Utility? = Liberal Arts?

In a letter to The Student last week, Shruthi Badri ’16 rightfully lamented the lack of tenure lines and the dearth of elective courses in the mathematics department. As the department, along with others, needs to cater to skyrocketing course enrollments, professors are increasingly employed to teach introductory level courses to meet the high demand. And this has forced, as Badri argues, the department to reduce offerings for students who want to wander into mathematics because they find it mostly elegant or interesting, rather than useful or necessary for other purposes. Needless to say, this is probably not only a problem that mathematics has to cope with — economics and computer science probably also have to as well.

Badri accurately diagnoses the source of burgeoning enrollments: the utility of mathematics both for the study of other disciplines (e.g. economics, chemistry and physics) and for the stable employment in an economy in which more and more jobs require quantitative literacy. (Tied up in all of this is the way mathematics is taught in middle schools and high schools.) As students increasingly experience the pressures of and obstacles to finding stable employment and to achieving financial security in today’s market economy, it is not surprising but rather expected that increasing numbers of students major in disciplines which happen to teach skills useful to be successful economically.

Two points are worth pausing over here. One is that it was not always quantitative disciplines like mathematics which provided students with the best shot after Amherst. In an earlier time and in another historical moment, rhetoric and classics were the popular fields of study. If the popularity of fields of study, insofar as they happen to provide students with human capital and transferable skills, varies, it does not necessarily make sense for the college to invest in more tenure-track lines in disciplines which happen to be gaining popularity because of the present needs of the market economy. What will happen if and/or when venture capital in Silicon Valley dries up or when the next disastrous financial crisis hits or when anthropogenic climate change restructures ecosystems and economies? Where will jobs be then and what will popular majors be?

The second point is this: the world students are entering is unpredictable and precarious. Jobs are changing with increased rapidity, labor is becoming increasingly mobile, social safety nets have been decimated and employees work longer hours for less pay. To begin figuring out Amherst’s institutional response to this reality, I would say this: for students to formulate their education here at least primarily on the terms of trying to win in the competition for jobs, money and status in a market society (where winners are increasingly few and far between) is to fail at the project of the liberal arts. Why? Because conforming our educational decisions here to the demands of the market and whatever social expectations are imposed on us pushes aside the question of how the liberal arts relates to freedom, the intellectual, political and perhaps economic freedom you, me or anyone else can and should gain coming here. It is to make liberal arts education illiberal. After all, the term “liberal arts” signifies a relation between education and freedom. The Latin liberalis, from which the liberal in liberal arts is derived, means liberty. If we maintain fidelity to the broadest roots of the term “liberal arts,” we must reflect both about what the “liberal arts” mean and how we experience it and its relation to the increasingly unfree and utility-based market society we will enter.

If it is the case that enrollments in some departments are increasing, perhaps for reasons unrelated, or even worse, antithetical to the liberal arts project, the college must ask: Do we tacitly or explicitly support the intellectual desires shaped by the economic and social realities, which our students express in their course selection or major, by adding more tenure-track lines in mathematics and other disciplines that happen to be more useful in market economy jobs? Do we advise, recommend, incentivize, authorize and encourage — in short, educate — students to think about and experience their education in the liberal arts not merely or primarily in terms of human capital acquired in order to be financially well-off, but rather because of critical questions they feel have gone unanswered or fields of study about which they are curious? Should the college think of new policies — through advising, admissions, departmental offerings and major or curricular requirements — to ensure that students choose fields of study because of intellectual commitment to both the field and the liberal arts project as a whole? In short, do we make students think about the relationship of their education to freedom? The answers to those questions are not mutually-exclusive nor obvious, but surely demand our utmost critical scrutiny.