"Frankly, My Dear, They Don’t Give a Damn!"
by Rob Holliday
In the first of a two-part forum, Emory University Professor of English Mark Bauerlein presented his findings on student commitment to the liberal arts (or "learning for learning's sake"), which he supported with numerous statistics, many of them gathered during his recent tenure as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, all indicating a precipitous drop in student interest in the traditional liberal arts curriculum. His talk, given to a group of faculty, students and staff in the first Letters and Science colloquium of the semester, echoed sentiments expressed in his latest article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "A Very Long Disengagement," which described the "prolonged immaturity of our students" and lamented that "youth discourse has intensified, its grip on adolescence becoming ever tighter, and the walls between young adults and larger realities have grown higher and thicker." Professor Bauerlein noted that while electronic technologies have made vast sources of knowledge and information available to today's students, most of them use those resources mainly to communicate with each other and to reinforce the social order of their earlier years.
The statistics are overwhelming, he said, and all point to the same conclusion: that participation by college–age subjects in any of the arts is on the decline, with a particularly large drop–off evident in leisure reading of literature. Professor Bauerlein noted a correlation between the amount of time spent in leisure reading and the level of involvement in the liberal arts in general. As more leisure time is devoted to interpersonal communication (specifically, he noted, communication centering around electronic devices), other more "academically friendly" leisure activities have fallen out of favor and can no longer support committed citizenship or foster interest in the liberal arts.
Professor Bauerlein said he sees little that can be done to reverse the downward trend in student interest in their studies. Social and economic forces larger than the academy are largely responsible for current student attitudes.
Despite that, Professor Bauerlein would like to convey to students in the strongest terms possible that their college years are the only time of their lives when liberal arts will be the central focus of their energies. For them to ignore this opportunity, he said, would result in diminished adult lives and would be a source of regret as they grow older. Professor Bauerlein concluded that as today's students take their place as adult citizens, they will, more than ever before, need a strong liberal arts background in order to meet the demands of the "broader global culture war" he foresees in their future.
The second part of the colloquium, in which Berkeley faculty will respond to Professor Bauerlein's comments, in part by describing strategies they use to engage students in their classrooms, will be presented on April 19, 2006, 3:30–5:00 PM in 370 Dwinelle Hall.
You can view a webcast of the presentation here.
The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org or (510) 642-8378.