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The Fate of Liberal Arts in Today’s Schools and Colleges

reviewed by James P. Barber & Benjamin I. Boone - March 15, 2018

coverTitle: The Fate of Liberal Arts in Today’s Schools and Colleges
Author(s): William Hayes
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475817797, Pages: 170, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

A liberal arts curriculum is the defining characteristic of many educational institutions in the United States. Although most people are familiar with the term liberal arts, the curricular components and outcomes are often misunderstood. In recent years, the liberal arts have become wrongly conflated with a liberal political ideology, or dismissed as impractical in today’s economy. In The Fate of Liberal Arts in Today’s Schools and Colleges, educator William Hayes dispels the misconceptions of liberal arts education by explaining its origins, and musing on its future direction.


Hayes’ book provides a succinct overview of the history and evolution of the liberal arts disciplines in American education. He outlines the liberal arts in a way that is easily accessible. His approach provides an introduction particularly well-suited for those new to the liberal arts seeking to understand the context of liberal arts in education. However, those with a strong foundation in liberal arts (in particular, educators working at liberal arts institutions) will desire more.


Hayes’ work is best absorbed in the context of a four-part organization. The book benefits from Hayes’ embrace of common language, which opens the discussion to an audience beyond the ivory tower. The first section of the book (Chapters One through Six) begins with the history and philosophy of the liberal arts. Hayes then shifts to the history of education in the United States, beginning with the early American colleges, progressing quickly through the establishment and growth of public education, and providing a brief overview of the history of the community college system. In Chapter Five, Hayes misses an opportunity to explain a key aspect of the U.S. postsecondary landscape: how U.S. community colleges evolved with a bifurcated curriculum that split between the liberal arts and vocational skills. The pace of this section is fast; Hayes’ overviews of the various fields and disciplines read as miniature timelines that encapsulate the evolution of an area of study in sometimes just four brief pages. More discussion of the impact of the liberal arts in the American education system, in addition to the quick overviews of different education systems, would bolster this section of the book. Regardless, the strength of these initial chapters is Hayes’ expert introduction of the core concepts of the liberal arts in the context of American education.


The second part of the book (Chapters Seven through Ten) profiles four disciplines that Hayes anchors as core to the liberal arts. History, philosophy, foreign languages, and the arts serve to guide Hayes’ discussions on how the concept of the liberal arts has been, and ostensibly should continue to be, central to education. As a consequence of his focus on these four areas, there is a significant absence of other humanities areas and the social and natural sciences that also comprise much of the modern liberal arts curriculum.


In the third section of the book (Chapters Eleven through Eighteen), Hayes addresses a multitude of modern dilemmas facing the liberal arts. He tackles technology, the increasingly politicized topic of school choice, the role of the federal government, and a series of policy-related issues facing education (including No Child Left Behind and the Common Core). This section relies heavily on current events at the time of writing the book without delving into the context behind the issues or offering a prediction for how U.S. education might develop in the future. The strongest chapter in this section is a reflection on C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on the “two cultures” represented by scientists and literary intellectuals. This chapter stands apart from the others as more philosophical and emblematic of a longer conversation about the purpose and aims of U.S. education.


Finally, the fourth section of the book (Chapters Nineteen and Twenty) addresses the titular fate of the liberal arts. As Hayes concludes his book, he focuses attention on his two primary audiences: those interested in higher education and those more attentive to issues facing the K12 system. In his chapter on the state of liberal arts in the modern American college, Hayes draws on recent books and media to emphasize the degree to which the liberal arts occupy our national imagination. His use of a variety of sources allows the reader to see the broad reach of the conversation. Hayes highlights the precarious financial situation of many liberal arts colleges and suggests that two new forms of collaboration are necessary for these institutions to survive: at the regional level, collaboration between nearby institutions to combine administrative functions, and at the institutional level, collaboration between faculty and administration to improve or reinvent inefficient shared governance models. Hayes’ focus on K12 systems relies heavily on early 2010s socioeconomic policy issues to make the case that students in poorer public school districts do not have a broad-based liberal arts education and thus are not well-prepared for accessing the liberal arts in higher education. With growing income inequality in the U.S., this point is even more relevant today than at the time the book was published. His discussion of poverty and the role that socioeconomic status plays in K12 education is crucial and supports his principle argument that the liberal arts must be at the heart of all levels of the American education system.


At the same time, this book can be strengthened in three principle ways. First, the title of the book suggests its focus is on the future direction and fate of liberal arts, yet most of the book focuses on foundations and development. A different title could better reflect the book’s emphasis on the history and context of the liberal arts alongside the policy/social issues of the early 21st century. Second, Hayes’ style of short chapters with bullet lists creates an uneven narrative. While the language is open and welcoming to lay readers, the book mirrors a collection of short essays rather than a longer, more developed conversation on the topic. Finally, this book sets the stage for a nuanced conversation that connects the higher education and K12 audiences, but ends without a substantive structure for how the author’s viewpoints should be applied across the K16 landscape. Hayes’ work, clearly influenced by his impressive career in K12 and higher education, has much potential to affect the way educators think about the liberal arts. His final crescendo in Chapter Twenty opens the door for further study into how American education incorporates the liberal arts, but stops short of recommending a comprehensive plan for how to do so from kindergarten (or even preschool) through college.


Ultimately, the book provides an excellent starting point for understanding the history of the liberal arts in American education and is accessible for any reader to absorb. Hayes’ work is a conversation starter, and prompted as many questions as it provided answers about the fate of liberal arts in colleges and schools in the 21st century. Given the deep roots and broad impact of the liberal arts as detailed in this volume, we remain optimistic about their future.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22304, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:09:32 AM

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About the Author
  • James Barber
    College of William and Mary
    E-mail Author
    JAMES P. BARBER is an assistant professor of education at the College of William and Mary. His research interests include student learning and development, college student experiences, and international and comparative higher education. He holds a PhD in higher education from the University of Michigan.
  • Benjamin Boone
    College of William and Mary
    E-mail Author
    BENJAMIN I. BOONE is Associate Director of the Center for the Liberal Arts, at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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