Michael Roth (a historian and president of Wesleyan University) asks, “What’s a liberal arts education good for?” While his commentary is related to post-secondary education, it is relevant to k-12 education as well. His short answer to the question is this:
Liberal arts in the USA provide not only a pipeline of talented and prepared students to the great graduate schools, but also a model for life-long learning that other countries are beginning to emulate.
Liberal learning introduces them (students) to books and the music, the science and the philosophy that form disciplined yet creative habits of mind that are not reducible to the material circumstances of one’s life (though they may depend on those circumstances).
Common Core agrees and takes it a step further: as students progress through elementary and secondary school, they need a strong liberal arts and sciences foundation that solidifies their capacity for analysis, creativity, critical thinking, and a love for learning.
Instead, school districts across the country are depriving students of the necessary educational scaffolding that helps them become, as Roth suggests, “innovators and productive risk takers, translating liberal arts ideals into effective, productive work in the world.”
Rote memorization and test preparation are taking the place of true liberal learning, which might inspire great test takers, but will hardly inspire the next generation of great thinkers.
It is no wonder, then, that early decision applications have increased this year at liberal arts colleges; Roth writes:
In these turbulent economic times, it appears that students want to know as quickly as possible if they are going to be able to attend their first choice school. Many of our talented high school seniors are doubtless deciding that the significant investment of time and money in a liberal arts education will give them the capacity for a sustainable and creative future.
I would also surmise that these applicants are craving a more rigorous, relevant, and substantive education than what they experienced in elementary and secondary school.