by Robert L. Fried

After graduating high school during the summer of 1959, I took the only job I could get, a minimum-wage ($1.25 per hour) worker in an electronics factory in Astoria, Queens. I was consigned to a basement shop making parts for small tape recorders, where I was the only white, middle-class employee.  On my first day, two guys approached me, “Man, this is a dead-end job.  We can’t get nothin’ better, but you look like a college boy, so you should quit this place.” To keep my job, I couldn’t tell them that was just where I was headed.

I realized I was in the company of amateur philosophers, amazed that people so low on the status ladder, so poorly educated, could have such elevated thoughts.

We took our lunch break sitting on the sidewalk, with our backs to the Coca-Cola bottling plant across the street from our factory.  And we talked about everything under the sun: science, politics, love, and the meaning of life. At summer’s end, I said goodbye to my lunch-hour philosophers and I’ve never thereafter let myself assume that only people with a college education are able to think deeply.  I’ve often wondered how much potential intellect among people like my co-workers is blighted by societal prejudices.

I’ve become conscious of another group who are victims of low expectations and opportunities denied. . . children from working-class families who often pass through our education system without gaining the encouragement and skills to afford them the personal and economic lift that comes with having a first-class college education.

I am speaking of children from working-class families who often pass through our education system without gaining the encouragement and skills to afford them the personal and economic lift that comes with having a first-class college education.  Three years ago, I spent four days substituting in a high school in a largely working-class town on the New Hampshire-Vermont border.  Their teacher, who had been a student of mine several years earlier, had opened his Social Studies classes to me so I could interact with high school seniors about their experiences.  Here is some of what they told me:

“I don’t think schools should put kids in different groups, because it’s teaching kids to put labels on others.  Not to be rude, but I know people who are in ‘smart’ classes who are not any smarter than anyone else. And some kids in higher classes treat lower kids horribly.”

“One thing that needs to be changed is the attitude of some teachers.  They treat us like children, but when it’s convenient, they play the card, ‘Oh, you’re a high schooler,’ or ‘You’re a teenager --you should know better!’ They say this, but still make us tell them when we have to go to the bathroom. I’m in 12th grade and I get treated more like a child now than I did in elementary school.”

“I could sit in a classroom all day and have all of these facts drilled in my head and not know a thing at the end of the day.  But I can go to a firehouse and understand how to save lives and property, and feel proud.  School makes me feel worthless and dumber than dirt.  But when learning things outside, I feel capable of something that can do good.”

“Tests now aren’t used for learning.  If we ever thought about asking a teacher or counselor for another way to show our learning, we would get laughed at.”

“Having the option to make choices is a huge, important thing in education, and I think it should be promoted more.  Being able to decide more what you are learning and how you are learning the material makes you feel more in charge and better about your education.”

“After learning basic material, up until 6th or 7th grade, school should be tailored to what the students want. Freshmen and Sophomores should take classes to try different careers, so that by 11th and 12th grade, students can take classes that will help them going forward to college, vocational school, or jobs.”

“School will always be school; it’s only what you make of it.  So all of the new things added to improve the school experience don’t mean anything if the student doesn’t care.”

Not a surprising outpouring.  But I agonize about the future prospects of students like these who show me how intelligent they are when they realize that I’m not looking for any particular answer and truly want to know what they think. Very few among them were headed for a four-year residential liberal arts college.  They weren’t in “honors” or “A.P.” classes; their writing was spotty at best; they knew they had to prepare themselves for some career that would allow them to support a family; and anyway the cost of such a college was far beyond what they or their families could afford.  But these are kids who can think—and our society is so much poorer if their education stops here.

The time has come, indeed it is long past due, for a fundamental reworking of what it means to have a “liberal arts education,” and for rethinking which of our children should have it.  The gap—and the suspicion and animosity it engenders—between the highly educated and the marginally educated in America yawns beneath our feet, threatening to tumble our society into chaos.

Unless we act to bolster an appreciation of democratic and humane values among the children of economically marginalized and working-class families, we risk an ever-widening chasm between those termed “coastal elites” and people who feel displaced by a knowledge economy and disrespected by those who control it.  I do not see any better way to close that chasm than by re-constructing the liberal arts for a wider spectrum of students.  A STEM focus may increase incomes but will not necessarily broaden minds.

Ignorance can be deadly, as we have see in recent mass shootings by individuals propelled by hateful ideologies.  Less dramatic but more pervasive, millions of young Americans face a bleak future due to lack of access to an affordable, enriching college education that prepares them for sustainable careers and imbues them with a desire for civic engagement.  At the same time, hundreds of worthy but non-elite liberal arts colleges are imperiled by declining enrollments, as tuitions rise and more families question whether college is worth the debt burden.  Employers complain of a dearth of creativity and teamwork skills in college grads, while many of us see our democracy imperiled by a rising global tide of authoritarianism.  Once we recognize how these problems are linked to educational inequality, and more particularly to a great disparity regarding access to a liberal arts education, we can take important steps to solve them.

An Education System in Bondage to a Meritocratic Ideology

Our schools and colleges operate on an axiom of meritocracy: success comes to those who work hard and use their talents wisely; those who do not tend to fall by the wayside, with dire impact on every aspect of their lives.  But if “working hard” means little more than dutiful compliance with high school mandates, or wading through college course requirements and drifting into a major field, and does not include the opportunity for students to take charge of their learning trajectory in a collaborative and intellectually stimulating context, the educational climate will remain toxic for non-traditional learners.

We need to help more kids engage in deep and meaningful inquiry, conversation, and reflection, or else many of our best minds will never find a pathway into college and beyond.  And our society will be much the poorer for it.

Such was the case with Matt, a tall, bearded, affable lad in his mid-twenties.  He has his own small business making furniture from recycled barn boards. I met him when he came with a mutual friend to load some firewood I had cut. When our talk came round to the question of schooling and college, Matt volunteered that he had spent two years at the University of New Hampshire, changing majors twice before dropping out.  He’d gone to high school in a mostly working-class New Hampshire town.  Matt’s reflections on high school and college came tumbling forth as I was describing to our mutual friend my plan to have colleges offer a performance-based liberal arts degree to self-motivated students.

“The idea that I could take control of my own learning was definitely what I needed, but I would have had to see myself in this way early in my high school years, before I tuned out. High school was just something to get through. I took enough of the right courses to get me admitted to the University of New Hampshire, but all I knew about motivation was how to mechanically reproduce work to get the grade I wanted.  I expected college to be a lot like high school—you know, go to class, take the exam, pass the course.  College just began to look like a huge waste of money.  I didn’t know what I wanted, and there was nobody to help me figure that out. After two years of aimless and unsuccessful wandering I grew bitter and decided to drop out.
“I know lots of people who are working in low-paying jobs that have little or nothing to do with what they majored in during college.  So, even if they did graduate, they’re working at lousy jobs to pay off their college debts.  It just doesn’t make sense.”

We owe it to our young people to reconstruct a liberal arts baccalaureate that helps students enhance a capacity to engage with complex ideas, classical and contemporary, while it prepares them for careers that require skills and dispositions that few colleges offer and far fewer assess.  

Our Conventional Liberal Arts Model Is In Danger of Becoming Obsolete

The liberal arts bachelor’s degree has long and noble tradition as a springboard to a life of discernment, critical thought, appreciation of the arts, and as preparation for leadership in industry, the Academy, and government.  The validity of a “liberal arts education” has come under increased scrutiny.  David Brooks cites Noah Smith of Bloomberg as to “disappointment among the well-educated young. They graduated from college, saddled with debt, and naturally expected the world to embrace them as their parents and schools had done. Instead, many entered into the gig economy, where a lot of work is temporary and insecure. Normal professions for liberal arts grads, like the law, are drying up,” and Brooks wonders, “How many unpaid internships can you endure before you lose faith in the system?”

What America’s youth needs is a dynamic, affordable, learner-centered and performance-based liberal arts option that welcomes smart, non-traditional learners but does not consign anyone to arcane academic silos in the humanities or science and technology. 

Imagine if it were possible to reach out to smart, often under-motivated kids who are now getting little out of high school, with slim chances of being admitted to the kind of liberal arts college that so many of the most successful men and women attend.  Imagine if we could inspire these kids to reach for the stars, to open their eyes and their minds to the big ideas and classical questions of the humanities, a privilege now largely restricted to children from affluent families.

Imagine, too, if these overlooked high-potential young people could re-populate America’s struggling, under-enrolled liberal arts colleges and find there the ideal learning context to help them gain, along with an encounter with great ideas, the very capabilities that our best employers are searching for: persistence, initiative, creativity, teamwork, and the willingness to take reasonable risks in pursuit of excellent results.

And imagine if we could bring a cadre of passionate teachers to campus to join with current college faculty to engage these learners in a series of seminars that combine the best classical traditions of the liberal arts with skills and dispositions that lead to great careers and responsible citizenship.

There is nothing wrong, indeed, much to be admired, in someone majoring in philosophy, art history, or classical languages.  There is much to be lamented in assuming that such a person does not also need to learn how to work well in groups, relate well to a diversity of individuals, design a personal course of study, carry out collaborative projects, or make connections between what they are learning and the needs of people in the communities in which they will reside.  We too often forget that preparing for a good life in an increasingly complex world is also a pedagogical concern. Tony Wagner comments: “Despite our enormous investment in education, the majority of our students lack the skills necessary to get a good job, be an informed citizen, or—in some way that defies crisp definition—be a good and happy person.”  

As John Dewey put it, almost a century ago, “The present function of the liberal arts college, in my belief, is to use the resources put at our disposal alike by humane literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and issues of the world in which we live.”  

The pity is that our colleges and universities have allowed their learned men and women to ignore that goal and to reward them for the narrowest of scholarly pursuits.

Sadly, a liberal arts degree in a four-year residential college is now and has always been largely restricted to the children of affluent or highly educated parents who will make any sacrifice to enable their kids to go to the kind of college they attended.  In today’s world, this exclusiveness is a recipe for calamity.  All children, whether headed for careers in STEM fields or the humanities, grow wiser from an encounter with the world of ideas, of questions with no single right answer and in confrontation of the ideal with the pragmatic.  As I learned in my factory job, young people from far more diverse backgrounds are eager for that encounter.  At LaGuardia Community College in Queens, according to a 2011 report by NPR’s Margot Adler, more than 25% of 17,000 students enroll in philosophy courses, demonstrating that these non-traditional students (who speak 120 languages) have a zest for engaging in eternal questions of meaning and morality, even as they prepare for career in healthcare and technology (a number of them become philosophy majors).

None but the privileged (and a tiny percentage of the poor) are now able to enjoy the benefits of a full college experience in company with fellow students from diverse cultures, and to come to see themselves as part of a global community of highly educated leaders, entrepreneurs and advocates for social justice and planetary survival.

More Students in College, Fewer in Liberal Arts

More of today’s young people go to college than in previous generations.  But for most, higher education means vocational training, even if they are required to take a few humanities courses not directly aligned with their careers.  Recent efforts to diversify our faculty and student bodies at colleges and universities must continue.  But unless we reform the pre-college and undergraduate learning experience for a greater range of young people, all but the most prestigious small liberal arts colleges will continue to decline, leaving only elite “Ivies” and large research-oriented universities for the privileged, with community colleges and for-profit training academies for everyone else.

Cathy Davidson, in The New Education, asks, “Why do the smartest students have to be the richest? Why do we have to compete for a handful of ‘diverse’ students instead of recognizing the brilliance it takes to survive harsh and difficult upbringings? How can scrappy genius be channeled in higher education without it being overlooked or snuffed out?”  

I love her term “scrappy genius.”  It is from their ranks that the survival of many second-tier liberal arts colleges can spring.  But if excluded from an intellectually challenging and diverse academic milieu, such persons may reject the values of a multicultural society and echo the tirades of anti-democratic, tribalist voices.

Who Are These Kids, and Why Should They Care About a Liberal Education?

We are talking about the sons and daughters of hairdressers, tradesmen, mechanics and truck drivers, of nurses and shop assistant managers, of skilled factory hands, farmers and government workers, of families who have modest resources for their children’s education but are highly skeptical of spending it on a liberal arts college.   Theirs are the children who discover early in their school experience that education is not a game they can play nearly as well as classmates from college-educated parents who put their child’s education above all other goals.

These are “non-traditional” learners not because they are necessarily economically disadvantaged, but because they share with the children of low-income and minority families a failure to climb the meritocratic ladder of academic success.  Instead, they are encouraged to do sports, get part-time jobs, stick it out and get their high school diplomas, all the while living in the shadow of fellow students being groomed for college in honors programs and AP classes. “Play it cool; stay in school” is hardly a clarion call for a liberal education.

Many working-class students have the smarts and grit to do well in the freer, less compliance-oriented college environment.  But with scholarships aimed largely at students from poor and minority backgrounds (and only a selectable few at that), working-class high schoolers are left to their own devices, and the great majority of them decide it’s just not worth it.  The game is stacked against them.

These kids need hands-on coaching from young people who have made it to college.  Teenagers in Harry Boyte’s “Public Achievement” initiative in St. Paul, “proposed the idea of ‘coaches,’ adults (they especially liked the idea of college students) who would . . . challenge, mentor, and support their own efforts.”   As Mike Rose, author of many books on students living on the margins of our education hierarchy, points out, “there are capable students out there who need someone, preferably someone like themselves, to help them imagine a future that includes a college education.  Without that, they face just too many obstacles, too many avenues of discouragement.  They need someone they trust to tell people like Matt the truth: “To do well in a liberal arts college and have more options in life, you need good communication skills and not much of anything else.  But you also need to take charge of your learning and not let your teachers just lay it on you.”

Imagine if these overlooked high-potential young people could repopulate America’s struggling, under-enrolled liberal arts colleges and find there the ideal learning context to help them gain, along with great ideas, the very capabilities that our best employers are searching for: persistence, initiative, creativity, teamwork, and the willingness to take reasonable risks in pursuit of excellent results.