Brodhead defends the liberal arts

Mar. 21, 2013 @ 08:09 PM

Duke University President Richard Brodhead offered a vigorous defense of liberal arts education Thursday, calling it essential “equipment for living.”

In a 40-minute address to the annual meeting of the university faculty, Brodhead emphasized that a liberal arts education “aims to engage multiple forms of intelligence to create deep and enduring habits of mind, an active, integrative, versatile spirit naturally disposed, when it comes upon a new fact or situation, to go to work trying to understand it, updating preexisting understandings in this new light.”

The value of this kind of education, Brodhead added, “is not to be measured by income alone; least of all income one year after graduation.”

Instead, he said, “its value is that it supplies enrichment to personal lives, equips students to be thoughtful and constructive social contributors and enables them to participate fully and creatively in the dynamic, ever-changing world that awaits them when they graduate.”

The Duke president’s support for liberal arts education comes, he acknowledged, amid mounting criticism, nationally and locally, of higher education. That criticism includes recent remarks by then-Gov.-Elect Pat McCrory that higher education funding in the state “not be based on how many butts [there are] in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

Colleges and universities, McCrory added, should not focus on academic pursuits “that have no chance of getting people jobs” and particularly criticized certain liberal arts fields such as gender studies and philosophy.

The liberal arts and more broadly higher education, Brodhead noted, have always come in for their share of criticism, but “the current discourse represents something new.”

There has been, he said, a “breakdown of the public’s confidence that higher education has self-evident value.”

Brodhead, who is the co-chair of the national Commission on Humanities and the Social Sciences, convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, said that questioning of the value of higher education and the liberal arts is not altogether a bad thing.

While “at a place like Duke, it is far too easy to dismiss this chorus of complaint as the newest form of anti-intellectualism,” he said, many legitimate questions are being asked.

Those questions - which include concerns about rising costs, lack of accountability and what has been called limited learning on American campuses - have their share of truth, Brodhead acknowledged.

“We are naïve if we think we can duck the current push for accountability without doing more to confront it,” he said. “The slogan ‘We have a value you are apparently unable to understand’ is not a winner in the contest for public opinion, and though there are many who want and ‘get’ what we have on offer, higher education needs far broader public support than that.”

To that end, faculty and others connected to the university must “take absolute care that we deliver the thing we claim to supply,” he said, and work to voice “a fuller vision of education to a culture where such voices are currently little heard.”

Part of the faculty’s work, Brodhead added, is to “remind ourselves and others what, in the deep sense, education could really be.”

Brodhead reminded the 100 or so members of the university’s Academic Council that “liberal arts education is a broader public need than the American public shows any sign of recognizing. It is about building broadly capable people who can live up to their personal potential and fill all the roles a complex, changing world will require.”