Classical Curriculum: Steeped in tradition

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A classic liberal arts education, long viewed as a firm foundation for a successful professional life, has taken a backseat in recent years to more career-specific training. To remain competitive, many colleges and universities have added pre-professional programs and, in some cases, slashed liberal arts requirements. However, some colleges remain committed to a traditional liberal arts curriculum and continue to find success. These institutions have chosen to focus not on how to adjust their offerings to meet current market demands, but on how to educate the market about the value of what they offer. According to Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College (Ohio), only 130 of the nation’s approximately 4,000 colleges are “true liberal arts colleges,” meaning they offer no pre-professional programs.

While the number of colleges that classify as strictly liberal arts has decreased, our understanding of what constitutes the liberal arts must continue to evolve, according to Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Columbia Teachers College and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “The liberal arts have never been a constant; they are always changing,” Levine says. “And the liberal arts have always been really practical. Even when Harvard was teaching people Latin, it was practical; they were training people to be ministers.”

Today, colleges offering a classic liberal arts education must continue to make that education practical to succeed. “Most students go to college to prepare for careers,” Levine says. “Even in the height of the idealistic 1960s, most students were going to college to prepare for a career, not just to gain a high-minded education. The liberal arts have always had to keep one foot in the library and one foot in the streets. They always have been practical, and they must continue to be.”