LSU is not a trade school: Humanities dean writes powerful defense of liberal arts education

By Robert Mann

Dean Gaines Foster of LSU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences has published a powerful defense of liberal arts education in Wednesday’s Baton Rouge Advocate.

Dean Gaines Foster (LSU)

Dean Gaines Foster (LSU)

It’s a forceful rebuttal to those — like Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies in the legislature — who judge the value of the state’s other universities largely on whether degrees awarded lead immediately to real jobs.

In other words, let’s turn LSU into a trade school.

Foster writes:

Calls to reorganize the university to abolish programs “that don’t lead to real jobs” ignore another important reality: Such reorganization would eliminate one of the most fundamental purposes of a university. Colleges and universities don’t just prepare students for a job, they develop civic and community leaders and help to create better citizens. The humanities and social sciences play a central role in this essential function of a university. They help students appreciate and understand the nature of their own culture and society — what their society values, how it functions, how it can be improved. And they introduce students to other cultures and societies. In an increasingly global economy and often dangerous world, young Louisianans have never been more in need of an understanding of the rest of the world.

You can read Foster’s entire letter at this link.

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15 Responses to LSU is not a trade school: Humanities dean writes powerful defense of liberal arts education

  1. G. Rushing says:

    Louisiana desperately needs good trade school and technical schools that are inexpensive and accessible in every Parish. North Carolina had a wonderful system that offers the first 2 years of College, Technical and Vocational programs as well as Adult continuing education and GED programs in every Country and it is affordable. They tailor programs for the manufacturers and industries in the area as well. We need this but we also need to keep the integrity of our Universities. It isn’t always just about jobs and money. What happened to the ideal of educating the whole person? For someone who is supposed to be so smart, Bobby Jindal really seems thick headed about a lot of things. Is it a conservative ideal to do away with the arts? Should we live as a society of worker drones with no thought of enriching our loves with the Arts. Does he not understand that kids who are exposed to the Arts in school, music, drama, etc do better in their other studies? We have already stripped many of our High Schools of meaningful art and music programs. So our colleges are next?

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  2. ttnancy says:

    A liberal arts education teaches us to think. Could that perhaps be what’s behind the push here?

    Yes, please steal this. I wish to remain anonymous. How can I comment and do that?

    NANCY BROUSSARD noone.broussard@gmail.com 1-225-937-9970

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  3. Insider says:

    Did you read the part about “And [the Liberal Arts] introduce students to other cultures and societies. In an increasingly global economy and often dangerous world, young Louisianans have never been more in need of an understanding of the rest of the world”? How soon y’all have forgotten that this is the same dean who used the funding crisis to get rid of nearly all foreign language programs, from Italian and German to Swahili and Latin. First he fired the language instructors. Then he pushed to gut foreign language requirements from all degree programs. Now all of a sudden it’s all about globalization and internationalization?! Without knowing any language but English?! I smell a hidden agenda that mainly concerns rapidly falling enrollment counts in his college and the negative impact that will have on tuition income for him, but not for the colleges that are gaining a larger share of enrollment. I think it’s already an established fact that the governor has more than a few issues and that you can always get a slap on the back from many for pointing them out yet again. Now…how about taking a look in the mirror. If you wanted to preserve all you say at LSU, you should have started with preserving foreign languages.

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  4. All Buisness says:

    Foster certainly knows how to shoot from the hip–and hit his own foot. With one letter he insulted the majority of LSU students and faculty by strongly implying that only liberal arts majors learn how to think, speak, write, problem solve, become complete human beings and citizens, and appreciate other cultures and the global economy. The faculty and majors of the business school, for example, would be real interested to hear Foster’s laundry list of their failings. Actually, they probably don’t have time to pay attention to what is happening in Foster’s college because they are too busy participating in international programs from Brazil to China, solving intricate financial and marketing problems, and taking courses in ethics. If Foster would not have squandered his human resources and opportunities, such as his college’s long-standing strengths in foreign languages mentioned above, he would not have gotten into such a hole. Can the business majors who want to participate in the Brazil program take Portuguese in Foster’s college? No, because he shuttered the Portuguese program and fired the instructors. Same goes for faculty and students in Engineering, Agriculture, etc. Talk about a lack of wisdom….

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  5. Robert Mann says:

    In Foster’s defense, he wasn’t the one who decided to eliminate those language programs. Those decisions were made by the chancellor and provost and imposed upon the dean. He might have resigned in protest, but the programs would have been eliminated nonetheless.

    Second, he’s writing from his own perspective, but he never denigrates any other unit or program on campus and, in fact, is careful to write, “The humanities and social sciences play a central role in this essential function of a university.” He says “a central” role, not “the central role.”

    I don’t see anything in here that suggests that he believes his college better prepares students for life than other units, only a recognition that when critics of higher ed start looking at degree programs that are extraneous or not useful in the “real world,” more often than not they are in the social sciences.

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    • Insider says:

      I think the point is that a Dean should display wisdom, and it don’t take much of that to have foreseen that if you cut foreign languages you cut one of the things that makes the College of Humanities and Social Sciences useful to the curricula of other colleges and relevant to many students. OK, “I was just following orders etc.” Sleep well, then. But at least think about the consequences of having cut languages. It might have seemed expedient then, and no one expected the cuts to last this long or run this deep, holding out the hope of restoring the language programs even as they were cut before too much damage was done. That’s what I thought would happen, but I am not a Dean. I expect a Dean to be a lot wiser than me, wise enough to have foreseen the long-term consequences. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is at risk now because of declining enrollment, in part because of national trends toward a more vocational role for public universities but also in part because of such self-inflicted damage. One part of the solution is to restore the foreign language programs now.

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      • Kate Bratton says:

        There’s no evidence that the cuts to the language programs were due to Dean Foster’s handling of resources. Dean Foster was appointed as Interim Dean in July 2009, and the letters of non-appointment were sent out in January 2010. (In fact, if I recall correctly, 250 letters of non-appointment were sent out, to instructors across programs, but the vast majority of those letters were either rescinded or the tentative non-reappointment dates were extended. If anything, HSS fought to protect instructors.)

        It’s true the letters were signed by the Dean (since the appointments were in the Dean’s college, and all such letters come from the Dean). Nonetheless, it’s clear that it was a university-level issue. There was a lot of coverage of the debates, the protests, and the AAUP involvement–for example, see http://chronicle.com/article/AAUP-Protests-Louisiana-State/125227/.

        Moreover, the University did not cut all languages–Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic were left untouched in that round of cuts. In fact, HSS continues to require languages of its students. It is the only (or one of the only colleges) in the University to continue to require 4 semesters. I agree that there are long-term consequences to cutting the range of language programs available to students. However, I think many people were very vocal in expressing those concerns back in 2010. Budget cuts have long-term consequences, and the cuts that LSU has faced can’t be attributed to one administrator or another.

        And I’ve gone to a trade school, I’ve done undergraduate work in a relatively technical field, and I went on to receive a PhD in the social sciences. I didn’t find anything offensive in Dean Foster’s remarks. Different people need different opportunities and different resources, at different times, in order to go on to contribute to our great state.

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      • Insider says:

        To me this goes back to another of the posts on this blog, about LSU having lost its soul. Foreign languages are part of the soul of the Liberal Arts, and not just a select few languages, but a full suite. You can parse the details of who ordered those cuts and who was merely “following orders” all you like. But to have participated in any way in ripping out that part of the soul of the college and the university and then writing a letter to the Advocate about how the Liberal Arts are essential to a university education because they teach students about other cultures, globalization, and so on seems hypocritical. It makes it appear the letter is all about chasing money and nothing about a soul, a vision, standards, or principles related to the Liberal Arts. That appearance of soulless money grubbing also applies to the list of languages you point out that LSU still teaches. Arabic, for example, is considered a “strategic language” by the Department of Defense and therefore attracts DOD funding. Was that why it was preserved when other languages were cut? Nothing wrong with the DOD funding instruction in strategic languages, but its list of strategic languages changes over time and has no relation to a vision of the Liberal Arts. But let’s allow all that water to pass under the bridge, accept that things were pretty desperate when the cuts began a few years ago, and allow people to have made mistakes. Let’s focus on the present and future. Now that the budget seems to be easing, with enough funding for a 4 percent raise after all, let’s join together to ask the LSU administration to recommit to the vision of the Liberal Arts by refunding instruction in a full suite of foreign languages, including African ones. What an embarrassment that a state with such a rich African heritage has no instruction even in Swahili, let alone some of the other key languages of sub-Saharan Africa, at the main public university.

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  6. earthmother says:

    Keep ’em stupid and uneducated to keep ’em down. Now the conservatives/republicans are not even making an attempt to mask their agenda – kill the universities while at the same time beefing up the vo-tech schools. Louisiana is now living up its mocking sobriquet as a banana republic.

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    • GreaseMonkeyPhD says:

      As someone who worked for years in the trades and later went to university to earn a doctorate, I resemble that remark. And so do many others who went to vocational schools and get their hands dirty for a living fixing your car or A/C. You will find the same proportion of smart and knowledgeable, albeit about different types of things, people at vo-tech schools as at LSU, whether you are looking at the students or the instructors. The big difference is the extremely different socioeconomic backgrounds and role models of those who chose university versus vo-tech. I can dig where you’re coming from, Earthmama, but calling people with a vocational school education “stupid and uneducated” is not very thoughtful. You trust ’em to fix the brakes on your car don’t you? And they don’t even call you an elitist or egghead when they come to the waiting room to tell you your car is ready and find you reading Kafka on your Kindle.

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  7. earthmother says:

    @GreaseMonkey – I’m smiling here…you misunderstand, and rightfully. I have a 4 yr liberal arts degree from LSU (and a profession) BUT I come from a family dedicated to creating opportunities for kids to pursue vocational education, and I have the greatest respect for those who choose a trade. (Think Delgado College.) You are so right, we cannot live without auto mechanics and HVAC techs, etc.. In the clinches, that history major may not be so vital to the good of the community unless s/he can also fix the plumbing or do carpentry (like some of my family members).

    No, my criticism is for the Jindalistas who are doing their best to destroy education from pre-K and K-12 to higher ed, with the notable exception, this year only, of support of the technical colleges. I assume they feel that anyone who wants a liberal arts degree is wealthy enough to go out of state, while our people who remain here should become no more than members of the servant class to serve the wealthy elite. Hey, what’s a little feudalism among friends? You said, “The big difference is the extremely different socioeconomic backgrounds and role models of those who chose university versus vo-tech.” Truer words were never spoken (written), and therein is the key to the Jindalista plan. We agree completely.

    Sadly, the brightest of our young people leave Louisiana to escape the mess our state has become, My two adult children, one with a masters degree and one who has but a year of college, both live out of state. No matter what level of education is attained, and no matter how many made-up jobs stats the Jindal crowd claim, they have created precious few well-paying jobs (at least for Louisiana people; out of state contractors are thriving) and our young people must leave to survive.

    Post-secondary education is the key to prosperity and it makes no difference to me whether that education is pragmatic or ivory-tower. Both are vital to a vibrant society. When one is eliminated, balance is lost and we become…a Third World country (with which, BTW, I am very familiar…visiting annually to assist the disadvantaged who live to serve the elite.)

    Bless you, GreaseMonkey Ph.D. You are the embodiment of my parent’s life’s work.

    PS A dear friend from college earned bachelor’s, masters and Ph.D in record speed. Then got his/her dream job – in the blue-collar trades. S/he just wanted the education. I have the greatest regard for this person,

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