Liberal Arts Literacies

Traditional liberal arts education is facing multiple challenges. At the same time there appears from some less expected quarters renewed recognition of the value of a liberal arts undergraduate degree. Taken together, this suggests an opportunity to rethink the value of the liberal arts degree, and in particular how a liberal arts schooling in structure and content might respond to the contemporary and future needs regarding higher education.

Liberal arts education has lost ground in the contemporary restructuring of undergraduate education. There are multiple reasons for this. Certain political interests have mounted a sustained attack on the standing of universities of colleges, with considerable impact in eroding their standing in the public’s assessment. Requirements to learn a non-English second language have eroded if not altogether disappeared. The increasing costs of higher education have placed pressures on time to degree. This in turn has resulted in less inclination towards exploratory intellectual paths, as well as a disinclination towards double majors. As emphases on professional programs of study and job preparation have proliferated, students have shied from pursuing degrees with less obviously definitive career paths.

Some areas of inquiry and pedagogy falling within the general purview of the liberal arts have also proved alienating to some students. In the 1980s and 1990s the driving language of critical analysis in the humanities became narrowly specialized, the issues focused on sometimes obscure. There was not always a clear sense of analytic methodology being deployed, or even occasionally of analytic or pedagogical expectations.

At the same time we have been facing significant changes in the worlds we inhabit, politically and economically, technologically, culturally, and environmentally. Our modes of interacting and communicating, working and transporting, consuming and recreating are in key ways different from just three decades ago. How we read and write have been impacted, as too how images both still and moving have not only proliferated but are being used more and more to communicate.

These shifts, in turn, have translated into developments in structures of knowing, both in the natural/bio and human sciences, in knowledge-making and learning. Modeling and mapping have become more central in knowledge production. As objects of knowledge have become more complex and multi-dimensional, knowledge discovery and production have assumed increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary modalities. Humanistic knowledge pursuit, long considered individually driven–whether the lonely scholar in the archive or at a desk–has slowly adopted more collaborative forms too. Actually, a finer grained account of humanistic knowledge formation suggests that the seeking of knowledge in the humanities has always drawn more or less informally on collaborative sources and resources even if the output has tended to be individualistically produced: discussions with others in the field, reading and commenting on their work, the co-production of critical editions, field anthologies, encyclopaedias, and anthologies, drawing on the expertise of librarians, and so on. More recently, the emphasis has shifted from sage on the stage teaching–experts talking at–to more engaged learning. The latter has tended to stress participatory, peer-to-peer engagement in the practices of learning itself.

Out of this have developed the notion and practices of “connected learning.” This tends to signal a shifting ecology of learning. Connected learning emphasizes interest-driven, engaged learning of invested knowledge seekers with and from each other. The teacher here is less expert talking at than facilitator and shaper enabling learners to figure out together the knowledge necessary to address driving interests or to solve pressing problems.

Traditionally liberal arts education aimed to produce a well-informed citizenry. A well informed citizen is one considered capable of comprehending the basic principles by which natural worlds exist and develop, the driving conditions of social relation and human being, the fundamental elements of qualitative and quantitative study. The commitment has been to produce people capable of thinking clearly, identifying the relevant problems on which to focus and the most significant questions to ask at any time, reasoning carefully, reading, writing, and arguing critically, coherently, and compellingly.

Prompted by these characterizations, two related questions become evident. What should students completing an undergraduate degree in the first half of the twenty-first century in general be expected to know; and what fluencies, literacies, and skills should they generally be expected to have acquired?

The purpose of this proposed working group, accordingly, will be to assess how liberal arts education is and should be adapting in structure and curricula content, method, and engagement to these challenges and calls. What, in short, should a liberal arts education for the twenty-first century amount to? What sorts of driving questions should be animating liberal arts learning today? How do global, demographic, and cultural shifts as well as reconsideration of the historical archive in the recent past prompt curricular changes that would serve students best in comprehending, negotiating, and thriving in the worlds we now inhabit? What methodologies should students be expected to acquire proficiency in, and what bodies of content? How to cultivate in young college attendees wise judgment in being able to discern accurate characterizations of events and processes, natural and social, from those that are fabricated, to distinguish actual representations in image or text from technologically fabricated ones. How best to establish and evaluate the effectiveness of the learning? What are the capacities a liberal arts education would provide in pursuing working careers in the professions in contrast with more traditional academic career pathways? How might the structure of such an education differ between two and four year degrees, and between traditional liberal arts colleges and universities?


David Theo Goldberg: Director, University of California Humanities Research Institute; Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, Anthropology, and Criminology, Law and Society, UC Irvine

William “Bro” Adams: Senior Fellow, Mellon Foundation

Ruha Benjamin: Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies, Princeton University

Harry Brighouse: Professor of Philosophy, Carol Dickson-Bascom Professor of the Humanities, and Affiliate Professor of Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Ainehi Edoro: Assistant Professor, English, University of Wisconsin, Madison; literary blogger and online publisher

Bryan Garsten: Professor, Political Science and the Humanities; Chair, Humanities Program, Yale University

Mariam Beevi Lam: Associate Professor, Comparative Literature and Southeast Asian Studies; Director, Southeast Asian Studies Program; Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion,, University of California, Riverside

Karen Lawrence: President, Huntington Library; President Emerita, Sarah Lawrence College

Christine Ortiz:Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, MIT and Founder, Station1

Clayton Spencer: President, Bates College

Josh Wyner: Vice President, the Aspen Institute; Founder and Executive Director, College Excellence Program

Anirban Gupta-Nigam: Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California Humanities Research Institute