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A Liberal Art for the Future

Nigel Nicholson

“What does a Classics degree prepare you for?” There can be few of us who have not been asked this question by a student interested in Classics, but anxious about where it will take them and unsure what a Classics degree represents. Indeed, we may have been asked a version of this question by any number of stakeholders: a parent of a student set on Classics, a hotshot dean brought in to balance the budget, a different dean seeking to compile an accreditation report, a trustee, or an employer or faculty colleague from a different education background.

In the present climate with its ever-increasing emphasis on employment outcomes, job readiness and STEM training, I take it as axiomatic that each of our programs needs to articulate a compelling answer to this question, compelling not only in academic terms (e.g. the ability to read Latin and to engage with current scholarly debates), but also in terms of what the student will do after college and what kind of a life they will live. There are certainly challenges here, but there are also real opportunities: the opportunity to make our case, and the opportunity to interrogate and so improve the case we are making.

This paper explores these opportunities, drawing on data collected from Liberal Arts Colleges as well as specific successful initiatives. I will argue that we should frame and organize our programs in the terms of a broad educational rubric appropriate to all the liberal arts, such as the “high-impact educational practices” championed by the AAC&U. This rubric promotes writing-intensive classes, involving students in research, study abroad, interdisciplinary study, first-year seminars, and capstone projects, among other elements, as key to a successful education. Many of these practices structure our programs already, but some are absent or poorly integrated, and so this rubric offers us a chance not only to justify existing elements of our programs, but also to interrogate and rethink what we ask of students. If we do this without fear, we will have stronger, more forward-looking and more rigorous programs of study and be better able to communicate the long-term value of a Classics degree to the various constituencies we must persuade.

Strategies focused on improving individual classes or raising enrolments in individual classes, while certainly valuable, seem to me inadequate if we are to preserve strong Classics programs for the next generation of students and professors. A process of framing and rethinking our programs such as that described here will help us defend them against their detractors, while both attracting more students to our majors and better preparing graduates to persuade people of the value of their education.

Session/Panel Title:

The Future of Classical Education: A Dialogue

Session/Paper Number

40.4

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