What happens when liberal arts are devalued in the community college?

5653093-steve-jobs-liberal-arts-quoteThere seems to be an increasing hostility in the world today towards the study of the liberal arts. This is not a new subject to readers of my blog. As a community college instructor teaching English, I have grave concerns about how this hostility is affecting many of my students at the college where I teach.

If students don’t value the liberal arts, especially the humanities, they often become resentful of having to complete assignments that appear, to their uninformed minds, to have no practical value. This resentment can turn to inattentiveness and a lack of participation, which sometimes turns to more serious inappropriate behavior, and even to open hostility and violence, according to a 2008 study by educational counselors Dr. Robert Dobmeier and Joseph Moran (“Dealing with the Disruptive Behavior of Adult Learners”).

The feeling that students’ time studying in the humanities classroom is somehow wasted is often times reinforced by negative attitudes within the home, among peers and in the wider community. For example, former Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in a 2013 radio interview referring to certain humanities courses, including gender studies and an African foreign language

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

If the governor of a state with a rich tradition of superb institutions of higher education feels free to make such uninformed statements, it is logical to assume that some students are hearing similar ones at home and among their peers.

I can attest that this lack of respect has led to disrespect for not only the disciplines I teach, but also for myself. Furthermore, I am not alone. Students are becoming more and more critical of instructors’ assignments, teaching styles and assessments. I don’t mean legitimate questions respectfully asked, which leads to explanations that help students understand the material better, but criticism that is increasingly uncivil, including sleeping, texting or talking in class, posting inappropriate comments in online discussion forums, as well as e-mailing rude and even obscene comments to instructors.

Worse, community college instructors are increasingly confronted with angry and hostile students in the classroom and in our offices. These students are often upset that an instructor has carried out a policy that is stated clearly in his or her syllabus or there is some disagreement about a grade. Sometimes these encounters are upsetting and even frightening to the instructor, his or her colleagues, other students, staff and administrators.

I have been teaching a long time, and I know that incidents like these have been happening since the first classrooms were created, but I have never, in my whole almost 30-year career, had so many adult students with such unhealthy attitudes toward learning for learning’s sake, that inexplicable passion for learning, which leads to all of the things so many people say they desire out of higher education–citizens who can think critically, communicate well, solve problems and adapt to new situations quickly.

Something needs to be done. But what? There are no easy answers, but I am going to begin with educating myself with specific information that supports my belief that the study of the liberal arts should be the bedrock of all our institutions of higher learning.

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I found this incredible essay posted on the Academy of Arts and Sciences website, along with a great article entitled, The Vitality of the Humanities in U.S. Community Colleges,” that reiterates my thoughts on the importance of all students studying the arts and humanities in our community colleges:

January 19, 2015

Community College Students and the Humanities: New Opportunities for Learning and Growth

posted by Martha J. Kanter

Martha J. Kanter, Ed.D., is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education at New York University and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2013.

More than 40 percent of our nation’s adults are unable to read, write, or compute at the competency level expected of America’s high school graduates, so it’s hardly a surprise, even if it is gravely disappointing and frustrating, to inform policy makers, and the public about the worth of the humanities.1 But what better way to elevate the discussion than with facts and policy strategies?

That is why the light that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is shining on community colleges and the humanities is critical in this endeavor. Even today, too many Americans aren’t aware that the community colleges are the gateway to higher education for more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates. A generation ago the United States was first in the world in the number of college graduates with two-year and four-year degrees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are now eleventh in the world, tied with Israel.2 The good news is that we are moving in the right direction: we were ranked sixteenth 16th in the world in 2009. It’s a national imperative that we provide Americans the best quality education so we must look to the community colleges and state universities where the middle-class and low-income majority is seeking higher education. (my accent)

Educational improvements and financial support are sorely needed. Sadly, public colleges and universities were hit hard by the recession and lost, on average, about 20 percent of their state support. We need our private universities to join with their colleagues in the community colleges and state universities in a shared vision to reimagine and redesign general education in the years ahead. In doing so, we will ensure that all of our students have access to the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills, and capacity to learn that will advance greater numbers of students with undergraduate and graduate degrees for America’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Looking at the facts, more than a third of associate’s degrees are awarded in subjects that require a significant humanities course load.3 Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society.

In a recent survey, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of CEOs want to hire individuals who demonstrate the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems,” capabilities “more important than their undergraduate major. More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”4  (accent is mine) 

Unfortunately, the collaboration so urgently needed between the arts, humanities, sciences, and business has fragmented into ever more disparate pieces over the last decade when their interaction and integration should be encouraged to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to drive our nation forward. In the decades ahead, our nation will need more Americans with college degrees who are well versed in the histories and opportunities to address the major societal challenges of our democracy and the world, not the least of which include the education levels of children, income inequality, the social, economic and civic needs of diverse communities, globalization, innovation, and American competitiveness. Interdisciplinary thought leadership and collaboration will be more important than ever in crossing boundaries to address the local, regional, national, and global problems ahead of us.

When Tom Ehrlich spoke about the pathways to ethical and engaged citizenship at Miami Dade College in 2009, he said, “college learning must be about much more that [sic] knowledge—knowledge that may be obsolete in just a few years. Most important, it must be about learning how to learn and to keep on learning. At its core, that is what a liberal education does, it liberates our minds to learn.”5  (accent is mine) 

We should look to the evidence, embrace the liberal arts as a necessary foundation for postsecondary education in all fields of study, and figure out how to give our students the best possible opportunities to discover themselves, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to improving their own lives and the lives of their communities. In doing so, we will be part of the American dream we wish to realize for ourselves and future generations. (accent is mine)

ENDNOTES
1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=199909; and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of adults in each prose, document, and quantitative literacy level: 1992 and 2003,” in 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003), http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp#2.
2 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en.
3 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Associate’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2013,” in Humanities Indicators, 2014.
4 Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates, 2013), http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
5 Tom Ehrlich, “Ethical and Engaged Citizens: Whose Responsibility?” (talk delivered at Miami Dade College, Miami, FL, May 21, 2009).

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Anti-Higher Education Sentiments Run High These Days

canon

Iconic Photo from the Cover of Ken Burns’ Civil War Series

“Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas” (The Denver Channel).

These are the words of U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (R), who is running for re-election this year, spoken at a Q&A session in Milwaukee last Thursday. He was discussing, not K-12 education as you would think by the comments, but rather ways that we could decrease the costs of a college education.

I hope I don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pointing out what is wrong with this statement, but I would like to highlight a few words as examples of the continuing anti-intellectual, anti-higher education sentiment that is running rampant in our utilitarian-minded culture.

  1. “Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers…”  Once again, money is at the heart of most conservative moves to re-define higher education. “Education is a privilege, not a right–a privilege that few can afford. Keeping cost down is the primary goal.” Keep in mind that Johnson was not being questioned about K-12 or even community colleges. His suggestion is for keeping costs down at four-year colleges and institutions.
  2. “You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said–Oh, what I, with almost 30 years experience teaching composition, could do with just a few minutes alone with this guy. One thing for sure, he wouldn’t leave my office with this major pronoun problem he’s rocking. I might have a thing or two to teach him about rhetoric, too
  3. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?”  Oh my, where to begin?
    • “Tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject?” Did you know, Senator, that only about 1.68% of Americans have PhDs at all and only a little over 2% of those people have Phds in history? (Reference.com). To put that in perspective, consider that a person’s chances are better in landing a position as a professional football player (about 1.9% of football players go pro) than in being granted a doctorate at all much less than in being awarded the highest possible academic credential in the discipline of history (NCAA). These scholars, Senator, deserve better than your flippant derision. They deserve your respect and admiration for contributing to the liberal arts educational tradition that has for so long has kept our country great until it began to be gutted by those searching for the quickest and cheapest way to get the largest of number of people into jobs that pay well enough to keep them quiet but don’t offer much room for advancement–the utilitarian mindset of short-term training programs offering limited choices, rather than robust liberal arts programs offering  opportunities for students to advance in their careers through the stimulation of critical and creative thought–the very life blood of innovation that has heretofore kept our country competitive with the rest of the developed world.
    • Ken Burns, while a brilliant documentary film maker, is not a teacher nor a scholar. He turned down decreased tuition at the University of Michigan to attend Hampshire College, an alternative school, where students are assessed through writing personal narratives and working on a “self-directed” course of study instead of majoring in a subject, like, I don’t know, something that would prepare a person for making historical documentaries, like history, let’s say.
    • Ken Burns’ primary source, cited numerous times in the course of the series, is Shelby Foote. Now I love me some Shelby–that accent is great, and he’s so Southern, but Foote, by his own admission was a novelist first and historian second (“Shelby Foote: The Art of Fiction, No. 158”) When some scholars criticized Foote for leaving out footnotes and other forms of documentation in his work, he said: “I have left out footnotes, believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience” (qtd. in Reddit Ask Historians).
    • But, really, Ronnie, are you serious? “Popping in” a 14-hour video “tape”? To educate millennials, digital natives who live in an educational world filled with  instructional techniques such as gamification, Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard, math manipulatives, open source software, project based learning and personal learning networks, you need to stay current with technology and contemporary instructional methods–oh, wait, that’s part of a professor’s job. Even in online classes, educators are beginning to recommend only short videos because today’s student, indeed students have always needed, interaction with each other and with their professor in order to truly learn. We have always learned by doing and today’s innovative colleges and universities are moving further and further away from static, passive lectures and long videos to more interaction through the methods mentioned above, along with a myriad of other ever-changing techniques that require ongoing professional development.
  4. “and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done.”
    • Yes, already done–25 YEARS AGO! Lovingly restored but not otherwise altered, with some questionable and controversial material debated hotly by scholars, especially concerning interviews with novelist and historian Shelby Foote, who died over ten years ago. Where have you been, Ronnie? Certainly not in any college level classroom.
    • Now concerning teachers proctoring “based on that excellent video production.”  Senator, this word proctor, I do not think it means what you think it means. In North America proctor means to monitor students during an examination. What exactly does one do if one proctors based on a video? I think that maybe, just maybe, you mean teach based on the video. Oh, teach what? I thought the old video, shown in high school history classes all over the United States for decades, is the only thing college students needed to further their education about the Civil War. No expert in the Civil War whose job it is to update students on the latest scholarship is needed to bring in other views or expand on important issues or correct mistakes that appear in the film. Of course not.

I’m not bashing the use of film and video in the classroom, not at all.  I use these mediums frequently myself, but not without discussion and critique, not separate from analysis, because documentaries can be biased just like any other literary work, and to think students can learn everything there is to know from one historical viewpoint of any one film, especially one that was first aired in 1990, no matter how popular that film may be, is a very poor way to educate anyone. (BTW, Ronnie, we don’t use tapes anymore–most of us don’t even use DVDs. Where ya been?) Ken Burns himself implies in an interview coinciding with the recent restoration and updating of his classic documentary, that history, like any discipline, progresses and morphs as time goes on–our vision of it changes: “ The Civil War made us what we became, that is true. But we are in the process of becoming always” Burns said. “The Civil War …is not only still going on, it still can be lost, which is a hugely important thing” (qtd in Rosenberg).

However, the use of video in the classroom, no matter what the form, is not really Ronnie’s point is it? Perhaps he isn’t even too concerned about paying for education, since it is more of a function of the states rather than the federal government and is a relatively small expense compared to Social Security, Medicare and military spending (National Priorities Project). What he is truly expressing is his contempt for higher education–his belief that intellectuals are somehow suspect because they tend to disagree with his political opinions and are known for seeking and demanding their personal, intellectual and academic freedom.

Oh, one last thing, Senator, it’s a bit ironic that you champion Ken Burns’ work–a liberal who has donated thousands of dollars to the democratic party and has broken his n0n-partisan public persona to denounce republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Huh, funny what a few research skills learned in college can do for a person.