Saturday, August 21, 2010

Liberal Arts Education

I commented recently in Resources To Spare that a liberal arts education may increasingly be a sociobiological sign of an abundance of resources. It may have, in fact, always have been such a signal, though obscured by the GI Bill generation's capitalizing on the transition from a 1930's elite being the main beneficiaries of such an education to the general accessibility in the 1950's and beyond.

I am not prepared to cover the waterfront on this topic, but I thought the changes I have observed while educating my own children might be interesting.

My first two sons, who went to college between 1997 and 2006, are absolutely the sort of student that such an education was intended for. When I was growing up, it was never if you go to college, but when you go to college, and I followed through on that with Jonathan and Ben without much thought. We started saving for it as soon as they were born, and were able to pay for it entirely as they went along. What we called normal life in my culture - and many still do. I was certainly not aware then of any sea change in how children would be educated.

But look at the narrowing already in place: the college they chose was one of the 56 from the National Review list of colleges that provided a core-curriculum, western-tradition, liberal arts education; it was inexpensive - with academic scholarships, we paid $13K/year for each; it also provided a solid, and sometimes intense, Christian tradition as well; and my first two were excellent students, so the risk of throwing the money down the drain was lessened.

Enter Romanians. We of course had saved nothing for their education, as we hadn't expected them. They were less-good students, especially in such subjects as literature, history, and philosophy - no scholarship, no National Review list for them. We were still in of-course-you-send-your-kids-to-college mode, and John Adrian started at a very conservative Christian school, with lower entrance requirements, in Business. And now it's $20K/year and rising. And he works hard enough to get by but not excel. So when he comes back and starts going to school online, one course at a time, it makes entire sense. I am seeing college in a different light now, more in terms of what the majority of 20-year-olds are like rather than what the exceptional ones are like.

Now comes Chris, who has no interest in college, barely scraped by in HS, and wants to go to a technical school in automotive mechanics. 18 months (theoretically), no dorms, no sports, no coffee-shop discussions, no spiritual aspect, and no potential wives who are going to be teachers or librarians or microbiologists.

Kyle is now a freshman in HS. College for him will be $40K/year, and he is between my first two and latter two in terms of fit for traditional, ivy-covered, academicia.
The mold is broken. I'm not seeing my original vision of normal education as sensible for him. If he were more of a reader, and it were half the price, we might still revert to that. But sending him under these circumstances - as many parents still will - is now a luxury good, a signal of excess in resources, either ours or his, to fit him for a particular class. Doesn't look likely.

It could change. His oldest brother, my nephew who occasionally comments here, was an indifferent student in high school who found his feet late but is now going for a PhD in engineering. That may still be Kyle's path. But I think we are looking to nontraditional postsecondary education at this point - and Kyle is (in this way) very typical of his generation. The old model is dying.

Update: Wow. Right on schedule, WSJ has a review of Craig Brandon's The Five Year Party, describing the deterioration in liberal-arts education. Brandon was an instructor at nearby Keene State College.

Let me add another bit to this. It is conventional wisdom in this culture that young people cannot be sheltered and must have opportunity to "make their own decisions" - which often means making their peer groups' decisions - about sex, alcohol, and how hard they want to work at things. Fair enough. But where is the evidence that 18 is the best age to start that? It certainly wasn't for me.


Boethius said...

Interesting analysis of your thoughts regarding your sons' educations.

My experience has been different. We did not have the money to put aside when the kids were born. We had a difficult time making the tuition payments for them for grades K-12.

The discussion in the home as they grew was still one that stated, "It is not a matter of if you will go to college but when." In other words, attendance was an expectation for them.

Both of my daughters attended local schools (SNHU:business and Rivier:education), lived at home, worked many hours while in school, and paid for their own educations as they went. Lorry graduated with about 20K in debt, continued to live at home, and paid it off in 3 years. Danielle attended school part-time, year round, and graduated in 5 years with no debt whatsoever. Jared attended NHTI, worked part-time, paid as he went and graduated with an Associates Degree in Automechanics with no debt.

I think the combination of the two messages "you must go to college" and "you must pay for it yourself" allowed them to achieve both goals.

They valued their educations and performed very well while attending.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As I know one of them, I think I can fairly comment that it was indeed successful, Boethius. That version of the model, where it is understood from young age that the student will pay, and the whole enterprise will be a signal of their excess resources of intelligence and character, was probably always superior, and certainly is now. It is certainly unlikely to encourage the more decorative, less useful, majors.

I do worry that only the wealthy will be able to tread anything like the path I was familiar with, which would signal a return to a pre-1950 era, more class-stratified than now. It smacks of a culture where poorer young people had to sell everything to purchase the clothes or jewelry necessary to move in elite circles, in hopes of finding a job or spouse. It made for interesting movies or novels, but those only recorded the successes, not the ruined lives.

jaed said...

One thing to add: it hasn't been the expectation that all children will go to college for very long at all. In the 60s and 70s and maybe the 80s, it seems to me, the wish was that all kids *with an intellectual bent* should be able to go, regardless of family resources - not that all would go.

Perhaps we will revert to those days rather than the pre-GI Bill days.

karrde said...

All I can say is, thank Heaven for scholarships.

The school I attended was considered upper-crust for a Tech school in the region, though it does not have a national reputation. The cost-per-year rose by at lest 30% during my studies there. Said increase was totally unrelated to the economy (regional or national), like tuition increases at all the other schools in the area.

A degree from that school was something of a status symbol, but more of an 'I'm serious about using my brains to earn money'-symbol.

On the other hand, all students were told that the degree might be useful for getting one job. Jobs after the first depend heavily on performance at that first least, in the Engineering business.