Publication Date

April 2015


Mary Ann Clawson, Jonathan Cutler




English (United States)


Within the field of learning, there is an age-old tension between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘practical’. The liberal arts were created as an embodiment of this theoretical learning; “learning for learning’s sake.” They were meant as an alternative to schooling dedicated to more practical and direct learning. Today, this ‘practical’ school would bring to mind larger institutions with specific programs such as nursing, nutrition, graphic design, business, and many others that directly feed into careers. As our social and economic values have shifted as a nation, bringing us into a neoliberal period, liberal arts institutions have been losing their popularity. Neoliberalism uses a free-market mentality that has pervaded the social realm, infiltrating the subconscious of the American (and global) psyche and causing a weighing of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ as lens through which we see life. Therefore, this practical university has become much more popular, and liberal arts schools must argue that they posses their own practicality. In arguing so, they must demonstrate that they are able to teach learning for learning’s sake while also adding practical value, and this attempt to incorporate two long-contradicting models causes internal tensions. In order to maintain its theoretical ideology, liberal arts often maintains an ‘anti-capital’ stance, and yet, it must work within a system that values capital. Furthermore, in order to argue their utility and practicality, liberal arts schools such as Wesleyan University use societal improvement and community outreach as a practical outcome of their institutions. This community work adds a third moving piece of the equation that further complicates tensions. These original conflicts between the practical and theoretical can be seen in the different ideals of farm members at Wesleyan’s small student farm, “Long Lane Farm”. Different conflicts include how much of the farm should be used for experimental purposes and how much should be dedicated to quantifiable produce that can be sold or exchanged, how to mediate the farm’s non-hierarchical structure with the bureaucratic structures they are embedded within, and how to situate their multiple community involvements in relation to these conflicts.



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