Dan Everett, a recognized authority on Amazonian languages and cultures, and author of the recent book, entitled Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, sent me short piece about the state of the (university) nation this morning.  For the last several years, Dan’s work on languages has been the center of an often uncivil debate among linguists about theories or myths of universal grammar.

Now, as the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley College on the East Coast of the United States, Dan is a vociferous advocate of critical thinking, writing programs, undergraduate education, and the liberal arts in a college that is overwhelmingly dedicated to business. In this atmosphere, Dan advocates radically embracing different languages and cultures. The challenges that universities face, according to Everett, are related not so much to faculty in the College of Business, but rather in the expectations of undergraduate students and their parents.

Arts and Sciences and the New Educational Fusion
Daniel L. Everett
Dean of Arts & Sciences
Bentley University

At a recent conference of the Council of Independent Colleges, college presidents expressed their growing fear that liberal arts colleges are facing terminal illness. This is particularly ironic given new data from the Social Science Research Council that says: “Students majoring in liberal arts fields see significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains… ”

If we believe the college presidents’ lament, the very skills that America needs to ensure its international competitiveness face a bleak future. And this is in a world where a single country, India, has more honor students than America has students; where America is falling further and further behind in performance in the natural sciences and math and other lead indicators of educational success; and where many are talking about the Decline of the American Empire… the end of the American Age.

To understand the crisis in American education, we need look no farther than two very different views of the proper use of tuition. In the first view, the view of most faculty at American colleges and universities, tuition is a participation fee that secures access to well-planned curricula and thought-leading mentors that together create a culture of rigorous thinking and learning.  Some students and parents take the alternative view that tuition purchases an all-inclusive package of credentials, experiences, and employment. Learning is part of that package. But it isn’t the most important part. A recent study in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives the following breakdown on the way students use their time in college: 51% socializing/recreation, 24% sleeping, 9% working or volunteering, 9% attending class or labs, 7% studying.

Part of the problem faced by those of us who believe that arts and sciences are crucial to the enjoyment of the good life and financial security is that the university is not a monastery where the faithful and committed reside. These days just about anyone can come. And they do. American society is awash in diplomas and certificates. One page of parchment used to get you a job. But today the writing on the parchment is what matters.

And with these changes, the line between vocation and education blurs. Consumers of education demand a product with a quickly measurable impact on their bottom line. The form in which they consume this product matters less. In an era when one can earn a degree or a certificate at a laptop while wearing pajamas, or at a top-dollar private institution wearing designer sandals and jeans, the idea of the university as a place apart to develop thought and knowledge becomes ever less relevant. Bill Gates, a successful college drop-out, claims that in the next five years the web will provide all the college education that one needs, for about $2,000.00 total – 1% of the current total of $200,000 that some students pay at four-year private colleges.

Some universities try to hold back the red tide of vocation that threatens to drown the arts and sciences by building monuments to their memory. New humanities centers, for example, have recently been built at Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh, among others. Such centers are important and can play a vital role at an institution. But if anyone believes that they will increase enrollments in the humanities or the arts and sciences I think that they will be sorely disappointed. What we face is a cultural floodwater in which these centers are merely rooftops for disappearing structures.

There is a way to keep the arts and sciences healthy and thriving. We must welcome the growing permeability between students’ professional objectives and education, in a new fusion. The arts and sciences will not be saved by new centers, nor by hiring one hundred new faculty in the humanities, as Cornell University has recently done, nor by allowing courses in the arts and sciences to fulfill the occasional elective in business programs, such as Harvard plans to do.

The future of the arts and sciences will depend on their integration into a new type of curriculum where they work in tandem with professional courses to provide a novel type of education – one in which professional education and arts and sciences each add value to the other.  The arts and sciences should be encountered in a place of learning where a wide range of culturally important knowledge, contexts of learning, critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills are developed simultaneously with rigorous mentoring and training in professional thought and learning.

Bentley University, where I serve as dean of arts and sciences, offers just one example.  Every student must major or minor in business while simultaneously enrolled in a basic core of liberal arts courses. More than 700 of Bentley’s 4,000 undergraduates are double-majoring in business and our innovative Liberal Studies major – which students complete by combining writing, faculty mentoring, and general education courses in a themed environment, without additional major courses. And unlike perhaps any other institution in the country, the arts and sciences and business at Bentley fall under a single administration, the Deans Council, in which educational decisions concerning both are taken together.

In the future we will almost certainly see a cut back in the humanities in higher education worldwide. Their continued health depends on new types of colleges and curricula, not on new parthenons built to their memory.

Once given a solid foundation in the humanities, professionals will go on to educate themselves and maintain their interest. The recent job placement rate at our university – 99% of the surveyed graduating class is employed or in graduate school six months after graduation – illustrates this substantially.  As a senior executive from one of the big four accounting firms told me recently over dinner, “The basic business skills are what get you a job at our company. But to advance, you need the broad background of the liberal arts.” Colleges and universities should proudly provide both.

Information about Dan’s work in the Amazon can be found, ironically at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Sleep-There-Are-Snakes/dp/0375425020

About the Author

Jimmy Gabacho

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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