Gerry Greenberg is an easy-going guy, but, if you want to get him started, challenge him on the value of a liberal arts education.
The Washington Post recently found this out when it ran an excerpt from the aptly titled “In Defense of a Liberal Education” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), by columnist Fareed Zakaria. Everyone—including Greenberg, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences—took sides on the issue. That Zakaria quoted a high-ranking public official as saying a “liberal education is irrelevant and that technical training is the new path forward” was, for Greenberg, like pouring salt in an open wound.
“Most people don’t even know what a liberal education is,” says Greenberg, also an associate professor of Russian and linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics. “The person quoted showed a blatant disregard for the value of the liberal arts. I agree [with Zakaria] that a misreading of the facts has huge consequences for higher education.”
Greenberg responded with a taut, 800-word essay, expounding on the meanings of phrases such as “liberal arts,” a “liberal education” and “arts and sciences”—which, as they turn out, mean different things to different people.
In this context, “liberal” means “free,” as in “free-thinking”; it is not the opposite of “conservative.” So when academics talk about a “liberal arts education,” they are referring to modes, methods and emphases that teach students to become productive members of a free society.
Greenberg says that, at Syracuse, these experiences encompass the natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities.
“The concept dates back to the Middle Ages, when free citizens studied the ‘trivium’ [grammar, rhetoric, and logic] and the ‘quadrivium’ [music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy] to get ahead,” says Greenberg, who joined the Syracuse faculty in 1985. “Today, the liberal arts still do this. They teach students the value of critical thinking, clear communication, complex problem-solving and understanding the world around them.”
Greenberg’s essay struck a chord with Valerie Strauss, an education reporter for The Washington Post, who featured it in her blog, the “Answer Sheet.” The post immediately went viral. (The same thing happened a few months earlier, when she posted his essay “The Tao of the Liberal Arts.”) Strauss has been deft in her timing of both articles, as Americans prepare to elect a president who will decide the fate of academic funding and policies.
Probably no one is more elated by all the attention Greenberg is getting than his colleagues at the Council of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS). This fall, he cycles off the CCAS board after a productive, five-year run.
Based at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., CCAS provides professional-development programming to its member deans, in hopes of sustaining the arts and sciences as a leading influence in higher education.
No surprise that Greenberg is required reading for CCAS officers and board members.
“I was able to learn much from Gerry about the true commitment to the centrality of general education in an undergraduate education,” says Anne-Marie McCartan, who served as CCAS executive director during much of Greenberg’s time on the board. “All [of us] looked to him to articulate and champion the value of a liberal education in today’s professionally focused world.”
McCartan reiterates her point with another Greenberg article, “A Prophecy for the Liberal Arts at Private Institutions in 2022,” which he co-authored a few years ago with Steve Peters, dean of the College of Business, Arts, Sciences and Education at Friends University in Wichita, Kan.
The article finds that, as university resources shrink and tuition climbs, the value-proposition of the liberal arts has no choice but to be re-imagined. “Technology and societal demographics are transforming our campuses,” Greenberg says. “Students are shopping for portability, the best price and convenience. We, as professors and administrators, must demonstrate the relevancy of the liberal arts in a market economy.”