Mark Van Doren, one of America’s greatest teachers, published "Liberal Education" in 1943. An esteemed poet and literature scholar at Columbia University, he presented the book as an outline of the requirements for a genuine university education. His ideas might be worth considering at the University of Montana as we chart our course through the current enrollment crisis.
Van Doren began with a warning against confusing liberal education with vocational training. Students needed to be prepared to enter the society in which they would make their way professionally. Such preparation, however, would best be accomplished by focusing on the two major activities proper to university life. Students should learn the techniques of investigation, discovery, criticism and communication. They also should be introduced to the intellectual heritage in which these techniques had achieved their greatest perfection as a stimulus for the students themselves to develop their own talents and capabilities.
"Liberal Education" is an appeal in the tradition of Cardinal Newman’s "Idea of a University" to remind people that the university is meant to be a corporation for learning of a particular kind, involving, at its core, the humanities broadly conceived. The humanistic tradition evolved as a general education program including literature, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics, the sciences, art, music and language study primarily. We still honor this tradition at UM by requiring students to take general education courses, which are taught chiefly in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Since 2015, the CHS has suffered devastating budget cuts. The effects of these austerity measures have resulted in unfilled teaching lines and fewer courses. Now a new budget model proposed by the UM administration would bring a further contraction of the humanities at UM. A group of dedicated faculty and staff members has compiled a study of what these added cuts would mean for the school (betterumbudget.org). The humanities would be especially hard hit with a $2.6 million reduction in funding. It is difficult to see in such a budget model anything for the humanities other than a further slide into dereliction.
The big winners in the new budget model are Business, Forestry and Health, based on a complex calculus that the authors of betterbudget.org subject to a thorough critique. The essential point concerns the reasons for the good fortune that will befall these favored units at the expense of the humanities: resources are to be reallocated based on consumer demand as understood in terms of student credit hours, majors and external funding. This combination of premises leads inescapably to a system of university education as vocational training. Without adequate funding for general education courses, even the best-trained students in Business, Forestry and Health still would not be well educated.
A public university should serve the public, but not primarily as a job-training center. It has the higher calling proclaimed in "Liberal Education," to acquaint young people with the richly variegated culture to which they are heirs, the better for them to know who and what they are, and how they might give a good account of themselves as citizens. A full life of the mind should be available to the students and featured as the university’s main reason for being. A sound budget model for UM would reflect that priority. People will come to our school for a real education if as educators we lead them to it instead of ascribing excessive significance to present circumstances and resting content merely with following the market-driven conformities of the moment.
Richard Drake is the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana.