In an article published Thursday, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey, “The American Teacher,” which found that a majority of today’s faculty place an emphasis on becoming a change agent when teaching college students as opposed to teaching them the classic works of Western civilization.

The UCLA education professor who directs the institute believes the results point to a burgeoning gap in higher education between the abstract and the practical.

Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA who directs the research institute, said the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. “The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition,” she says. “It’s also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change.”

Across the board, more faculty admitted to paying attention to the liberal arts while teaching.

The survey found other evidence that professors are increasingly interested in helping students develop morals and in helping them get a well-rounded education and form a commitment to their communities. In particular, 72.8 percent of professors think it is important to instill in students an appreciation for the liberal arts—nearly 15 percentage points more than said so three years ago. About 56 percent say it is important to instill an appreciation for community service—a nearly 20 percentage-point increase—and 71.8 percent say it is important to enhance students’ “self understanding.” About 70 percent say it is important to help students develop “moral character,” 13 percentage points more than said so three years earlier.

Those are pretty big jumps for three years in between surveys. I would undoubtedly think that the success of Obama’s change-based campaign and the high interest in the presidential election has something to do with these numbers.

Others argue that faculty are beginning to pay increased attention to the non-classroom side of the student, as incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007 and others involving campus violence have occurred.

Whatever the cause, I’m encouraged by these findings, and I’m hopeful that the kind of education seen here — multidisciplinary, focused on empowerment and citizenship — continues to grow in the future.

An ostensibly unrelated commentary piece by a Middlebury College economics professor (subscription req. – sorry!), also published in The Chronicle this week, argued that economics at a liberal arts college is the best major for college graduates to have in a depressed job market following graduation, and as a result, it’s popularity is surging.

Like many liberal-arts institutions, Middlebury College, where I teach, has a problem: Too many students want to be economics majors. Economics enrollments keep growing, and adding more faculty members to the department seems to only increase the demand. The rumor on the campus is that if the college actually provided enough professors to meet the demand for economics courses, it would have to change its name to the Middlebury School of Economics.

Professors at other liberal-arts colleges confirm that the phenomenon is widespread and has been for some time.


Companies like to hire economics majors from liberal-arts colleges not because the students have been trained in business, but because they have a solid background in the liberal arts. What I hear from businesspeople is that they don’t care what a job candidate has majored in. They want students who can think, communicate orally, write, and solve problems, and who are comfortable with quantitative analysis. They do not expect colleges to provide students with specific training in business skills.

If the economics major’s popularity is not due to its intellectual dynamism or connection to business, to what is it due? I suspect a mundane explanation: It is the “just right” major. By “just right” I mean that the economics major provides the appropriate middle ground of skill preparation, analytic rigor, and intellectual excitement that students look for in a major, and that employers look for when hiring students.

Both of these stories are interesting to me because of the “intellectual pragmatism” link involved in both. In one, students are in the classroom developing practical skills, learning to engage the government through their citizenship in order to create positive change. In the other, students are in the classroom, many already possessing these practical quantitative skills, seeking the liberal arts approach to economics and business, adding intellectual heft by learning to write and think creatively.

I’m in the middle of writing another post discussing the increasing number of recent college grads majoring in environmental studies who have gone on to work in institutions (especially higher education). These young professionals advise administration officials on sustainability practice — more intellectual pragmatism.

And finally, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and argue that the intellectual pragmatism Barack Obama flaunted on the way to the White House wasn’t too poorly received by Millennials.

Any feedback? If you share my opinion that we’re seeing an appreciation for this melding of intellect and practice among Millennials, how might this help us to continue developing a future majority?