Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

Evisceration as Innovation

I am no longer surprised when a college struggling to survive decides that the road to success lies in eliminating liberal arts programs and implementing programs whose content is at best vague, if not non-existent. One of the latest institutions to adopt this strategy, Sweet Briar in Virginia, has decided to move away from the liberal arts and toward design thinking,  creative writing, and leadership. Sweet Briar is, of course, hardly alone. In fact, one might say it is late to the circus (see among the independents, MacMurray College, Marygrove University, Colby-Sawyer). On the public side in Kentucky, the governor is encouraging the elimination of programs that don'prepare students for high-paying jobs through training and apprenticeships. (See below for the relevant links). 

As a recent article in Inside Higher Education reported (December 19, 2017), Sweet Briar "will shift its core curriculum away from traditional general education courses and toward classes administrators say are better fits for the latest trends in students’ academic interests and careers -- in areas like design thinking, sustainable systems, leadership, persuasion and making decisions in a data-driven world."  According to Sweet Briar's president, "today’s students are clear about the types of subjects they want to study," which, according to the president, do not include Beowulf. Well, the point is not Beowulf itself, of course. The point is more the question of what content defines and informs the areas Briar Cliff's president does cite as reflecting students' interests: "creative writing, persuasive writing, global literature and contemporary literature."    

Abounding with students who know they do not wish to read Beowulf and thus are qualified to determine an institution's curricula, Sweet Briar first step was to eliminate faculty; after all, institutions that move away from the liberal arts no longer need the burden of faculty tenured in recognized disciplines. Unlike real colleges and universities, which offer both Beowulf and creative writing, a growing number of colleges posit a false choice in their attempt to hang on no matter the cost to academic richness. In fact, reading press materials about institutions that pose the false choice between Beowulf and creative writing reminds one of Orwell, who might have found it ironic that schools describe the eviscerating of an institution as "innovation."