishers tend to appease the board even though the history books are bought across the country. Another example is Congress, where virtually nothing creative or inventive occurs – only ideological bickering and blockading of each group’s legislation. This close-minded attitude has been creeping into mainstream society for decades and becomes more established as jobs, income, and pragmatism become the cause for education.

Our national jewel, free thinking and problem solving wisdom, will evaporate. We will be as any other nation that constrains individual discovery to promote fiscal efficiency and nationalistic objectives.

Liberal arts remain a conundrum for the United States. Without the wise insight proffered by a liberal arts education, where will we find those leaders who will sustain a liberal arts education?

Ancient Mariner

1 thought on “Liberal Arts – A Lost Art

  1. This is really sad. Thanks for pointing out the demise of liberal arts. It does bother me to see so much negativity among the ships logs of the Old Mariner. You accurately point out problems and make dire predictions, but I don’t see a lot of proactive material. Just tell me what I as a minute part of this vast eco-system can do and I’ll try to do it. There must be something. Did you see the beautiful 60 Minutes pieces on the orchestra in the Congo (?) where people used beat up old musical instruments or the one on the orchestra in South America where they used instruments made from discarded junk? Of all fields of study to cut, too bad it’s always music or art.

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