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Defending the Liberal Arts, Again
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I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m launching this post with a quotation I read in Parade magazine. But the headline for Marilyn vos Savant’s “Ask Marilyn” mini-column caught my eye: “Is It Easy To Fail as a College Freshman?” Her advice struck me as distinctively unwise for a person whose fame hinges on her high I.Q. She says “roughly 40 percent” of students fail to graduate, blaming school fatigue, stress, and this kicker: “And then in college, students must study subjects in which they have no interest and will never put to use.”
I put down my cup with enough force to splash coffee onto the newsprint. What a fixed mindset she seems to have of students. Curiosity is one of the skills we teach, after all. And what a cramped notion she has of what it means to “put to use” the myriad skills and knowledge of a liberal arts education. Those of us who teach composition appreciate the challenges and satisfactions we witness as students develop their critical thinking, empathy, logic, curiosity, research, and communication skills. Once cultivated, we put those skills “to use” in every moment of our lives.
Certainly, in our writing classrooms, we also have a front-seat view of the fatigue, stress, and myriad worries students bring to campus. On our campus, and likely on yours, we are working hard to ensure students understand the value and applicability of their scholarly work, stay enrolled, succeed, and graduate. Essential to our pedagogy is explaining why a challenging subject like composition matters so much as we address the wicked challenges we face in a polarizing time of censorship debates, from school libraries to Twitter.
This conversation about censorship came to our campus this spring when a bill passed by the Indiana General Assembly mandated a survey about “free speech” on college campuses. The poll, conducted by Gallup, was sent directly to students at all Indiana public universities, and leads them through a series of questions about whether they can express opinions freely in classrooms, and whether instructors expose students to scholarly ideas from different political viewpoints. Some students have reported that the survey questions imply that campus culture leans heavily and problematically to the Left.
What lawmakers will do with the results of the survey are not yet clear. However, I am grateful to the guidance of my colleagues and members of our campus AAUP chapter to use the occasion of the survey as a teachable moment. My students have had rich discussions about the construction of the survey (which to many seemed biased in its language), and the implications that college students are empty vessels to be filled by indoctrinating instructors, a “banking-concept” of learning memorably coined and condemned by Paulo Freire. Frankly, my students are offended by this notion. They should be.
Fundamentally, educators believe that people have the power to change. That, too, is missing from the dim view of students seemingly held by vos Savant and the writers of the “free speech” survey. Instead, I will hold in mind Rebecca Solnit’s reminder that optimism about our future rests on precisely this belief that we can change: “[W]e have to believe in the possibility of transformation — and to embrace the uncertainty it brings.”
The goal of any writing course — and central to the liberal arts — is honing the rigorous critical thinking, reading, writing, and argumentative skills that liberate all of us to think freely. If that worries our legislators, we instructors should worry, too. It seems we need to keep doing more to explain to powers beyond campus the value of what we do, why we do it, and why education is essential to a healthy democracy.
Image Credit: Photo of Parade mini-column taken by the blog post’s author, April Lidinsky
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