Bill Maxwell: We're losing sight of value of liberal arts

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 9, 2012

I am fortunate to have had my college experiences during the 1960s and the early 1970s. I am glad I am not attending an American institution of higher education today. I would not do well.
Unlike President Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and founded the University of Virginia, I did not have the “sublime luxury” of reading original works in Greek and Latin. I did, however, have another kind of sublime luxury during my undergraduate and graduate years: I had the freedom to learn for the sake of learning, to learn for enlightenment.
All of my courses were valuable, and the overwhelming majority of my schoolmates thought the same. Our course catalogs were virtual road maps to freedom, and we took many electives.
I took an anthropology course because my professor had spent several years in the region where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. I was not disappointed. He enlivened the class with hundreds of photographs, maps and artifacts.
Looking back, I realize that electives were fortifying experiences. By taking them, my schoolmates and I were expressing our individuality. The lectures and texts were springboards into other intellectual adventures. It was serendipity and unencumbered self-discovery.
I will always remember that afternoon, as a sophomore majoring in biology, when I overheard two English majors discussing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Their debate — over whether its protagonist was Charlie Marlow or Kurtz — had been so animated that I borrowed a copy of the novel from the library and read it over the weekend. I fell in love with Conrad and read his other major works that term. This Polish-born writer made seafaring and the horrors of colonialism on the African continent real. By reading him, I discovered that I wanted to study literature instead of biology. I changed my major and never regretted it.
The rest of my undergraduate years were just as intellectually freewheeling. I read on my own and traveled as often as possible. Like many of my schoolmates, I put my formal studies aside for a while. For two semesters, I registered black voters throughout the South for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The knowledge I gained as a young civil rights worker was irreplaceable.
I graduated from college on my own schedule, having learned for the sake of enlightenment. But let me be clear: While having fun in school, I never lost sight of reality and the eventual need to eat and pay the rent as an adult.
Today, because of profound changes — including online instruction and other technology-related practices, budget constraints, fast-track graduation requirements and governing boards primarily composed of businesspeople who meddle and micromanage — campus life in the United States is a shadow of its old self.
Nowhere are proposed changes more pronounced than at Jefferson’s own University of Virginia, where the board of visitors, or trustees, forced the resignation of the president, Teresa Sullivan, ostensibly because she was not moving fast enough to prepare the school for a range of challenges ahead. After learning more about the resignation, outraged faculty and students forced the board to reinstate Sullivan.
The source of the crisis, like those elsewhere nationwide, is the board members’ plan for the university’s future. To cut costs and promote their vision of the academy, board members want to eliminate many liberal arts courses, even departments. But there will be pushback because liberal arts, popular with a large number of students who want to learn for the sake of learning, are central to Virginia’s raison d’etre, just as Jefferson intended.
In my home state of Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has embarked on a path that would force cuts to liberal arts such as anthropology and English as a way to increase funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
Increased STEM funding will be a plus, but it should not be obtained by eliminating liberal arts and destroying students’ power to make choices about their learning — even learning for the sake of learning.
U.S. higher education is being radically commercialized. Far too many non-academics are making the big decisions, shunting aside faculty and ignoring the interests of students, who should have a direct say in their studies.
I am glad I graduated during those good old days.
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Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.