Sometimes, sea changes in attitude start small, gradually establishing assumptions until no one remembers thinking differently. This is how that happened to liberal education. It’s a story of events on campus and beyond: the oil embargo, the canon wars, federal fiscal policies, the fall of the Soviet Union. [In 1967, California Governor Ronald] Reagan crystalized what has since become conventional wisdom about college. In the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of freshmen said it was essential to them to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. About a third felt the same about being very well off financially. Now those fractions have flipped.
The notion that a liberal education is of dubious value has become entrenched in the popular imagination, even as its defenders argue the opposite. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, liberal education’s chief advocate, celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. Its choices have shaped the story of liberal education, too. The group appears to be in fine shape, with a $10-million budget, more than 1,300 member colleges, and high-profile projects on educational quality, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and civic learning, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. But such projects and respect on many campuses haven’t stopped the public from largely dismissing the idea of liberal education.
Whether you think this change is an improvement, a setback or an inevitable response to changing economic conditions, Berrett’s piece provides an interesting account of this important social transformation as it evolved since the founding of the Republic. The full piece is here (subscription required).