Blog Post

History VS. Nostalgia: A Techno-Traditionalist's Call to Educational Change

Recently I had a wonderful conversation with a president of a liberal arts college about how we need to reconsider and transform the liberal arts and many other traditional aspects of universities.  She agreed with me, and then said, with real empathy in her voice, "But the humanities people are so afraid. Many of them think any change automatically spells their demise."    Yes, I too often hear this fear in people's voices when I talk about change for our tumultuous digital age and that fear is not ungrounded.    A recent article in Inside Higher Ed was entitled "Disappearing Liberal Arts Colleges."     I responded to my colleague, "The tragedy is that, if traditional humanists and the traditional liberal arts don't change, they may well be ensuring their own demise." 


I know that sounds like a classic "rock and a hard place" argument but,  because I am trained as a humanist, I often go to history as my antidote to nostalgia, looking at the way change has transpired in the liberal arts and the humanities, and use historical forms of change to help us see the way to useful, important, visionary change in the present.   What I do not do is that assume that the current form of the university is "traditional' or that any change in that current form marks a declension narrative that surely leads to the end of all higher education.   Quite the contrary:  it is extremely useful not to think about "change" as that which is happening to the situation I happened to come up in but as a constant process that allows to think not of pathetically holding on to the life raft of the present but thinking in terms of the kind of life raft that might do a better job sustaining the gales and troughs of the particular storm we are in.   I call this "Rethinking the Liberal Arts as a Start-Up Curriculum for Resilient Global Citizens."   (I write about this at greater length here: And talk about it here:    )


Here are some basic principles to keep in mind that give me optimism:  

  • I believe the human and interpretive social sciences are more crucial than ever because everything about the Information Age makes the linkage of technology to the human crucial.
  • But for the human and interpretive social sciences to assume their relevance in this world they will have to get over some of the components of their disciplines which were explicitly shaped for a past time and do a better job of explaining their role in the Information Age.   Ex:  every business and business school I visited this year said "culture and context" were two of the key components of contemporary global business but they find it very difficult to find anyone in the humanities to talk about culture and context to those who want to do business in the world.   They can find people who want to critique global capitalism--and that's fine.   But the majority of students in all universities these days--liberal arts colleges and research universities--are planning to go into some form of business.  So lecturing them on how they are simply capitalist dupes is both going to fall on deaf ears and also assumes that being a professor in the modern university somehow is not part of global capitalism (and we know that's not true).  In other words, some humility about all our participation in the system in which most of our students will be making their productive adult lives might help take our theory and our critique and help, instead, to explain systems and maybe even contribute to more just (i.e. not perfect but simply more just) business people in the future.  I personally think that is not a bad goal.
  • Similarly, the kinds of knowedge we have of culture and context is crucial--but the forms by which we reward that knowledge (scholarly articles, books, tenure, promotion, grants, awards) may not be completely consonant with the vital ways we teach.   Just as it is assumed that the most brilliant theoretical mathematician will still have to teach Math 101, so we may have to assume that our humanities disciplines need to be redesigned for our students--not for future versions of ourselves.   This means that much of what we teach will be introductory and may not be the same as our research.  I actually think this is a good thing--and might even help us explain the often unstated argument behind our specialized research that will help it reach a wider audience.  It is not clear to me that by requiring courses in hstorical periods and national literatures or histories along the post-World War II model of the humanities really makes for the most viable method for teaching "the human condition" or "what it means to be human."   Those are invaluable to everything we do in the world, to a student's future life, to learning how (for this is the ultimate end of an education) to lead a meaningful, productive adult life   It is not at all clear to me that it is necessary to require that one know  Chaucer or the causes of the Crimean War in order to lead a meaningful, productive adult life.  The organization of our disciplines into subfields based on historical periods, national boundaries, wars, or subfields (in areas such as philosophy--analytic, logic, philosophy of science) is more than a historical institutional condition.  To my mind, those conditions can be changed if there is a better way, in the moment in which we and our students live now, to teach "the human condition" and "what it means to be human."
  • I am particularly fond of what Wikipedia says about the history of the humanities:  "In the West, the study of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), along with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium).These subjects formed the bulk of medieval education, with the emphasis being on the humanities as skills or "ways of doing." A major shift occurred with the Renaissance humanism of the fifteenth century, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to be studied rather than practiced, with a corresponding shift away from the traditional fields into areas such as literature and history. "
  • We need to remember that the present day (here's where the nostalgia part comes in) may need something different than the practices of the humanities as observed since the founding of the research university.   Maybe we need to unthink the idea that the humanities should be regarded as "subjects to be studied rather than practiced." Maybe thinking again about the tools the humanities give us that allow us better "ways of doing" what we do in the world we live in now is a helpful place with which to begin to rethink the humanities (to go back to the article I refer to above) as a "start-up curriculum for resilient global citizens" (That term, by the way is from Guattari.)
  • Some universities are already going a long way toward remaking their general education requirements with this "traditional" (i.e. not nostalgic but traditional) idea of the humanities in mind.   I recently visited Carroll University, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a thriving college in an area of the country where a number of other liberal arts colleges are dwindling or even closing.  What was so inspiring about Carroll is that, just a few years ago, the entire faculty worked together to reimagine undergraduate general education not with the past of the facutly in mind but with the future of the students in mind.  The majority of Carroll students end up going into health-related fields.  Yet they all take an extensive core of general education courses across the full range of the humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and computational sciences, with one connecting thread through all of them:  culture.   Specifically, there is a unique attention to cross-cultural study, and students learn other cultures, early on take practicums in diverse cultures (abroad or in local communities), see how issues such as health policy changes relative to cultural circumstances, and so critical thinking and cultural awareness become intrinsically bound up with such seemingly non-humanistic categories as assessment, measurement, success metrics, how you decide if what you are doing is improving or hurting a situation (not in some universal sense but in ways relevant to the particular culture of those you are serving as, say, a nurse or geriatric social worker).   What I heard from talking with so many of the faculty and students I met was that, by having such an engaged, practical, and theoretical general education core, students and faculty were also asking different questions in the specialized major.  Culture and context were informing everything the way statistics or management theory were being taught.   After my talk at Carroll, students lined up to talk to me as if I were some rock star, all the more impressive because they were passing up a free dinner buffet being offered to them to talk with me.  Over and over they said that they felt they had a powerful way of understanding the world they were entering.  They felt confident.  And they felt their general education core, along with their specialized major courses, made all the difference.  What they were astonished to learn from me is how rare such a re-envisioning of general education is. 
  • If the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics figures are current for the future as they are today, our students will change careers (not just jobs) 4-6 times.  If the Australian government survey is correct, 65% of students entering school today will end up in careers not yet invented.   Specialized work—whether in STEM fields or in traditional humanities fields—does not teach you how to retool.  It does not teach you how to survey what you do not know, and figure out how to do what you have to do in order to make up for your lack.  Specialization is about expertise.  The new liberal arts curriculum I am advocating is about the ability to learn, the ability to learn any time, any where, to have the skills and the networks and the communities and the practices and the introspective capacities to see what you need to get you beyond your old habits and cultivate new ones that serve you better.
  • We need to reimagine what we have, in the last four or five decades, fallen into the habit of thinking of as “traditional humanities.”   The traditional humanities should not be a guild dedicated to producing the next generation of tenure-track academic humanists.  That applies to only the tiniest fraction of the world’s population, even a tiny fraction of the world’s population that happens to be affluent enough to go to college.
  • We need to reimagine the goal of traditional humanities as preparing our students to become adults, adults seeking productive, fulfilling, meaningful, socially responsible lives no matter what vocation they happened to choose first, upon graduating from college.
  • We have to assume they need to be equipped for radical changes in their own professional lives and part of being able to retool our professional lives is also being able to give them the cognitive, emotional, and psychological tools to be able to remake themselves when they need to (and they will, they will). 
  • Larry Summers, of all people, recently said:  “If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.”  Exactly.  
  • That should be the starting point of educational reform.  The quest to give every graduate the tools to fight off ignorance.  In a changing world, ignorance is only one technology away. 
  • I believe traditional educational values address this problem.  I do not believe that the forms of education we have designed over the last 100 years do that.  Those forms were designed to prepare students for a hierarchical, Industrial Age society of standardization and specialization.   That’s not the world we live in now.  It’s time to get over our nostalgia, tamp down our fear, and embrace the traditional goal of rethinking education for our students’ future, not for our past.   
  • If we can recast the liberal arts curriculum to train resilient global citizens, we will be offering the most valuable education imaginable.





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