Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Liberal Arts

I excelled at mathematics and science in high school. Many of my classmates went on to study at Georgia Tech. I was never interested. Despite my lack of skill in foreign language, writing poetry, and interpreting literature, I only ever wanted to go to a college of liberal arts. At Emory, there was a “math or foreign language” requirement. I fulfilled both. My lowest grade was in a physical education class for modern dance, I took several classes of Russian Literature in Translation. I took plenty of mathematics courses, it was my major after all, and plenty of science courses since I started out a Chemistry major. But I also had a sense that I needed to take courses in a variety of areas in order to be exposed to the ideas of various fields. My sophomore year, I attended an 8 am Tuesday/Thursday psychology course for an entire semester because, although I could not fit psychology into my schedule, I thought I should know something about it.

Why? That is the question I am asking myself these days. What was it about my experience, my intrinsic belief in the liberal arts, that I want to convey to my students? What did I get out of my education that helps me today?

Many things get said about the value of the liberal arts these days, especially as whole schools shut down due to enrollment crises and others face serious and challenging enrollment declines. Emory’s mission statement includes: “As an institution dedicated to intellectual discovery and creativity, Emory College is charged both with generating new knowledge and with inventing new ways of understanding what is already known.” The University of Virginia, where I attended graduate school, has a new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, who speaks of “educating students for lives of inspired vocation and worldly citizenship.” The University of Oregon, where I was an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, has a mission statement that speaks of “the elemental skills of an arts and sciences education: … to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, live ethically.” Indiana University Bloomington, where I am now employed, has adopted the same idea: “The members of the College are dedicated to the liberal arts that teach our students to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically.” Wake Forest College is a place that has been successful in meeting the challenge of Colleges of Liberal Arts to address the job-skills and employment concerns of students and their parents. I very much like the following part of their mission statement: “The College honors the ideals of liberal learning, which encourages habits of mind that ask “why,” that evaluate evidence, that are open to new ideas, that attempt to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others, that accept complexity and grapple with it, that admit error, and that pursue truth.”

As I was asking myself yesterday what I would say about the value of a liberal arts education, I thought of something close to the Wake Forest statement: We ask the questions that change the world. More importantly, we teach our students to ask those questions. Enhancing my ability to ask questions, and learning enough of a variety of subjects to be able to ask good questions, is the enduring benefit that I obtained from my liberal arts education.

Incentives: Part 2

This is a post of incentives for adults. Most of the adults I know are in academia. I have heard that leading academics is akin to herding cats.

A while back, I watched a TEDx collection of talks about leadership. Barry Schwartz talked about incentives in the context of doing the right thing versus abiding by a list of duties or rules. Examples given included a janitor who mopped a hospital room twice because the distressed father of a critically ill patient had not seen him do it the first time and wanted it done again. Mopping it twice wasn’t in his job description; the janitor did it to make the father feel better. There were countless other examples where empowering people to make the right decision worked better than giving them a long list of rules or devising incentives, especially monetary ones. The emphasis of the talk was on “practical wisdom,” the combination of moral will and moral skill, according to Aristotle. Providing long lists of rules and increasing incentives undermines the opportunities for individuals to practice their moral skills.

A major issue facing many Deans of Colleges of Arts and Sciences at research institutions, from John Hopkins to my own Indiana University, is reinvigorating tenure-track faculty involvement with undergraduate education. The 2013 strategic plan at John Hopkins incentivized undergraduate teaching. Faculty in the humanities and social sciences who were willing to teach 3 rather than 2 undergraduate courses a year would be awarded a sabbatical after 3 years instead of after 5 years. The plan from the College at my own institution is more rule-based: reduce graduate instruction of tenure track faculty to a ratio of 2 undergraduate courses: 1 graduate course on average, “or else.” The plan at John Hopkins has a goal of raising graduate student stipends in order to provide a decent wage and to compete for the best students, the trade-off being reducing the number of graduate students and covering some of their duties with undergraduates or unemployed Masters Degree students. The plan at Indiana University is to address the budget crisis the College seems to be facing due to decreasing undergraduate enrollments.

The moral issues should be obvious: it is the undergraduate tuition and fees that make the really rather pleasant academic life of tenured faculty possible; therefore tenured faculty have a moral obligation to engage with undergraduates at their institution. Moreover, engagement with the undergraduate curriculum demonstrates to our students the intellectual inquisitiveness that the Liberal Arts instills into its beneficiaries. The over-production of PhDs creates a very pleasant faculty teaching situation but does not generally benefit the graduate students who cannot go on to find the kinds of academic jobs that they come to expect after spending 4-8 years conducting research at a premier research institution. Producing a reasonable number of PhDs, providing them with realistic expectations for their futures, individually, and providing opportunities for them to obtain the skills they need for the kinds of careers they will likely have are all moral obligations.

I am not sure about the ethical understanding of cats, but humans from janitors to professors want to do the right thing, generally. They just need to be given the opportunity and freedom to practice their moral skills.