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Published in: Society 1/2021

08-04-2021 | Social Science and Public Policy

The Fate (and Possible Future) of Liberal Learning: Lessons from Mass Higher Education in the USA

Author: Joseph C. Hermanowicz

Published in: Society | Issue 1/2021

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Abstract

In his classic essay, “Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education,” Martin Trow observed that in every advanced society, the problems of higher education—including ostensibly the ability to deliver a liberal education—inhere in growth. With growth, the character of institutions changes. University attendance increasingly carries varied meanings for students: first conceived as a privilege, then as a right, and finally as an obligation. “Massification” is connoted with an optimism about access to higher education and about the democratization of society. Yet, it is prone to propagating structural and cultural conditions that are antithetical to an authentically rigorous, text-based, discussion-centered, writing-intensive liberal education where students and faculty convene on behalf of education for the mind. The emergence of this problem centers on the seemingly irreconcilable triad of size, quality, and cost; that is, how liberal education is made possible and cost-effective on an increasingly large scale. The solutions suggested here are threefold: the institutionalization of proper information about universities, their purposes and functions; the practice of proper matching of applicants with institutions in institutionally differentiated higher education systems; and the standardization of proper understanding of expectations about what it means to be a bona-fide student in an institution of higher education.

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Footnotes
1
I adhere to a distinction between general and liberal education, which are sometimes used synonymously. General education refers to a part of an undergraduate program. It is also the antithesis of specialized education and is often set in distinction from education in disciplines or specific fields. Liberal education writ large includes the totality of an undergraduate curriculum, including general education, a major field of study, electives, and even non-classroom activity (Boyer and Levine 1981, 32). Liberal education is distinct from the “liberal arts.” The artes liberales arose in the Roman Republic to address the cultivation of oratory skills, particularly for legal and political purposes (Levine 2006, 15). The liberal arts are often associated with specific fields. At their onset, the artes liberales corresponded to the Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, followed by the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (Marber and Araya 2017, xiii). Despite their European origins, liberal arts traditions gave way in European universities to specialized “reading” in a course of study involving a single subject, such as math or law. A broad multidisciplinary configuration of the liberal arts is most closely associated with the development of higher education in the USA, beginning with the Colonial colleges (Marber and Araya 2017). Today the “liberal arts” are most closely associated with the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences in the American university. In usage, the liberal arts, similar to liberal education, often represent not only fields but also an educational philosophy that emphasizes critical thinking, discursive reasoning, and rational judgment. In my use of the term, liberal education is not restricted to modern-day fields of the liberal arts, though, under the best circumstances, draws heavily on them, or on syntheses of them, as evident in some formats of general education.
 
2
For excellent historical encapsulations of liberal education, see Axelrod (2002, esp. chapter 1) and Levine (2006).
 
3
The pervasive phenomenon of college attrition is explained largely by a failure of students’ academic and/or social integration in higher education institutions (Kirp 2019; Tinto 1993) which, by turn, operates partly as a function of preparedness for those institutions (viz., awareness about the purposes of higher education enrollment and one’s compatibility with those purposes).
 
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Metadata
Title
The Fate (and Possible Future) of Liberal Learning: Lessons from Mass Higher Education in the USA
Author
Joseph C. Hermanowicz
Publication date
08-04-2021
Publisher
Springer US
Published in
Society / Issue 1/2021
Print ISSN: 0147-2011
Electronic ISSN: 1936-4725
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-021-00557-z

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