Book by Victor Ferrall Jr.
Review by Jon Kleinman
SUNY College at Old Westbury
Students’ declining interest in the liberal arts is one of the major challenges facing today’s academic advisors. As economic forces and cultural values drive students towards vocational fields of study, advisors who try and promote the benefits of liberal arts coursework may be met with skepticism or even hostility. Victor Ferrall’s Liberal Arts at the Brink is primarily concerned with the future of small liberal arts colleges, yet the author’s observations and insights will be valuable to any higher education professional working at an institution with a curriculum that includes liberal arts coursework.
Ferrall, president emeritus of Beloit College and an alumnus of Oberlin College, gives readers a poignant summary of the core values which underlie a liberal arts education. He emphasizes that an educated person is not necessarily one who possesses a particular skill or trade, but such traits as “curiosity, a desire to know…a lack of self certainty and a propensity for unfettered inquiry” (p 17). Most important of all, a liberal arts education is founded on the belief that “learning is of value in and of itself without regard to whether it is directly linked to a marketable skill” (p 18).
Ferrall presents compelling evidence that liberal education’s underlying values are becoming increasingly rare among students, parents and high school educators. He notes that students’ vocational orientation is encouraged early; they are often urged by high school guidance counselors to choose a future career before considering where to attend college. Many students are then encouraged to apply only to institutions with academic programs that match their career goals. Data from the educational consulting firm Stamats reveals that from 2000-2007, the number of high school seniors who reported being undecided about their career choice dropped from 21% to 6%. The author cites the 2006 report by the Spellings Commission as further evidence of a waning interest in the liberal arts. The report, which aimed to improve higher education in the United States, focused entirely on the need for trained workers and made no mention of liberal arts or the need for liberally educated citizens.
Throughout his text, Ferrall is firm in his conviction that declining demand is the greatest challenge facing liberal arts education. Many colleges have tried to adapt to today’s social and economic climate by sharpening recruiting pitches, adding career-focused majors and experimenting with non-traditional course delivery. Ferrall bluntly dismisses these efforts as “palliatives” (p 158) which may reduce economic distress but fail to address the issue of declining demand for liberal arts coursework. He makes the bold proposal that the greater community – including high school teachers and guidance counselors – must develop a keener understanding of the way today’s world demands “imagination and thinking skills that go beyond purely vocational training” (p 160).
While Ferrall’s call for a deeper appreciation of the liberal arts in society is admirable, he only offers a few specific details as to how this may actually be accomplished. In his view, the many alumni of liberal arts colleges who have gone on to succeed as entrepreneurs, public figures and business leaders are higher education’s greatest resource. By mobilizing their successful alumni, colleges may be able to change the public’s perception that a liberal arts education is useless in today’s competitive job market. While Liberal Arts at the Brink may not offer as many concrete solutions as some readers would like, it is a timely and extremely insightful work. Hopefully, it will stimulate thought and dialogue among higher education professionals.
Liberal Arts at the Brink. (2011). Book by Victor E. Ferrall Jr. Review by Jon Kleinman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 288 pp., ISBN 978-0-674-04972-7