Addressing the Crisis of Liberal Studies
The room number was 242R, in the Humanities Center – the picturesque but labyrinthine old Jesuit residence, located at the east end of the academic quad on Loyola College’s Evergreen campus. It was seventeen years ago this fall, and I, three years removed from my undergraduate studies in philosophy, sat in HU-242R, nervously waiting for the beginning of my very first class in Loyola’s Master of Modern Studies program. It was just one week ago that I once again sat in HU-242R, anxiously waiting to begin a new semester of LS600 – “Self and World: Fundamental Issues in Human Existence,” the foundations course that I teach with all new students to Loyola University Maryland’s Graduate Program in Liberal Studies. In the seventeen years between these two moments in HU-242R, much had changed; Loyola College had become Loyola University Maryland, the Master of Modern Studies program had become the Graduate Program in Liberal Studies, and I had completed my Master’s of Liberal Studies, earned my Doctorate in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, and returned to Loyola to teach and eventually to become the Director of Program Operations for the GPLS. Is it because of the latter change that I found myself back in HU-242R just one week ago, with a full class of students newly admitted for the Fall semester, having to announce to them that our program is going to be closed.
This isn’t about me (well, maybe it’s a little bit about me), and it’s not even really about Loyola (it’s also probably a little bit about Loyola); rather, contemplating these two evenings in September, separated by seventeen years, brings home to me the profound and terrifying realization that graduate liberal studies in the United States has reached a point of crisis. Over the last seven to ten years, approximately 20% of universities in the United States that have graduate liberal studies programs have made the decision to close these programs. This percentage does not reflect the number of programs that may be in danger of closing, operating under carefully constructed MOUs or explicit threats of closure. At every AGLSP Board meeting that I have attended, the lamentations over closed programs and the worries over programs in danger are so present, so heavily present, that they need their own seat at the table. What’s worse is that this is not news; if you’ve spent any substantial time involved with a liberal studies program at any level, you have long known what it means to live with the threat of extinction. So…, what is to be done?
Perhaps the current crisis faced by liberal studies may best be understood as an identity crisis. If there is one truly significant lesson that I have learned from my time working for Loyola’s program, it’s this: by far, the largest and most meaningful threat to liberal studies programs is mistaken identity. Consider all of the moving parts on whom such programs rely for their health (in good times) and for their survival (in desperate times): the faculty who shape and define the program, the admissions officers who recruit prospective students, the marketing gurus who craft the message that will sell the program, and the students—former, current, and prospective—who constitute the heart of the program. Do they know why ‘liberal studies’ exist? What their purpose is? Why they matter? Because if the answer to any of these questions is “no,” even for any single population mentioned above, then the program is in the midst of an identity crisis.
There are, of course, several different ways in which the telos of a liberal studies degree may be characterized. For some, liberal studies are a luxury, allowing one to delve deeper into the humanities solely for the pleasure of intellectual stimulation. For others, liberal studies represent the possibility to expand one’s communication and critical thinking abilities, to great and tangible benefit in nearly any industry or occupation. (No matter how much we may resist looking at liberal studies as a ‘pragmatic’ endeavor, it turns out that there are numerous very clear and very practical benefits. Employers have touted the advantages of liberal studies degrees with increasing frequency, citing [among other things] the profound importance of the critical thinking, empathy, and communication skills that liberal studies programs foster). And still for others, liberal studies represent a unique opportunity to see oneself and one’s world differently, to better understand and clarify the world as well as one’s place, and that of others, within the world, driven by an acute recognition of, and respect for, the profound diversity of human character and human experience. Surely there are other ways to characterize liberal studies, and other reasons to pursue a liberal studies degree, and perhaps no single way or reason is any better or worse than any other single way or reason. But that’s not the point; the point is, unless any single program not only knows why it exists but can also clearly articulate why, then it is in crisis.
No academic program deserves to exist solely for its own sake; any program that does not make a substantive contribution to the university and to the community may (perhaps should) rightfully be placed under the microscope, dissected, even euthanized if doing so improves the health and value of other programs, both on campus and in the community. Certainly liberal studies, as a uniquely ‘human’ pursuit, should not be immune to this requirement. At the same time, liberal studies programs are uniquely positioned to be precisely what is needed as our contemporary culture continues to grapple with the profound challenges of divisiveness, marginalization, and the inherent dangers of subjective authority. As I have argued in greater depth elsewhere, unless we, as a society, are able to learn how to think more critically, to engage and give weight to other points of view, and ultimately to expand our own boundaries to begin to overlap those of others, then there is no hope for an open, equal, and free society. And this is just one way, albeit a tremendously important and desperately needed way, in which liberal studies programs can contribute to the university, the community, and society at large.
What then are we to do? As representatives, participants, or even lovers of liberal studies, we simply must do all that we can to clarify, for ourselves, for our institutions, for our communities, and for our prospective students, precisely what our mission is as a program, and we simply must be able to very clearly articulate what our goals are, both inside and outside the classroom, and why those goals matter. I said at the outset that this is not about me or about Loyola, and I (for the most part) stand by that; however, I will say, wholly from experience, that when these criteria are met then liberal studies will thrive. I know this, because I’ve seen it. The fate of my program notwithstanding, when our focus was on clarifying and articulating our mission and telos as a program, we were very successful, leading to 19 new students enrolled in 14 months. And although this dramatic progress may not have saved our program, it should not be dismissed; there remains a robust audience for liberal studies which, coupled with the urgent need for new ways of examining and addressing contemporary social challenges, should compel us all to work harder to realize and publicize the identity of liberal studies.
When Socrates faced his accusers and argued for his own fate before his Athenian jurors, he didn’t exactly mount a compelling defense intended to save his own life. Rather, Socrates’ primary concern was to articulate, as clearly and as fully as possible, what he understood his own identity to be. In effect, Socrates said to his accusers: “condemn me if you must, but first know who it is that you are condemning.” Beyond all other considerations and questions that liberal studies may face, it is imperative that we be able to follow Socrates’ example and take up, with integrity and conviction, the same position, fundamentally guided by our certainty of, faith in, and ability to articulate, precisely who we are and why that matters.
Thank you for reading, for thinking, and for taking up the dialogue. Contact me any time: Editor@confluence-aglsp.org.
Copyright © 2017 by Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs
 ‘Crisis’ is used here not only to convey the urgency of this situation, but also the necessity of deciding; if graduate liberal studies is to survive in some fashion that even resembles what we know it to be today, then we as educators, students, and program administrators must make some important decisions and wholly commit ourselves to the decisions made.