Transcript

Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Who Needs An English Major?

Ashley Smith: I always enjoyed reading and writing in high school but I didn't think an English major would actually get me a job.

The liberal arts are a hallmark of American higher education.

Victor Ferrall: The great advantage of a liberal education - open to all people - is that it allows merit to rise to the top. And merit is what we need in this country.

But the tough economy and soaring college tuition rates are pressuring liberal arts program to prove their worth.

Leslie Batchelder: Students don't exactly have these lofty ideals. It's more like, "How can I get through this paying the least amount of money?"

I'm Stephen Smith, in the coming hour, Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. From American RadioWorks. First this news.

[Sound of classroom hubbub]

Stephen Smith: Back in 1981 I was an English major. I went to a small liberal arts school in the Midwest and I burrowed deep into novels by George Elliot and William Faulkner. But to graduate I also had to take a science class. I was never much of a science student in high school, still I chose Albert Einstein.

Sun Kyu Kim: And many of you have told me you are pleasantly surprised how interesting physics is, right?

That is not Einstein. That's...

Kim: ...Sun Kyu Kim. I teach physics at Macalester College. And I've been teaching at Macalester for the last 46 years.

Professor Kim still teaches one of the most popular classes at Macalester, which is in St Paul Minnesota. Kim reckons close to 10,000 students have taken the course most of us called Physics for Poets.

Kim: Technically it's called Contemporary Concepts of Physics, because we start with Einstien and then do cosmology, astrophysics and quantum physics.

Kim (in class): So what physicists have been trying to do is to explain and describe all the structures in the universe, but in a beautiful way. Beauty is very important. OK, so let me point out...

I spent four years getting an English major at Macalester. But for two of those years I had to take a bunch of other classes not in English - like physics.

Brian Rosenberg: Well, it's true of students who major in any subject.

This is the current President of Macalester, Brian Rosenberg.

Rosenberg: One of the fundamental principals of a liberal arts education is that you get breadth as well as depth. And so whether you're an English major or a biology major or a physics major, you're going to take classes in that area, but also in areas outside that discipline so that your major work is reinforced by that breadth.

Kim (in class): If you believe that the universe exploded into existence in a big bang, then the temperature was very high in the beginning.

Sung Kyu Kim's physics class was a revelation to me. He made the Big Bang cool; the Theory of Relativity was mind-opening. And the ideas I was learning did actually inform the way I read books and, eventually, how I practice my profession. For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:

Kim: One interpretation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is: you are part of what you're trying to observe [laughs]. You can't separate the observed from the observer.

In other words, you can't be an outsider looking in. As long as you're looking, you're part of the picture - you're changing what you look at by being there. That idea stuck with me because as a journalist I'm always asking how my being there changes the scene that I'm watching.

Rosenberg: Exposing students to things and perspectives and ideas that they didn't know of before, and allowing them to find and pursue their passion is exactly one of the points of a liberal arts education. It's one of the reasons why our educational system is not set up the way it's set up, say, in Europe or Japan, where you select your area of study before you arrive at college. It's that opportunity for choice that's an important part of the way we structure things.

[MUSIC: "Percussion Interlude" - Galactic - Cooling Off - Volcano Entertainment III, LLC]

This is the core promise of the liberal arts major - the value proposition: whether you get your BA in English, biology, economic or history, you learn a broad range of stuff that will help you better understand the one area in which you decide to plunge deeply. You're learning how to learn. This liberal arts approach to higher education is uniquely American - other countries don't do it quite this way. And by some accounts, the liberal education in America is under threat. Or at least it's losing ground to more vocational majors like accounting, engineering and business.

Ashley Smith: I always questioned those in my class who were philosophy majors or similar, because I just don't know what you'll do with that in life?

Ashley Smith got her BA recently in marketing and advertising. She went to the University of St. Thomas, just down the road from Macalester in Saint Paul.

Smith: I always enjoyed reading and writing in high school but I didn't think an English major would actually get me a job. I mean, being a writer is great but I was really interested in a degree that was going to get me a career in something I thought would be moderately profitable.

Ashley Smith and others like her have made business the most popular major in America - 22 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded. Humanities and the liberal arts now account for fewer than 10 percent of all majors - a steep drop from three decades ago. With the U.S. economy struggling to recover from the Great Recession, and with college tuition going up faster than inflation, liberal arts programs are struggling to persuade skeptical students and parents that what they teach is practical and relevant. So why worry?

Victor Ferrall: I worry about having a thoughtful citizenry. And I'll give you a particular example.

Victor Ferrall is the former president of Beloit College - a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin. And he's author of the book, Liberal Arts at the Brink.

Ferrall: Today 15 percent of all college students take a single course in history. Or, that is to say, 85 percent of them don't take one. And I think if you have a nation that doesn't have a sense of history, when they set out to send an army into a Middle Eastern country, and someone assures them they will be greeted as liberators, and flowers will be strewn in their path, they may not ask the question, "Are we really sure that's true?" And I think that's dangerous for our nation and for our world.

[MUSIC: "Appalachia Waltz" - Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer - Appalachia Waltz - Sony Classical]

From APM, American Public Media, this is an American Radioworks documentary, Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. I'm Stephen Smith.

A lot has been said in recent years about the vanishing liberal arts. Less is said about how liberal arts programs are changing to try to survive. Over the coming hour we'll visit liberal arts programs that are embracing new approaches to the four-year bachelor's degree. They're updating a model of American education that's prevailed for more than a century.

The modern liberal arts college is an American invention. But its roots go back through the American colonies to England and back to the ancient world. The actual term is "liberal arts and sciences." It describes the breadth of general knowledge that a well-educated citizen is supposed to possess. The modern liberal arts curriculum includes literature, history, languages, philosophy, mathematics and science. But what does the liberal part mean?

Louis Menand: Liberal subjects are taught disinterestedly.

Louis Menand is an English professor at Harvard. He writes frequently about higher education.

Menand: ...which means that we are open to any kind of inquiry into the areas that we study without regard to any vocational utility, any possibility of any financial reward or ideological purpose. But we're simply openly inquiring into our subjects.

In other words: learning for the sake of learning. This is how liberal education has been taught since the 19th century. Victor Ferrall says, a hundred years ago, most college students were men, most were from the American elite and most of their fathers had gone to college before them.

Ferrall: Hardly anyone went to college to get a particular kind of education. It was the next step. It was what you did before you went out into the workplace and did what you were going to do for the rest of your life.

So, by and large, college was not training for the workplace. It was preparation to lead a decent, moral life in the privileged classes.

[Sound of newsreel patriotic fanfare]

But after World War II, the expectations changed. Congress passed the GI Bill of rights to help veterans return to civilian life. Movie theater newsreels explained the benefits of the GI bill - including money for post-secondary education.

Newsreel Announcer: Any kind of education and in any part of the country. Trade school, college, university. Tuition is taken care of. Funds are provided for laboratory fees, books, supplies and equipment are included.

[Sound of patriotic fanfare]

Millions of vets used the GI bill to get a degree. American colleges and universities expanded to meet the surge in demand. Victor Ferrall says the GIs knew that college offered a chance to climb into a higher social class. But the students made new demands of the liberal arts system.

Ferrall: And the new people, many of their parents hadn't gone to college, and they wanted to know what were they going to learn to do that would improve their lives? Because their objective was: a better life. A better job. More job security. A better income and so forth. The students before then hadn't asked that question. They just assumed it would all work out.

Before the postwar boom, private liberal arts schools made up a greater share of the American higher education sector. Today, the overwhelming majority of college students attend public institutions, including community colleges and public universities. In recent decades, dozens upon dozens of small, liberal arts colleges have closed. Others have shifted their emphasis to career and professional education. The liberal arts programs that remain face stiff economic and competitive pressures. An increasing number are experimenting with new ways of attracting students. They're reshaping their programs to cut costs and to try to connect the liberal arts to the real world.

[Sound of rattling ladder]
Man: John give me a hand with this...

Antioch College alumni were back on campus this summer in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They were volunteering to tile bathrooms, scrape peeling paint, yank weeds and refinish furniture.

[Sound of a drill]

For decades, Antioch alums have been pulling on their work gloves in the week before their annual college reunion to help maintain the school. Despite a fine reputation, Antioch always seemed to struggle financially. But this time the cause was especially urgent. Antioch closed down three years ago. And against great odds, the college is reopening this fall. Ann Stockton, class of '65, came in from Philadelphia.

Ann Stockton: This place is important. I don't want it to die. I want it to be here for the next generation of students who need what Antioch is very special for. I came here to become a renaissance person and I think that's what we need to send out into the world.

A determined group of Antioch alumni is struggling to restart this school in rural Ohio, north of Dayton. Antioch closed down for a complicated mix of reasons: increasingly brutal competition among small colleges; years of financial trouble; deep management problems at the college; and plummeting enrollment. When Antioch shut down in 2008, fewer than 300 students remained. College officials say the revived Antioch will create a sustainable, affordable, 21st century model for small, liberal arts colleges.

Mark Roosevelt: I think the tough questions for us, as for everyone, are: how do you not look like everyone else?

That's Mark Roosevelt, the new Antioch college president. He's the former head of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Roosevelt's plan - in part - is to start really small, concentrate on basics, and get less small. But never big.

Roosevelt: I think what happens to a lot of places the pressure is always to grow. I mean, "We have these philosophy courses but we don't have much on existentialism" or "we don't have much on ancient philosophy." Well, honestly, if you're going to be a liberal arts college that does some things really well, you're going to have to do some other things not at all.

A list of what Antioch won't be doing, compared to other colleges, is pretty long - at the outset anyway. It has admitted a class of just 35 students for this fall - just a few more than Antioch's first graduating class back in 1857. They'll arrive on a campus with six tenure-track faculty members; another half dozen visiting or adjunct professors. As for the campus itself...

Roosevelt: Well, we're standing at the horseshoe in front of Antioch Hall or Main Hall. And then McGreggor, which is where most of the classes will be for the students - in that building, which you see them working on. They've replaced the windows...

Antioch has a broad, grassy campus with a mix of classic brick buildings and '60s era glass and concrete. Eight of the college's 25 buildings are reopening. They include the library but not the gym - the school could only afford so many. As for academics, Antioch will offer the core subjects of the liberal arts: science, the humanities, social sciences and mathematics.

Jean Gregorek: We had very limited funds that we had to start very small and build up slowly.

Former Antioch literature professor Jean Gregorek was part of a team hired to design the new curriculum. She says the disciplines may be traditional, but they're not narrow.

Gregorek: In fact there's a lot that you can do with history or [laughs] literature or philosophy or anthropology. That can actually encompass quite a bit.

President Mark Roosevelt says Antioch students will shape their own, individual majors, but from a common starting point.

Roosevelt: The philosophical intellectual belief is that students need to have a platform from which to pursue their more individualized studies. So we have 24 foundation courses, of which students will have to take 14. And the thought behind that is, you know, before you go off and craft a very individualized study it's important, maybe even essential, to have a platform of basic knowledge. Now, it just so happens that I believe that. And it also just so happens that that's an economic delivery model. So that you don't need as many faculty to be teaching.

The revived Antioch's liberal arts program will be rooted in a contemporary issue the school considers critical: global sustainability. Students will be brought together in campus-wide seminars on food, health, energy and water.

Roosevelt: They'll be co-taught by different faculty members. Um, water could be taught by a poet, by an ecologist, um, by someone from the philosophy department, because it has such enormous reach in our lives. Um, so that's a liberal arts application to also preparation for work and for life.

Another prominent feature of the Antioch curriculum will be a mandatory, off-campus work program. Antioch requires students to alternate each term on campus with a term of full-time, paid work off campus. Students work across the country and internationally at businesses, at schools, social-service programs and government agencies. Since liberal arts colleges have a long tradition of resisting demands to be relevant, Antioch's work program has been a distinctive feature of the college's approach. It dates back to the 1920s. It's based on the belief that the liberal arts should connect to the real world. Retired Antioch history professor Bob Fogarty says the work program gets students out of their small, insolated ivory tower in rural Ohio.

Bob Fogarty: And if they're at all curious, they'll realize, um, first of all, in the case of America, it's a really big country. And there are lots and lots of different people. And they're not all like them.

The work program at Antioch was a big draw for incoming freshman Forest Humphrey of Viroqua Wisconsin.

Forrest Humphrey: I wasn't really too interested in being enclosed in a campus for four years. I wanted to be out in the world and explore, I suppose. Rather than kind of being shut up and then after four years being pushed out into the world and expected to just get along, and find a job. And do all the things you're supposed to do without any kind of experience. You're like, testing the waters.

By the way, there's another appealing aspect for this first class of 35 students at the revived Antioch. All four years of tuition are free, and most students are also getting financial aid for room and board. But they're taking a risk. If the school folds before this year's class graduates, it's unclear if other institutions will accept the course credits that that the Antioch students will have earned. Antioch lost its accreditation when it closed. Students are gambling that the college will get its accreditation back.

Lee Morgan: And the student who takes that chance, who is a highly qualified, competent, sharp kid is going to be a very unusual student.

Lee Morgan chairs the Antioch Board of Trustees. Morgan freely concedes that the school may go bust again.

Morgan: And the worst that would happen is they'd get a fabulous education for two years. And we go out of existence and they go back to some conventional school and have to pay the full ride and still become an amazing contributor to our society.

Before too long, Antioch will have to start charging new students tuition. But will anyone take that risk? The college hopes to slowly build back up to around 1,400 students. That's on the smallish size compared to many other schools. This whole experiment is backed by Antioch's alumni. The college's trustees have pledged $9 million over the next three years to help cover operating costs, but another $8 million is still needed. Lee Morgan has been one of the big benefactors.

Morgan: The assumption is that the college is going to have to rely on alumni for the next couple years. This is the start-up phase. This is high risk. We're looking for alums that are, uh, willing to take a chance on a vision. The goal here is something new and radically different. And we would not be able to raiser this money, uh, just on nostalgia. And frankly, it's our last chance. The alumni patience will wear out if were not successful this time. That's my personal prediction.

The revived Antioch College will be radically different from conventional liberal arts schools in how it grounds traditional subjects in immediate, modern-day problems and issues; and how the faculty are organized to teach subjects as a team. The trick is whether the college's money will hold out long enough to test the concept.

[MUSIC: "Paper Tiger" - Dr. Lonnie Smith - Boogaloo to Beck - Scufflin' Records]

Small, private residential colleges like Antioch have become the symbol of liberal arts education in America. But, actually, more undergrads are studying liberal arts subjects at public colleges and universities than at private schools. And a growing number of public programs are changing how they teach liberal arts to attract students and to get them through to graduation.

Tammy Rodriguez (to students in the rain): OK can we get in a circle here? We're going to talk about plant parts...

Tromping through the wet grass in muddy rubber boots, Portland State University senior Tammy Rodriguez leads a group of curious third graders to the edge of a vegetable plot.

Rodriguez: So what do you think this is?
Kid: A root...
Rodriguez: The root. Why's a root important to a plant?
Kids: Helps 'em drink water?
Rodriguez: It does. It really does. It sucks water up from the soil...

This excursion to an organic farm is part of the liberal arts program at Portland State University in Oregon. Community health major Tammy Rodriguez, sociology major Mickey Sarkar and about a dozen other Portland state seniors are in the fields on this rainy day. They're teaching kids from economically troubled city neighborhoods how food is grown. The lessons include plants and pollinators.

Mickey Sarkar: What parts of this bee can you name?
Kids: The pollen basket, legs. The Thorax.
Sarkar: Yeah, the thorax. If we had a thorax where would it be?
Kids: Right here.
Sarkar: Yeah, in our neck.

This fieldwork is part of a Portland State course called Hunger in the City. The course's instructor is here today, too, observing the college students. Celine Fitzmaurice says this is what's called a "senior capstone" class.

Celine Fitzmaurice: A capstone is a service-learning course. Each course has a nonprofit community partner. And students do a final project that meets the needs of the community partner in some way.

In this case the community partner is an organic farm and education center on Sauvie Island, a few miles up the Willamette River from Portland.

Rodriguez (to students): This right here is collard greens. So I want everyone to try it. If you don't like it you can discreetly turn away and spit.
Kid: tastes like broccoli...

The capstone program is just one of several ways Portland State has changed its approach to undergraduate education over the last two decades to make the liberal arts more relevant. In the past, seniors might have spent their last year working alone on big thesis paper. The capstone, as the name suggests, is meant to finish off a student's four-year college experience but in a more collaborative way. Celine Fitzmaurice:

Fitzmaurice: All graduating seniors at PSU are supposed to take what they've learned in their major and apply that learning in a capstone setting. So we have students from a number of different majors coming together, taking the knowledge that they've gained, and actually applying it to a real-world issue or problem.

[MUSIC]

Portland State is among a growing number of public universities that are transforming the way they teach the liberal arts. The goal is to make undergraduate education more practical and engaging to both students and the community. Unlike the old liberal studies credo of learning for learning's sake, this is learning with a purpose. In fact, PSU's motto is Let Knowledge Serve the City. And while many of the course offerings are longtime staples of the curriculum, how they're taught is different.

Leslie Batchelder (to students): Well now, this Barbie, which is a so-called ethnic Barbie, look at these feet. They're huge and they're flat, right?

This is a women's studies class at Portland State taught by professor Leslie Batchelder. Today the class is deconstructing that icon of femininity: the Barbie doll. Batchelder holds up a dark-skinned Barbie and her Caucasian cousin.

Batchelder: This gal's got some nice platforms here. She can run. You know, she's brown. None of the blond, white Barbies come with feet like this.

This class is part of PSU's University Studies program, which was created in the mid-1990s when Portland State began to overhaul the way it taught general education courses. Gen Ed classes are required of all undergraduates regardless of their majors. Leslie Batchelder says under the older, more traditional system, undergraduates spent their first two years of college picking away at these general education requirements before declaring a major.

Batchelder: And then the third and our year of your college career you're supposedly doing your major. You're focusing on your specific thing, whatever that is. Like if it's biology you're just doing all your courses in biology. And at PSU we sort of thought, well, the problem with that is in the first two years you're very much sort of picking from this laundry list of classes and nothing is related to anything else.

Portland State officials say that back in the 1990s, too many of their freshman were getting discouraged by coursework that didn't seem relevant to real life. Too many were quitting. So Portland State created what it calls Freshman Inquiry courses based around big themes such as Ways of Knowing, Design and Society, or Globalization and Sustainability. Instead of a big lecture hall, the freshman course has about 35 students. It lasts the entire academic year with the same instructors who teach as a team. The students often lead class discussions with the instructor a guide.

Seanna Kerrigan: So it's really about helping students construct knowledge together.

Seanna Kerrigan helps run the University Studies program.

Kerrigan: So rather than a faculty member, we used to call it the "sage in the stage," engaging in what we used to call banking education, as if we were depositing knowledge into students. And almost like an ATM card, come final time we want to pull out all that knowledge exactly the way we reported it in. Instead we're talking about an entirely different form of education.

And regardless of the particular subject matter, the Freshman Inquiry course is meant to build a base on which, by the end of four years, the senior capstone will rest. Here's Professor Leslie Batchelder again.

Batchelder: Theoretically in Freshmen Inquiry you're practicing all the things that they'll do throughout the rest of their college career. So like when I say we talk about numeracy or writing, we're starting to lay down that foundation of what is expected in college writing? What is expected in terms of being able to analyze and produce important statistical information?

[Sounds of heeled shoes on a sidewalk on campus]

Portland State's long, tree-lined campus runs through city's downtown. Some 30,000 students go here, but only half of them go fulltime. PSU has a high percentage of adult learners and of students who are working their way through school. Only a few thousand actually live on campus. One goal of the year-long freshman course is to help create a sense of college community that would otherwise be hard to achieve at a commuter college. The 35 students in a given Freshman Inquiry class may not do laundry together, they may not hang out in the dorm lounge, but at least they see each other week in and week out. Since the university studies program began in the mid-'90s, about 10 percent fewer freshmen are dropping out. PSU officials say they want to do even better.

Fitzmaurice (to students): OK folks can we just, um, gather up for a moment so I can tell you about the plan for today?

Across the Portland state campus, the "Hunger in the City" senior capstone class is meeting. Instructor Celine Fitzmaurice and the students are reviewing work they've done out at the organic farm. The students huddle in groups of three or four around final projects that will be a big part of their term's grade. One team is designing a quiz for the elementary school field trip kids to take after they learn about pollination.

Student: And then, we were going to use Velcro to label parts of the bee and uh, the flower...

Celine Fitzmaurice say the University Studies program has four cardinal goals it hopes students will achieve by the end of the capstone class.

Fitzmaurice: As a result of being in this course and working in the community that we develop a sense of empathy; that we have an understanding of diverse populations; that we learn how to communicate effectively with each other and with different groups of people; and that you have some sense of your social and ethical responsibility in the world. So it's not just about becoming, um, a writer or an economist, but becoming a well rounded citizen or person living in this world.

Jean Woest: Hi my name is Jean Woest and I'm calling on behalf of the Sauvie Island center. Uh, we're doing a, we're doing a inventory of edible gardens in the Portland public school district. I wonder if I can ask you a few questions real quick?

Senior English major Jean Woest was on one of the capstone teams. The survey of city gardens that he helped conduct was meant to assist the organic farm at Sauvie Island improve its food education program. I caught up with him after the school year ended and asked if the capstone really did bring his education full circle.

Woest: Not really. Didn't really feel like I learned much. I got to employ my, you know, communication skills in ways that I already am. But, in the end, I mean, in the end, basically what happened was in my group - being the only English major there - I ended up writing the big final paper. And that was it. And I felt that I could have done a lot better job if it had been me writing a big final paper and it was actually more in the vein of something that I could actually engage with.
Stephen Smith: About literature.
Woest: About literature or about you know, theory or about anything more -
Smith: You would have preferred to do a final thesis in English, or...?
Woest: I definitely would have done a final thesis in English on a, on the drop of a pin. Or a hat. Whatever the expression is.

But surveys show that many PSU students describe the capstone classes as transformational. Tammy Rodriuguez says the capstone on Hunger in the City changed her life. First off, as a 50-year-old returning to finish her bachelor's degree she had some catching up to do.

Rodriguez: I think it has definitely increased my communication abilities. Before, I had strong opinions but to get them out there and voice them I wasn't real eager to do.

Not an option in her capstone.

Rodriguez: I mean every time you turn around you're being put in a group and there's a presentation to do. Part of your grade depends on if you speak, so... [laughs]. So I was forced to figure out how to communicate, uh for this capstone - you know, we worked with 3rd graders so I was forced to figure out how to bring, um, the vocabulary needed down to their level without losing its meaning.

Tammy Rodriguez was always interested in food and nutrition. Her part-time day job is running the education program at a farmer's market. But the capstone class convinced her to change plans going forward. Instead of going to grad school in public health, she wants to get a masters of science in sustainability education. And she might even start her own educational farm.

[MUSIC: "Loose Bloose" - Bill Evans - Loose Blues - Milestone]

Portland State University Professor Leslie Batchelder says the school had to change its approach to teaching liberal arts because students have changed. She says when she was in college back in the '70s, college was viewed as an "experience" - a way to open your mind. Students could afford to be laid back.

Batchelder: It was a lot cheaper then. [Laughs] Right? So students, rightly so, don't exactly have these lofty ideals. It's more like, "How can I get through this paying the least amount of money?" My students are all working full time, you know, they have these huge loans. And they've come to regard education as a product - as a ticket to a job or, you know, a commodity.

[MUSIC continues]

This is Stephen Smith, you're listening to an American Radioworks documentary, Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. Coming up:

Any job skill that you learn today will be obsolete in five years. Any job skill. Consequently, learning how to learn is incredibly important.

To find out more about the history and future of liberal arts education in America, visit our web site, Americanradioworks.org. While you're there you can subscribe to our weekly education podcast, you can let us know what you think of this program, and you can explore more than 150 documentaries on a wide range of subjects. That's Americanradioworks.org. Who Needs an English Major will continue in just a moment, from APM, American Public Media.

Part 2

Stephen Smith: From American Public Media this is an American RadioWorks documentary: Who Needs an English Major? The future of the liberal arts in the United States. I'm Stephen Smith and I've come to Charlestown, W.V., which is a small community a couple of hours northwest of Washington, D.C. - a historic place, which was founded by George Washington's brother, Charles, and where a lot of Civil War activity happened. But I came here to visit the academic center of a university with 90,000 students. It's American Public University system and the campus center is located at intersection of north George Street and the railroad tracks. It is a four-story brick and stone building, and you won't find a single student inside. That's because American Public University System - a for-profit university - has 90,000 students attending all their classes online. This is the bricks and mortar home to a virtual campus.

Video: Welcome to APU's online campus. I'd like to show you just how easy it is to use. I'm Kess, a student at APU. And I'll be your guide...

Like all three-dimensional colleges and universities, the campus tour - led by a student - is a staple of American Public University's marketing package. But you obviously don't have to go to West Virginia to take a look at APUS. You just go online.

Video: Let's take a closer look at the campus and then we will explore the classroom.

Wally Boston: American Public University system is a 100 percent online, full accredited university.

That's Wally Boston, president of APUS.

Boston: We try to educate adults who are primarily employed. Ninety-one percent of our students are working. We're established to provide them with an education that helps them either further their career professionally, or they simply have an interest in a particular course, or particular degree or program.

What sets APUS apart from most other for-profit colleges is the level of its commitment to the liberal arts. Most for-profits concentrate on narrowly focused degree programs, such as business, computers, health care and criminal justice. APUS offers those degrees, but 14 percent of its students are in liberal arts programs - which is higher than the national average. APUS wants to demonstrate that you don't have to sit around a seminar table to talk about books and ideas.

[Sound of a kiddie pool filling]

Tim Caucutt is in the back yard of his home in Chesapeake, VA with his wife and their toddler Aeson.

Tim Caucutt: Alicia is filling the swimming pool with water and our son is watching. He, he loves water. Bathtubs, pools.
Aeson: Wa wa!
Caucutt: And "wa wa" means water...

26-year-old Tim Caucutt is a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter. He recently graduated from America Public University Systems with a BA in political science - one of the liberal arts. Caucutt wants to go into public policy some day so political science seemed a good fit. He shopped for a college on the Internet like any consumer - weighing cost, convenience and quality. An online degree was his only option.

Caucutt: I was married, I was working full time as a U.S. Marine. And I needed to get my college education. So leaving a fulltime career to get a college degree for which I'd have to pay a lot more, didn't make sense as a married man who wanted to grow his family.

Caucutt (inside his home): So this is the computer and of course this is going to be the baby's room in, in about a month and a half...

Caucutt and his wife have another child on the way, so the computer he used to attend college will have to find a new room. Back in June 2000 when he first enrolled, Caucutt was a combat trainer at a military base in California.

Caucutt: I completed my degree when I was in Coronado, Calif. I was an instructor at the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group, Pacific. And so I would work there during the day and then in the evenings and on Saturdays, take my laptop down to the Coronado public library, set up and be a college student. [Chuckles]

In his time at APUS Tim Caucutt never met any of his professors face to face.

Everet Corum: These have been graded and I honestly don't remember who got what grade. But I'll click on Curt Dahlman here.

Video: Hello everyone. My name is Curt Dahlman and I'm here to tell you about a game called Fight Night Champion.

I'm in a conference room at American Public University's academic center in West Virginia, and I'm peering into a virtual course on public speaking by looking over the shoulder of its instructor.

Corum: I'm Everet Corum. I am PhD in theater and media arts and I'm the program director here at the university for the humanities, philosophy and religion and also the foreign languages.

A few years back, APUS asked Corum to create the public speaking course. So he designed an 8-week curriculum that covers the fundamental principles.

Corum (on video): Hi everyone. I'm Ev Corum and I'll be guiding you through the class for the next eight weeks...

This is Corum's welcome message to the class. It's an introductory public speech he posts at the start of each term.

Corum (on video): So please read the announcement below and review the syllabus thoroughly. On the discussion board, you will find a forum called Q and A, where you may ask any questions you have about this class on the art of public speaking.

American Public University System classes don't meet at a set time. The assignments are posted at the start of each week. Students can log on - day or night - as their schedules allow. Class dialogue takes place on discussion boards and participation is a big part of the grade. Karen Powell is the head of academic affairs at APUS. She compared the online classroom to the days when she taught students face-to-face. And being in the same room, she says, is not such an advantage.

Karen Powell: Typically you've got the students in the back of the class hiding behind their laptops or their blackberries or their books or they close their eyes. And you've got the few in front discussion. In online environment, there will never be more than 25 students in our classes. The average size is 14. Your voice will always be there. Because you are required be there and engaged. You can't just sit in the back and hide. If you sit in the back and hide you won't pass

Corum: The way this works is they have to upload to YouTube or some other service and put the embed code into the classroom...

In Ev Corum's virtual classroom, we're looking at some of the public speaking assignments that the students have recorded on video.

Student (on video): I'm sure everyone has heard a horror story or two about Wal-Mart. I'd like to share some of the great and amazing things the company does that the media tends to leave out. In the four minutes I have I will not even begin to scratch the surface of the great things this company does...

This student has been working at a Wal-Mart store for the past five years.

Student (on video): ...now that you know a little about Wal-Mart as a business [cuts off].

Corum: Now, what I would say to this student is, "Your energy is good. But your tone is a little flat. So let's go for a little greater vocal variety. And generate maybe just a little more enthusiasm." She's very well prepared in this speech. She knows exactly what she's going to say. I would love to see and sometimes I do - but not as frequently as I'd like to - I would love to see students giving speeches in front of other students. I have seen students give speeches in front of their children and their animals, who come walking into the frame or you can hear the dog barking in the background.

Annual tuition at APUS is $6,000 - about the same as many state colleges and universities, but far less than other for-profits and private non-profit schools. Unlike most of higher education, APUS hasn't raised tuition in a decade. It doesn't have to pay for dorms, or football fields or tenured faculty. And the company makes money. In 2010 it reported a profit of $30 million on revenues of $198 million. So even if the number of majors is declining in this country, at least one school is making the liberal arts pay off.

Caucutt: What's that? Who's that right there?
Aeson: A doggy!
Caucutt: No that would be baby. What does a doggy say?
Aeson: Meow...
Caucutt: Uh, no that's cat. [Laughs]

Back in Chesapeake, Va., Tim Caucutt shares a book with his son, Aeson. At the moment they disagree a bit on the inherent meaning of the text. After a few more years in the Marines, Caucutt plans to go for a master's degree in political science - but this time from a school with walls and windows. And while some surveys show that employers don't discriminate against online degrees, grad schools are more skeptical.

Caucutt: I understand that a degree online is not, um, extremely attractive to a lot of universities. Even though it's accredited and that's a great thing that I have going for me. And I'm really interested in international affairs. Probably just a master's degree at a university in Virginia. After that, working in policy, working as an assistant to policy makers, perhaps for corporations. That's where I'd like to be maybe in my 30s.

Tim Caucutt is pleased with his degree from American Public University System. And while he might have always preferred to go to a college with real classrooms and with a library filled with books, APUS had what he needed at the time: low cost and high convenience.

[MUSIC: "Witch Doctor" - Dr. Lonnie Smith - Jungle Soul - Palmetto Records]

You're listening to an American Radioworks documentary, Who Needs and English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. I'm Stephen Smith.

Small, liberal arts colleges face increasing economic and competitive pressure to demonstrate their value in the modern economy. Annual tuition, fees and living expenses average more than $37,000 a year. At the most selective small colleges, the price tag can top $50,000. The tradition of liberal education has been to open minds rather than produce careers. But college has still long been a way for underprivileged kids to climb their way into the middle class - if they could get in to a school. At one small college in rural Kentucky, the core mission is to make liberal education a ladder to prosperity. And tuition there is a bargain by any reckoning: it's free.

Professor: OK, so in today's lab we're going to study some circuits....

On a rainy afternoon, about a dozen students at Berea College are snug in their physics lab. Sophomore Tommy Boykin is the teaching assistant for today's class. He's helping other students wire together an electronics experiment.

Tommy Boykin: ...Two batteries here. And what we want to do is set it up so that this is your resister? And you want current running...

Berea College is a small, liberal arts school in the hills of east-central Kentucky. About 1,600 students go here. When Tommy Boykin was a high school student in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., Berea was not initially on his college wish list.

Boykin: Honestly, I wanted to go to an Ivy League school when I was first on my college search. I wanted to go to Harvard, and, you know, MIT. You know, I wanted to be a physicist, so I'm thinking, I need to go to the big schools [laughs]. But honestly what I've learned here is, you know, it's really about not the name that you have, it's really about the program.

What Boykin liked about Berea's physics program was its intimate size: a dozen physics majors taught by four professors. That means a lot of individual attention. But of course, there was that something else: the free tuition for all students. And a free laptop computer. Most students come from a nine-state area of the southern Appalachian Mountains. And like Tommy Boykin, virtually all come from the bottom third of America's economic ladder.

Joe Bagnoli: Sometimes we say, "We're looking for the poor valedictorians."

That's Berea College Dean of Enrollment Joe Bagnoli.

Bagnoli: Wanting to make certain that those students who have the academic potential to be successful in college, but lack the resources, are afforded that opportunity.

Berea College has been offering a free education to poor and working-class people from the region since 1892. College president Larry Shinn:

Larry Shinn: And the idea was, we will provide a way for you to lift yourself up through your mind. So Berea really began as a utopian community, focused on education.

The school covers most costs of through its $975 million endowment. But it also requires students to work at a variety of campus jobs to keep the school running, or to bring in money. Students work as teaching assistants, landscapers, dormitory staff and janitors. And some have slightly more exotic jobs.

[Sound of a wooden loom clacking]

Jane Tonello: Well, I'm Jane Tonello, I'm a senior here at Berea College. And I'm a pre-med biology major. And currently I'm working at weaving.

She's working at a fly shuttle loom in Berea's weaving shop. With her right hand on the shuttle cord and her left on the beater bar, Tonello gets into an easy groove, making a blanket that will go on sale in the college's craft shop - which, in turn, supports the school. Jane Tonello is from Nashville, Tenn.. Her mom is a single parent who could not have afforded tuition at a conventional college or state university.

Tonello: 'Cause when I entered college my brother was also going to that. So my mother couldn't afford to pay for both me and my brother, so I was very, very fortunate that I got accepted here.

[Sound of outdoor campus, people chatting]

Berea's leafy, small-town campus is pleasant, but no frills. To keep costs down, it has opted out of what some call the "college arms race" to build plush new dorms and elaborate athletic facilities. Another way Berea keeps costs down: professors here often teach more students per year than their colleagues do at more elite schools. Unlike more conventional colleges, a successful career at Berea is less about publishing books and scholarly articles than performance in the classroom.

Robert Hoag: Our primary mission here is teaching. And that's what we're supposed to do. And that is the absolute necessary qualification for tenure and promotion.

That means humanities faculty like philosophy professor Robert Hoag spend more of their time teaching lower-level, general education classes and less time running higher-level, more esoteric courses.

Hoag: I think most faculty are motivated by this mission that they see, um, real value in offering this education to students who otherwise don't have these kinds of opportunities. Much more rewarding than offering this kind of education to students who have all kinds of privilege.

To pinch pennies and improve teaching, Berea also recently overhauled its academic structure - reducing 27 small academic departments to six broad divisions. That cuts duplication in administration and overhead. President Larry Shinn says it also means that faculty members collaborate more in shaping and teaching the curriculum. This kind of inter-disciplinary work - breaking down academic silos - is a hot discussion in higher education.

Shinn: That seemed like such a radical thought and many faculty [laughing] thought it was very radical. I think it's a tepid notion of what's going to have to happen in higher education in restructuring the way we organize ourselves to teach students. But also the way we structure knowledge. And so the liberal arts colleges that are going to survive, uh, 30 years from now are not going to look like the ones we have now - except the very elite who can go ahead and do whatever they want to do given the resources they have.

[Sound of people calling to each other backstage]

Students from families who have struggled to survive economically often enter college with a kind of pragmatic and ground-level sensibility that more privileged kids may lack.

Squawk Box Voice: All right everybody it is 7:18. If you have not checked your props please do so now. Can I get an acknowledge?
Female Voice: Green room acknowledge.
Squawk Box Voice: Thank you green.

Backstage at the Berea College theater, the actors and crew are getting ready for an evening performance of the play "The Children's Hour." They're pulling on costumes and applying makeup and gathering in the green room to await the opening curtain.

Katie Newquist: I'm Katie Newquist, I'm a junior this year and I'm majoring in theater.
Traci Sisson: I'm Traci Sisson and I'm also a junior and I'm also majoring in theater.

Newquist and Sisson come from Kentucky and Tennessee, from families near the bottom of the economic strata. So it's natural to wonder what their parents make of the career prospects for a theater major. In fact, Newquist first majored in education.

Newquist: Well, I mean, I had a long talk with my dad actually when I switched majors. I was like, "Dad I don't know what I'm doing. I know that I love theater, but I feel like a safer job is in education." And he told me, he said, "You know, you do what you've got to do." You know, "Whatever make you happy, because that's - you're going to be happy. Money will come and go but happiness is something you gotta do."
Sisson: Yeah, I think Katie ands I are lucky ones because I know other people whose parents are not supportive of them majoring in theater. But my mom has always been supportive because she knows that um, you know, I'm not going to let myself starve. I'm going to make sure I have everything I need and be happy. But she is always really supportive. She'll be coming to see the show on Friday.
Stephen Smith: Do you think that if you can't make a living in the theater - God forbid - that, uh, having had the education you've had here will prepare you to do other kinds of work?
Newquist: Yeah, totally, um.... because a large part of what we do, like, focuses on working well with people and being to work well by yourself. And just, being very confident in yourself and your abilities. And that's stuff that's important no matter where you are or what you're doing. I... [trails off]
Sisson: Yeah, we've been taught here that there's a lot of corporate jobs and other sorts of, um, career paths that are actually looking for people like us who have had experience in the arts, especially in theater, because of how, how well we can work with one another, and communicate with one another, and put up with one another, too. Um, and I think, too, the liberal arts school, like, you know, you might have learned about something here - maybe just one class - but down the line, you might be qualified to do something else because you've learned that here at Berea.
Newquist: Right.
Squawk Box Voice: Everybody, we have about 8 minutes 'till the house opens. Eight minutes 'till the house opens. Yeah.
Smith: All right. Well, break a leg.
Newquist and Sisson: Thank you so much.

So even in a tough economy, with a job market smothered in gloom, there are still at least two young people majoring in the liberal arts - in theater no less - with the blessing of their parents.

[MUSIC: "Percussion Interlude" - Galactic - Coolin' Off - Volcano Entertainment III, LLC]

So who needs an English major? The question is really shorthand for "Who needs the liberal arts?" And who needs college at all? Let's take that last question first.

Brian Rosenberg: We're in an economy where employers are being, and will continue to be, very, very choosey.

This is Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg.

Rosenberg: So I do think that people who have a first-rate education, and a flexible education, will continue to have an advantage in getting those jobs. Right now the unemployment rate among people with a college degree is about 5 percent. The unemployment rate among people without a college degree is close to 15 percent. If you don't get a college degree you're at a major disadvantage.

Studies show that over a lifetime, college grads earn up to 80 percent more than people with just a high school education. But a recent Georgetown University study found that vocational undergraduate degrees such as engineering, business and health care pay better than liberal arts degrees - Especially right out of college. Berea President Larry Shinn still tells students that a liberal arts degree is better for the long run.

Shinn: Any job skill that you learn today will be obsolete in five years. Any job skill. Consequently, learning how to learn is incredibly important. And if you ask business people in the world right now - in fact there's been studies done by lots of national organizations - they're saying, "What skills you looking for in the new people you hire ?" People who can think well, can read difficult texts, can tackle complex problems and approach them from a variety of ways, and then articulate that. Be able to express and communicate what they learn. Those are the skills of a liberal arts education.

A liberal education is more than a good career investment, according to former Beloit College president Victor Ferrall. It's good for the country. Liberal arts programs produce a high percentage of leaders in business, government and society, he says. And he fears that as liberal arts programs contract, access will again be limited mostly to those with means, just as it was back in the early 20th century, when a former president of Princeton University occupied the White House.

Victor Ferrall: Here's what president Woodrow Wilson said about liberal education: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education. And we want another class of persons - a very much larger class of necessity in every society - to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific manual tasks. I think that's offensive. The great advantage of a liberal education - open to all people - is that it allows merit to rise to the top. And merit is what we need in this country.

[MUSIC: "Stax Jam" - Galactic - Coolin' Off - Volcano Entertainment]

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. The program was produced by me, Stephen Smith, and edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Emily Hanford, Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorsen, Frankie Barnhill, and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Chris Farrell, Sarah Buckingham, John Biewen and Kohnstamm Communications. To learn more about the future of higher education in this country, go to our web site, Americanradioworks.org. You can look for our series, called Tomorrow's College. While you're there you can also sign up for our weekly education podcast, and you can tell us what you think of this program. That's americanradioworks.org. Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education was supported by The Spencer Foundation and Lumina Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.

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