The liberal arts again

Kim Wilcox, provost of Michigan State, thinks that people like me should stop kvetching about universities revising their curricula to achieve relevance, as this is something they have always done. He notes with almost audible scorn that, once upon a time, universities, including his, “used to offer majors in elocution.” Well!

Let’s say, for a moment, that he’s right: that we must do what we have always done and keep up with the times, gearing our curricula to the needs of real-world employers.  But in the same article, one can read that 89 % of employers are looking for people with “the ability to effectively communicate orally.” Am I the only one who sees this as suggesting that in order to become relevant we should replace today’s majors with yesterday’s majors? Let us bring back elocution! With the difference, maybe, that today’s elocution classes will allow or encourage the splitting of infinitives.

Let me be clear. If employers – as is reported by the study I’ve just referred to – want people who can speak, write, and think, and if Michigan State wants to produce graduates who will please employers, dumping the study of classics and adding a major in global studies is not the way to go. Wilcox might be right to suggest that dumping classics is akin to dumping elocution, and he might be wrong to suggest that either is a good idea. At any rate, that he uses elocution as an example proves he hasn’t thought things through.


I recently heard, through an untraceable and reliable source, that a dean at Brock University is proposing that 14-week courses could be taught as intensive courses over the space of a week. Apparently this is something students want and the dean doesn’t see any good reason not to give it to them. On the chance that the dean is a regular reader of this blog, let me explain why the professorate, as my source tells me, received his suggestion with palpable terror.

1. The students won’t have time to do the reading.
2. The professor won’t be able to remain dynamic for such long stretches of time.
3. The students will not have time, energy, or inclination to discuss the class material over late nights in their dormitories, which is how much real learning takes place.
4. The students will not have time for any life-experiences during the duration of the course by which the theories they are being presented might be measured, found true or untrue, taken back to the class, thrashed out, and thus understood.
5. As a result of the four points just listed, the students will forget every single thing they learned immediately after writing the (multiple-choice) exam.


7 thoughts on “The liberal arts again

  1. this is terrible. i feel like i’m stuck waiting for the pendulum to swing back this way…

    another point: Won’t these new majors in high-tech entrepreneurship become the most dated majors in the institution? and not in a helpful way like Classics?

    are we calibrating *everything* to the four year election cycle and one year dividend cycle now?

  2. Go to grad school, but with your eyes open. That’s what I say anyway. Also: stay mobile. Be prepared to go and teach in the United Arab Emirates or some other place like that. Keep other good options on the table: law school, the diplomatic service. I wouldn’t want to dissuade any lovers of books from study. After all, grad school isn’t just preparation for later life, it’s also a big chunk of life itself.

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