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A crisis in the liberal arts?

Leslie Center conference examines the state of liberal education
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker
Raimond Gaita
Raimond Gaita

Dartmouth will host a conference in November to examine questions such as: Is the traditional liberal arts education out of step with the times? Are more students devoting their undergraduate careers to science or social-science majors instead of the humanities?

On Saturday, Nov. 6, and Sunday, Nov. 7, the conference, titled "The Liberal Education: Dead or Alive?" will bring together speakers and participants from a variety of disciplines and professions to ask difficult questions, spur debate, and examine the state of the liberal-arts model of educating students.

"This conference is being held as a matter of urgency," said Jonathan Crewe, Director of the Leslie Center for the Humanities and Professor of English. He suspects that students nationwide and at Dartmouth may be defecting in increasing numbers from the humanities to the sciences.

"If the trend continues, the liberal education as now conceived will be placed in jeopardy," he said.

But those enrollment patterns may not tell the whole story.

"We know, for example, that some of the statistics are skewed by an increase in interdisciplinary studies," Crewe said.

Conference participants will examine the question of what changing enrollment patterns mean at a time when the landscape of human knowledge is rapidly evolving. Underlying the philosophical debate is the issue of resource allocation at colleges and universities.

"Decisions that are made on dividing up the available funding may be driven by statistics that have not been examined in their full context," Crewe said.

"The Liberal Education: Dead or Alive?" will feature four topics: U.S. higher education today; the past and present states of liberal education; the liberal education across disciplines and divisions; and renovating the liberal education for the future.

Keynote speakers are Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and Raimond Gaita, Professor of Moral Philosophy at King's College in London.

"If the trend continues, the liberal education as now conceived will be placed in jeopardy."

- Jonathan Crewe

Other panelists include Tony Kushner, author and playwright; Freeman Dyson, physicist at Princeton University; Stan Katz, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University; Marcelo Gleiser, theoretical physicist at Dartmouth; Gene Likens, Director of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies at Flagler Cary Arboretum in New York; Louis Menand, Professor of English at Harvard University and staff writer at The New Yorker; and Elaine Scarry, Professor of English at Harvard University.

The conference is free and open to the public. Information about speaker schedules and other events can be found online here.

By LAUREL STAVIS

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08