Why Liberal Arts Professors Should Learn To Love Quantitative Assessments Of Student Learning

Rick Scott wants to defund liberal arts education in Florida and throw everything into STEM. Erik Loomis objects, citing the fact that “the real issue for Scott and other conservatives is that the liberal arts might teach people to think for themselves” but he’s pessimistic that wholesale defunding of liberal arts can be stopped.

I think that if professors of the liberal arts fields want to fight back against these attacks, they may need to do something they find distasteful and learn to love efforts to quantify student learning. When Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tried to do this for their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, what they found is that humanities and liberal arts departments are unusually good at promoting learning among their students:

The humanities even have an edge over the much vaunted engineering majors. And this is the argument humanities professors want to be having. It may or may not be true that command of the engineering or business skill-set is more useful than command of the humanities school set. But the right question for politicians to be asking the teaching programs they fund isn’t what skill-set might it hypothetically be desirable for students to obtain, it’s which faculties are in fact using the resources at their disposal to teach kids effectively. On that score, humanities and social sciences are doing a great job and it’s business and education faculties who are falling down. The basic skills that undergraduate humanities and social science majors are supposed to learn — extracting information from complicated texts, clear persuasive writing, mild quantitative analysis — have widespread applications throughout life. And to a greater extent than you find in many other majors, the students are learning.