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May 2014
New & Noteworthy – Items of Interest in Higher, Liberal & Classical Education
When all of higher education is under great pressure, you can bet that liberal education, not least the Classics, will feel the pressure especially keenly. I've been trying to keep focused on the quality of education available to students and how to improve (or at least maintain) it. Here are some of the topics that seem to me especially important.


The Graph of the Year

The Washington Post gave that title to this graph from Peter Thiel.

Peter Thiel''s Graph

Misleading? Maybe, but the graph puts the spotlight on the issue that I believe is doing the most damage to liberal education right now -- the educational effects of student loans on American college students. Just how onerous are debt loads? The average debt load for those students in the class of 2012 who took out loans was $29,400, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success. But debt varies widely from institution to institution. You can check your favorite institutions on the web site. You may be surprised or distressed at the disparities. At Amherst College, for example, 30% of the class of 2012 graduated with student loans averaging $14,566; at Spelman College, a historically black institution, 74% graduated with debt averaging over $33,000.
These debt loads are not unmanageable given the earning potential of college graduates. But they change the way people think about higher education. And they take a personal and psychological toll on recent graduates, in some cases devastating, as seen in a report from American Student Assistance: Life Delayed: The Impact of Student Debt on the Lives of Young Americans. But what about the effects on decisions about course and major? Students I talk to say the effect is powerful. That’s also what emerges from a 2007 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research: “We find that debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid "public interest" jobs. We also find some evidence that debt affects students'' academic decisions during college.”
Debt also crowns a king – it sets parents, the media, politicians and educators talking not about learning but about “Return on Investment," a.k.a. ROI. A bas le ROI! Higher education leaders have encouraged students to think of the cost of going to college, and of student debt, as an “investment.” Inevitably then, one starts paying deference to the new king of higher education, ROI, Return on Investment. That, in turn, becomes a criterion for selecting a college and a major. Bill Bennett, for example, in his book Is College Worth It? asserts that only 150 of the 3500 institutions of higher education in the country have “positive returns on investment.” ANDREW DELBANCO''S review of Bennett in the New York Times gets it right, I think: “In striving to ‘prove their worth,’ America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults.” Play the ROI Game Yourself: College by college figures are available. If you want a rigorous analysis of the income of liberal arts graduates, check out You will find Return on Investment figures varying from +10% to -12% from one institution to another, or, the Wall Street Journal will help you play the game by field. How Are Liberal Arts Majors Really Faring These Days? The news is good in a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities called “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths.” You can see a preview but the bottom line is this: When “compared to students who major in professional, pre-professional, or STEM fields — liberal arts majors fare very well in terms of both earnings and long-term career success.” For more information, see the new LEAP report. Thanks to authors Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly, and to the NEH and the Spencer and Teagle Foundations for making this study happen.
How Could That Possibly Be? Surely the vocational majors, not the liberal arts are doing best at preparing their students to cope in these difficult times. But take a look at this graph called to my attention by MICHAEL LURIE: 
Mean LSAT &GUPA by college major for law school applicants in 2013
A tabulation giving average GPA and LSAT scores is available on a blog by Professor DEREK T. MULLER. You’ll see that along with Classics, other arts and sciences majors must look very attractive to law school admissions officers. Far less attractive are the pre-professional and vocational majors, down at the bottom of the pack. We can argue about what the graph means (post your comments on my blog entry for April 24 2014) but the figures are broadly consistent with the results that RICHARD ARUM and JOSIPA ROKSA present in Academically Adrift – arts and science majors show far greater gains in critical thinking than their counterparts in vocational majors. (And, yes, the results are corrected for entering SATs etc.). So it makes sense that students in rigorous fields such as Classics should do well when they apply to law school, and very likely in other lines of work as well.

What about the other 85%? At this moment six college students out of seven lack that opportunity. So it makes sense for colleges to see to it that their students have access to strong programs in Classics and similar fields. That’s happening at roughly 400 of the nation’s 2774 four-year colleges and universities. In other words only about one student in seven has access to the kind of education that produces such good results for those who study it. What about the other 85%? It’s a fair bet that when Classics is absent or weak other humanistic fields will not be flourishing either. The “other 85%” produced some lively discussion at DENIS FEENEY'S Presidential Forum, "What Is the Future of Liberal Arts Education?” when the Classicists gathered in Chicago this January. The basic question seems to me to be this: Should not every American college student have the opportunity to study - with professional guidance - in depth and chronological range, two of the most creative civilizations in world history?

“Sure, But We Can’t Afford To Do It Right”: We''ve all heard that argument, but look at the numbers, for example the ratio of spending per athlete and per student on “academics.” A graph in InsideHigherEd shows the disparity.  For example, in the ACC the median academic spending per student is $15,360, per athlete $103,384. 
And That Gets Accredited? Yup. The accreditation process has not challenged the discrepancy reported above and usually pays little attention to the educational opportunities offered to students. In recent years it has, however, paid increasing attention to cognitive gains during undergraduate education. That’s why it is so important for the humanities to document their students’ cognitive gains and challenge other fields to do the same.
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Tracking the majors: 
BEN SCHMIDT has done it again, a handy tabulation of the number of majors in various fields: 1197 in Classics, over 371,000 in Business, and so it goes. 

Parthenon Wars: DANIEL MENDELSHON tracks them in “Deep Frieze” in the New Yorker for April 14, 2014. 

Is ‘Big History’ the Next Big Thing? Bill Gates seems to think so, as you can see on a recent video

Back to the Future? "The Origins of Liberal Education," back in the fifth century before our era, are explored in a new posting on my web site. 

100 Hours: In class 12 - 15 hours, asleep maybe 50 hours. The other 100 hours in a week may be when a lot of the long-lasting benefits of a liberal education are developed, but only, it appears, if there is a genuine engagement with people different from oneself, and then reflection on that engagement. This and other findings are explored by the eminent psychologist, ROBERT J. THOMPSON in Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education (NY, Oxford University Press 2014) 

The Gospel Renegades: They are at it again, this time arguing about the gospel of John, and finding new meaning in its structure and language. 

QUOTABLE: “Sometimes a fast nickel is better than a slow dime.” 

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave” 
Oscar Wilde 

“My task as a writer is to get the language right so the reader can do most of the work.” 

Summer reading: 
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014) 

Most Visited on"Being Systematic About Student Learning"
"A Classic at Sochi"(Posting of April 8 2014) 
"What a Novel Can Do To You" (Posting of April 2, 2014) 


GEOFF HARPHAM on being named Meyer H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor at Cornell, and to MIKE ABRAMS himself who will soon celebrate his 102 birthday. 

HUNTER RAWLINGS on receiving the Madison medal at Princeton University – be sure to read his talk on that occasion, "The Lion in the Path.” 

STEVEN TEPPER on being named Dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University
Many thanks once again to Chris Graebner for her design of this Newsletter and to many friends for news items and leads for its contents.
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