Review of Victor Ferrall’s book Liberal Arts at the Brink

Liberal Arts at the Brink, by Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., outlines the main challenges to the future of liberal education in the United States. Ferrall, a former President of Beloit College, a highly selective liberal arts institution in Wisconsn, offers readers something of a SWOT analysis, clarifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of liberal arts colleges. The book can be divided into three parts (not including the introduction, conclusion, and appendices):

1) A brief introduction to liberal arts colleges (one chapter);

2) Economic threats and opportunities (five chapters);

3) Accomplishing the mission of liberal arts colleges (four chapters).

In this post, I’ll give my impressions of the third part. I’ll save my impressions of the second part for a future post. (I will actually get to hear Ferrall give a talk tomorrow here at Wheaton, which will be interesting.)

Ferrall focuses the third part of his book on the teaching mission of liberal arts colleges. After a brief “profile” of liberal arts professors as teachers, he offers advice on “employing and deploying” faculty to meet the teaching mission of liberal arts colleges, examines the role of tenure, and explores the role of curriculum development—especially general education curricula—in accomplishing the mission of liberal arts colleges.

So what is the mission of liberal arts colleges? Ferrall goes into great detail on this matter in the first chapter of the book. If I can reconstruct that here, it would amount to the cultivation of a broadly educated citizenry possessing certain habits of mind. Liberally educated people are characterized first and foremost by “curiosity,” “creativity,” “a lack of self-certainty,” and a “propensity for unfettered inquiry.” These qualities, Ferrall suggests, “lead liberally educated persons to develop a set of skills that are broadly useful, fully transferable, ad applicable to any challenge, vocational or other.” 

According to Ferrall, liberally educated people are capable of, or at least want to be capable of, the following:

Critical self-examination

Persuasive and graceful disputation

Effective written communication

Compassion and the inclination and ability to put oneself in another’s shoes

Sophisticated technology-based exploration

A continuing drive to generalize, to search for the common denominator

A well-developed understanding of the human condition

An appreciation of creativity and beauty

An understanding of history and its consequences

An intellectually entrepreneurial spirit

A commitment to service to others and the community, that is, a snse of social responsibility

An examined life

Ferrall notes that all of these skills are not merely transferable to a wide array of vocations, but that they are essential to the responsibilities that accompany citizenship. Later in the book (in what I’m calling part thee), he sums up his emphasis upon transferable dispositions and skills by saying that liberal arts colleges “are purveyors of an attitude toward learning and knowing, not of specified knowledge.”

Teaching. Ferrall describes how liberal arts colleges should recruit, train, assess, and better compensate only the best and most liberally educated teachers. Ferrall suggests that liberal arts faculty are miserably compensated, even at the best schools, and that this gets in the way of recruitment and retention. I can agree with that. I can also agree with Ferrall’s exhortation to network with and actively recruit the best teachers who themselves have been liberally educated (that is, who demonstrate the qualities of the liberally educated). Frank assessment and clear, direct communication of all faculty competencies relevant to promotion and tenure is an imperative. Very little erodes morale like mystery and miscommunication about professional development. I also agree with the need to train teachers, though Ferrall’s insistence that these efforts be faculty-led out of enthusiasm for better teaching puts even more pressure on recruiting faculty who want to focus on their teaching. There is a tension here, though: Ferrall’s emphasis on methods may be at the expense of emphasis on the attitudes and dispositions that a faculty member should have if they are to inculcate the values he defines as central to the liberal arts mission.

Tenure. In his chapter on tenure, Ferrall comes as close as possible to taking no position whatsoever—a clever move, given that he opens the chapter with an account of his foiled attempt to take no position on tenure in a journal article a few years back. He recognizes the strengths of tenure—and its emergence as a substitute for higher compensation—and its weaknesses. Overlooked, however, is the fact that tenure empowers faculty in institutional governance. Tenured faculty can feel free to contribute to conversations about institutional governance in ways that non-tenured faculty cannot and do not. This is a critical matter (and Ferrall himself elsewhere seems to think highly of faculty participation in institutional governance) and reason enough to preserve tenure, unless boards and administrations are to be repopulated with a heavy proportion of members who have the expertise and experience of faculty members (and it is not clear whether that would be desirable or practical).

Curriculum. In his chapter on curriculum, Ferrall focuses on general education (he treats major in a very short passage—a few paragraphs) and says it doesn’t matter that much. As long as faculty are dynamic teachers who instill the right dispositions and attitudes, curriculum matters little (except that all students should take history courses). I can’t see it. I have a practical question about how that intersects with what Ferrall has described as a need to recruit more students to liberal arts colleges. Curricula are visible from the outside, whereas teaching quality is largely visible only from the inside. More importantly, Ferrall’s list of characteristics possessed or desired by liberally educated people will not be cultivated simply by allowing the best teachers to do their thing. What I can agree with are Ferrall’s insistence that interdisciplinary coursework helps to cultivate the characteristics he values and his continual return to the matter of questions. He says that students should learn how to ask questions—big questions. I think he’s right. And I think that general education curricula should to the greatest extent possible be organized around questions, preferably “enduring questions” that have captured the imaginations of people for centuries or millennia.

I have two overarching and related concerns about Ferrall’s argument:

1) Ferrall nowhere explicitly emphasizes that liberal arts colleges should be about creating a vibrant intellectual community in which the qualities he so values are exemplified and practices are cultivated that would promote their development. He rarely implicitly recognizes this. I think this is one reason that Ferrall fails to see the value in a coherent curriculum that promotes these characteristics. 

2) Ferrall also sees a serious tension between teaching and research/writing. He says that attention given to writing is attention not given to teaching. I have serious reservations about the clarity and force with which Ferrall asserts this tension. First, I think that Ferrall gives the lie to his own position: In the same paragraph, he says that teaching well includes staying abreast of developments in one’s discipline. There is no better way to do this than to be an active contributor to the discipline. Without this work to stay abreast of the field as much as possible, we would not teach well long after our dissertations and by Ferrall’s logic should be let go, which would increase turnover. Or we would have to confine liberal arts education to fields that are simply not changing much at all (are there such fields?). Furthermore, I think that the teaching/research tension is a false one. Here’s how I would put it: If faculty teach too much then their research suffers and their teaching suffers both directly (from doing too much of it) and indirectly (from not engaging in research and writing). There is no positive relationship between more teaching and better teaching. I have personally observed the care with which those at research universities or with lighter loads at some liberal arts colleges teach. Doing both well is possible with lower loads and sufficient resources. Now we may not have the capabilities necessary to decrease loads and give more research support, but that is a different question and shouldn’t be dodged by asserting that research and teaching are in some necessary conflict.

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