Yet Another Assault on the Meaning of an Education

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tags: education, history, higher education, academia, liberal arts

David Barber is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin and is the author of A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed.


On Valentine’s Day the University of Tennessee at Martin offered students a little Valentine’s gift: a shortened path to a college degree and a law degree.  Known as the 3+3 Program, students majoring in Political Science or English can now opt for taking three years of undergraduate work, and, with an appropriate LSAT score, proceed directly to UT Knoxville’s Law School.  On completing three years of law school the student will then earn both hisor her BA or BS and Law Degree. Most attractive of all, the program covers tuition for the first year of law school, which can be very expensive, with the various scholarships and loans that would have covered the fourth year of undergraduate education.

I know that on the surface some of our students will find this program very appealing.  I know that as an undergraduate I would certainly have grabbed at such an opportunity.  Nevertheless, I want to suggest that this program is detrimental to our students, to our school, and to the very meaning of the word education.

My department, the Department of History and Philosophy, has begun to discuss whether we should offer this same option to our History and Philosophy majors.  I recently sent other faculty members in my department an email opposing our joining this program and asking that we, as a department, register our opposition to the program and appeal to English and Political Science to reconsider their participation in the program.  I said in my email that I was opposed to the program for three principal reasons.

“First and foremost, this program, which substitutes the first year of law school for the final year of a student’s undergraduate education, deprives our students of the strongest possible grounding we can give them in the liberal arts and humanities.  Our students will miss not only two semesters of what our department offers them – four upper division history or philosophy classes – but likely will miss two or three upper division classes in other branches of the liberal arts as well: English, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, to name a few subject areas.  Substituting for six or seven upper division classes, then, classes which ground our students in an understanding of their society, and of how our society shapes all of us, students will take first year law classes:

“Semester 1: Civil Procedure I, Contracts I, Criminal Law, Legal Process I, Torts I
“Semester 2: Civil Procedure II, Contracts II, Legal Process II, Property, Torts II

“… I hope that we can agree that these law school classes do not in any serious way allow students to better shape the values that will guide their lives, the very purpose of an education and the clear function of humanities classes.”

Let me emphasize this point here: the purpose of education is to help students understand themselves; help them understand their relation to the society and the universe in which they live; and help them choose the values and the principles by which they will live their lives.  We live today in tremendously dangerous times, times of the most rapid, frightening changes, times that demand that we understand what is going on around us – lest we be caught unaware and intellectually unarmed in the face of ongoing and potentially catastrophic wars and economic depressions.  Only a liberal arts education – a grounding in history and literature and psychology, to name some key areas of that education – allows us to understand something about the society in which we live, and something about ourselves, something that will allow us to act intelligently in the face of these contemporary events.  Absent this education, we are simply tools in the hands of the powerful, servants to be stampeded in this direction or that.

My email continued:  “Second, while I certainly believe that a university education should challenge all students, and ground them in a sense of their own humanity, those students who take up the law need even more grounding in the liberal arts than students pursuing other areas of study – if for no other reason than that lawyers, far more than other occupations, deal with power, and power demands an education in ethics and in the humanities.”

 “Finally, this 3+3 proposal is part of a larger trend in higher education, a trend that devalues the liberal arts and pushes students through career tracks as quickly as possible.  We do ourselves no favors by yielding to this trend. On the contrary, we set the precedent of practically declaring that our disciplines, and the humanities in general, are merely stepping stones to careers, rather than being essential components of responsible citizenship and the leading of meaningful lives.”

I know that a growing body of students on this campus hunger for a real education.  But real education, that education which allows us to discover ourselves, who we are, and where our potentialities and passions lie, that education can only be achieved if we demand it.  A small group of concerned students and faculty are building a “Campaign for the Humanities.”  Please contact me if you’d be interested in joining us at dbarber@utm.edu.

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