Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams, report that even now “the nation’s liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million.” In today’s educational landscape, barely one sixth of all college students fit the traditional profile of full-time residential students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. One third of American undergraduates now work full-time, and more than half attend college part-time, typically majoring in subjects with immediate utility, such as accounting or computing. These students, and their anticipated successors, are targets of the so-called electronic universities that seek a share of the education market by selling Internet courses for profit. A few years ago, the president of Teacher’s College at Columbia University predicted that some wily entrepreneur would soon “hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the Internet…at a lower cost than we can.”
As for the relatively few students who still attend a traditional liberal arts college?whether part of, or independent from, a university?what do they get when they get there? The short answer is freedom to choose among subjects and teachers, and freedom to work out their own lives on campus. Intellectual, social, and sexual freedom of the sort that today’s students assume as an inalienable right is never cheaply won, and requires vigilant defense in academia as everywhere else. Yet there is something less than ennobling in the unearned freedom of privileged students in an age when even the most powerful institutions are loath to prescribe anything? except, of course, in the “hard” sciences, where requirements and prerequisites remain stringent. One suspects that behind the commitment to student freedom is a certain institutional pusillanimity?a fear that to compel students to read, say, the major political and moral philosophers would be to risk a decline in applications, or a reduction in graduation rates (one of the statistics that counts in the US News and World Report college rankings closely watched by administrators). Nor, with a few exceptions, is there the slightest pressure from faculty, since there is no consensus among the teachers about what should be taught.
Actually, this may be a sign of the rise of generalized education (I hope). There’s no reason why a business major or engineering major can’t take a few good history or philosophy courses, and in fact good colleges incorporate a well-balanced curriculum into any degree program. Perhaps I’m naive. One answer would be for the first year to cover general subjects (while providing a certain modicum of choice), and then letting third and fourth year cover coursework for a student’s major. There’s nearly a consensus that this sort of division is probably a good thing.
One problem is that many of the hard science degree programs involve a brittle sequence of courses which demand a lot of time. Okay, it might be nice for an engineer to make an extra physics course or lab course; or it might be good for a pre-med major to have extra chemistry courses, but shouldn’t those kinds of things be reserved for graduate school? The purpose of undergraduate is to see the similarities and differences between disciplines, not to give a student in-depth knowledge.