The Liberal Arts

Tag: The Liberal Arts

Why Study the Liberal Arts?

Economist and President of Randolph College, Brad Bateman, discusses the value of the liberal arts in an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.   Here’s the punchline:

There is a deep irony in the fact that a liberal-arts education is great preparation for employment. It is not designed for that purpose, but rather to prepare people to live as free citizens. It just happens that the breadth of learning required to create well-functioning citizens also is great preparation for being an effective employee.

President Bateman was on campus in 2013 discussing the role of advising as an integral part of the liberal education.

TEDx Lawrence

Professor Ádám Galambos spearheaded bringing a TEDx event to the Lawrence University campus this Friday, and I have been along for the ride.   The theme is Reimagining the Liberal Education, and we have some impressive people from around the country coming in to re-imagine things with us.  The university’s TEDx Lawrence site will contain the live web feed.  The Appleton Post Crescent posted a story Wednesday, and here’s what Ádám had to say:

Liberal education has a great deal to contribute to society. It’s up to us to figure out how we’re going to be a part of creating our future.

I hope this will result not just in intellectual exchange, although that’s really important, but also action, taking those new ideas to change in the world.

Professor Scott Corry will be featured on a Post-Crescent webcast tomorrow as well! (Link here)

Incoming Randolph College President, Bradley W. Bateman, will be on hand talk about the role of advising at liberal arts colleges.   This is a timely piece given that advising at large universities came under fire earlier this week.  Also, coincidentally enough, President Bateman was my undergraduate advisor once upon a time, though I don’t recall him ever suggesting that I should go to graduate school and become a professor (?).

One of the marquee speakers is Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the about-to-be-released College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students.  That talk is set for 9:35 a.m. Friday.  We are also very excited to have Andy Chan from Wake Forest coming in to talk about links between education and career development.  And, one of the co-founders of Coursera, Daphne Koller from Stanford, will join us via video feed to tell us about the MOOCs.


LU has a strong presence as well, with President Beck and Dean Pertl sharing their visions of the future. The tireless Bob Perille (’80), founder and champion of of the Lawrence Scholars programs, will be on hand to talk about (you guessed it) the Lawrence Scholars programs. Rick Davis (’90) from George Mason will invoke the role of the liberal arts in fomenting collaboration and Jennifer Herek (’90) will be on hand to talk about spreading the liberal arts to technical education in Europe.

In addition, Jenny Kehl from UW-Milwaukee will be on hand to talk about how central collaboration and interdisciplinary work will be to tackling some of our toughest environmental issues.

All TEDx events showcase videos from TED events, and as part of that we will be watching the Erik Brynjolfsson video that Professor Finkler discussed in a previous post.

The full schedule is here. 

It should be a good one.  Professor Brandenberger and I were co-organizers, and fortunately John handled some of the more delicate interpersonal matters.  We’re interested in seeing how this goes over.  If you have a few minutes, tune in to the webcast and let us know what you think.  Here is that link.  



Econ Read — Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty

“It says we need sixty five shoes”

This term’s Economics Department Read features Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream.  The book is a hybrid history-fiction that uses many historical events and people to characterize the salad years of the Soviet Union, back when people thought central planning wasn’t a pipe dream.

Well, of course it was a pipe dream, and this book goes a long way to developing an understanding of planned economies and also the Soviet mentality. According to historian Marhall Poe, who has actually done some work on the Soviet Union himself, Red Plenty is the real deal:

[Red Plenty] contains more “truth” about the Soviet project than an entire library of “serious” novels and dry-as-dust histories. If I had to recommend one book on the Soviet Union to someone who wanted to understand it, Red Plenty would be it.

In the interview Poe says that Spufford “is one of those people that took all of that liberal arts crap seriously.”

Hey! Sounds like our kind of guy.

As for the logistics,  it is a one-unit directed study that will meet most Tuesdays during winter term from 11:10-12:15.  You can get sign up sheets and signatures from  Professor Galambos or Professor Gerard.

Link to book at Amazon.

(As long as we’re on the subject, Poe also interviews Appleton-native David Brandenberger about his recent book, Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination, and Terror under Stalin.)

The Future of the Liberal Arts, A Continuing Series

Our recent guest, Brad Bateman from Denison University, has an oped in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reflecting on a recent conference in Greece, discussing the future of the liberal arts college.

The piece, like much of the news out of Europe these days, will both shock and annoy.

Here’s a taste:

As it is, the government will not itself accredit private colleges or universities, and a law passed in the last decade disqualifies anyone with a degree from a private university from being a college professor. Therefore, for instance, a faculty member at the American College who earned a an undergraduate degree there and then went on to Princeton, Harvard or Oxford for graduate work is not legally able to teach. One of the best colleges in the country has been placed under constant duress in this way.

Why would anyone try to close a highly successful college? Why would anyone want to take educational opportunities away from young people in a struggling economy?

Because Greek public universities and their professors act like a cartel. Making private universities essentially illegal and preventing their graduates from teaching increases enrollment at state universities and benefits the professors who work for them. Both of the main parties buy votes by protecting these professors’ jobs.

Sadly, the future doesn’t appear to be too bright for Greece.   Unless you count watching the economy burn.

Some Friendly Advice

Foreign policy guru Walter Russell Mead reprints an essay full of advice for those returning students, including some thoughts on a liberal education.  Here’s the bullet points:

  1. The real world does not work like school.
  2. Most of your elders (including parents and teachers) know very little about the world into which you are headed.
  3. You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.
  4. Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.
  5. Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.
  6. Character counts; so do good habits.

I suggest you take a look at what he has to say, and in particular the discussion of the importance of a liberal education.

Following this advice will be hard; a liberal education is no easy thing to get, and not everybody wants you to have one.  However, in times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends.  You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world.  Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.

For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage.  You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine).  What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn.

He then lays out the elements of what it means to be liberally educated, concluding with this:

[U]nless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers.  The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning.  It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding.  You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world.  The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.

That should get you through registration.

English Major Downgrades U.S. Credit Rating

Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and he, unsurprisingly, majored in English literature.  His old buddy, John Chambers, is the chairman of S&P’s sovereign rating committee, and Chambers, (perhaps) surprisingly, also majored in English literature. The two were friends at Grinnell College back in the day, and Tanenhaus takes time out to tell us about it at

For those of you completely uninterested in world affairs, Chambers has been making news because the S&P recently lowered America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+, causing something of a stir in world financial markets.

The article only hints at how Chambers got from Grinnell to Wall Street.  Instead, Tanenhaus gives us a taste of spending time in the cornfields of Iowa, the midwestern psyche, and the joys of hashing out the intricacies of Proust.  He then concludes with a more general meditation on the liberal arts:

John has told me the most important thing Grinnell taught him was how to write a well-argued paper. He learned his lesson well. The S&P report, whatever one thinks of its conclusions, is a model of clarity. Even an English major like me has no trouble making sense of the following: “The effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy-making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” Or: “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.”

So keep that in mind next time you worry about whether you have the “right” major (or majors).  Clothes don’t make the man.

Why Go to College?

With reunion upon us, it is an excellent time to ask, “why go to college?”  Indeed.  To help us out with that question, Louis Menand has a provocative piece in a recent New Yorker examining the ins and outs of  this exact question.  As I got a few paragraphs into this one I started to wonder why this question gets discussed so rarely. It hardly seems self-evident, but I would guess it’s some combination of “expand your mindset,” “expand your skill set,” and “expand your wallet.”

Of course, Menand is a more eloquent writer than I am, and he posits two theories, with the first one going something like this:

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

That seems like a riff on the “expand your wallet.”  The second has more to do with expanding horizons:

College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.

At Lawrence, we recruit students based on our mission in the liberal arts, so I’m not sure if you could pigeonhole us into either of those categories.  But we certainly make the claim that we train people to think and communicate, which are not explicitly vocational skills, but do come in handy.

Menand is certainly sympathetic to our cause, here and elsewhere, and makes some interesting points about our students.  One is the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment — a test designed to see if students learn anything in college:

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health.

Well, that’s reassuring.
Definitely worth a read if you are interested in higher education.

The Liberal Arts and Social Change

Grinnell College president Raynard Kington gives a plug for the liberal arts:

The economic conditions of the past two years have fostered the belief that colleges should produce business-ready graduates. That has put liberal arts colleges on the defensive, with many people questioning the practical value of spending four years in an ‘ivory tower’ educational setting.

In response, the leaders of many liberal arts colleges have jumped into the fray to reinforce the core reasons why a liberal arts education is, in fact, right for the times. The essence of the argument is this: with today’s fast-paced, continuously changing marketplace, a narrow, job-specific education ill-prepares graduates for an uncertain future. The liberal arts approach is better, as it helps individuals acquire vital intellectual capacities — such as gathering intelligence, making informed decisions, expressing oneself clearly and innovating continuously — that ultimately enable people to take courageous risks and solve big problems.

This argument indeed provides a sound rationale. However, in my opinion, it stops short and fails to underscore one of the most powerful outcomes of a liberal arts education: its historic and continuing role in advancing positive social change…

A piece worth reading and reflecting upon.   And something for us to strive for here at Lawrence.

More on My Favorites

I was perusing — a “weblog about the liberal arts 2.0” — last night and noticed how much great stuff he has on innovation & entrepreneurship.

He gives us a taste of an upcoming movie about Linotype:

Linotype: The Film is a feature-length documentary film centered around the Linotype typecasting machine invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler. Called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by Thomas Edison, the Linotype revolutionized printing and society, but very few people know about the inventor or his fascinating machine…. The Linotype completely transformed the communication of information similarly to how the internet is now changing it all again.

He also has a piece on how the U.S. Navy is developing antennae made of seawater. And he’s got a piece on the Hadron Collider generating a mini big bang:

The collisions obtained were able to generate the highest temperatures and densities ever produced in an experiment. “This process took place in a safe, controlled environment, generating incredibly hot and dense sub-atomic fireballs with temperatures of over ten trillion degrees, a million times hotter than the centre of the Sun.

That’s pretty hot.

The Liberal Arts and UCLA Economics

Again, welcome back to those returning to campus.  I’m looking forward to getting back myself and cranking up the 300 class.  Meanwhile, a few weeks ago we instituted a segment titled “free market Monday,” which will emphasize the ideas of some seriously pro-market economists.

In that spirit, here is a piece of interest from the latest edition of Econ Journal Watch — an interview with William Allen (of Alchian and Allen fame) about his path to a professorship UCLA, as well as the heyday of the UCLA economics department under the leadership of Armen Alchian (of Alchian; Alchian & DemsetzKlein, Crawford, & Alchian fame, among others).  Allen begins with a shout out to the liberal arts, as he extols the virtues of his time at Iowa’s Cornell College:

[E]specially for one who is headed for graduate work, there is much in favor of first attending a small liberal arts college. At Cornell, there was a great deal which could be learned about the various aspects of the world and its evolution in the mandatory year-long freshman courses in English, history, and the social sciences. The learning was facilitated by classes of small size taught by non-T.A.s, and by much interaction with fellow students in the dorms and dining halls. And one can be captain of the tennis team without being a professional jock.

I’m not sure that the mandatory nature of the courses was the linchpin of his undergraduate education (at least I hope not, since my alma mater has no such requirements), but certainly writing and discourse are important.  Indeed, one of my professors in graduate school said that liberal arts students seemed to have a better feel for what an interesting question is.

Continue reading The Liberal Arts and UCLA Economics