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Linfield Magazine Spring 2017

“We have often just asserted that we are liberal arts colleges, as if anyone knows what that means. I don’t think we can assume anything anymore. We’re not going to be given the space in the market to assume.” – jon mcgee Since November, the critique has become even sharper. Congress and statehouses in many parts of the country are arguing – loudly in some cases – for more occupational job training as an alternative to liberal arts educations. “There has been an attack, a critique, on college education in general,” says Chris Kimball, president of 4,100-student California Lutheran University, just outside Los Angeles. “Within that, there has been a more focused critique on the liberal arts as a waste of time.” Kimball, who is a member of the NCAA Division III Management Council and on the executive committee at the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, calls that assessment “not only wrongheaded, but against the facts.” Still, he says liberal arts colleges have to confront the questions head on, and take tangible steps to address people’s concerns. And, to the extent they can, reframe the discussion. “We have often just asserted that we are liberal arts colleges, as if anyone knows what that means,” says Jon McGee, vice president of planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, in Minnesota. “I don’t think we can assume anything anymore. We’re not going to be given the space in the market to assume.” Linfield President Thomas L. Hellie, who is chair of the board of Council of Independent Colleges, says that national group is taking steps to get ahead of the discussion: “For the last two years, the CIC has addressed this issue in three important ways: first, by engaging independent research that demonstrates the professional success of liberal arts graduates; second, by initiating a national campaign to promote and defend the liberal arts; and third, by convening educational leaders to develop and share strategies to innovate while remaining true to our mission.” How did it come to this, with national campaigns to defend the liberal arts? It’s too simple to say the situation developed just since the Great Recession. To some extent, it began changing in the late 1970s as the majority of U.S. high school graduates started going to college for the first time. As that became the new normal, the public’s view of a college education began to shift, as well. What had been seen as optional, or as a necessary prerequisite only for white-collar careers, started to look an awful lot like a mandatory stepping-stone for the vast majority of Americans. That helped drive everincreasing enrollments for the next three decades, but it also meant higher education began to be viewed more like a public good, similar to a utility. So government entities began regulating it like a public good, and politicians increasingly questioned the investment in higher education and how that investment was being spent. The recession, and a new push for science, technology, engineering and math education, put those emerging trends into sharp relief in more recent years. Liberal arts colleges have long offered science and math, and felt like they were doing it one better by combining that education with humanities, arts and social science courses, also. But the growing emphasis on career preparation seemed to suggest to the American public that liberal arts colleges were no longer relevant in the same way. McGee, of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s, says that shifting of cultural priorities has created a false choice in the minds of many students, parents, counselors and others. He refers to it as career craft over soul craft. Spring 2017 l i n f i e l d m a g a z i n e - 7


Linfield Magazine Spring 2017
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