What Is a Liberal Arts Education For?

Liberal arts education has suffered from increasing neglect for a very long time — for at least 40 years, possibly longer. While it continues to exist in a few private liberal arts colleges, obviously, it long ago ceased to be the prevailing philosophy of education either in higher education generally in the U.S. or in society at large. Its influence, i.e., its capacity to affect the national conversation, has waned. The neglect, whether in the form of defunded programs, the poor opportunities for liberal arts graduates who are routinely warned away from certain majors, or the general disdain in contemporary culture for the “products of the intellect,” has helped hollow out philosophy as well as other disciplines associated with the liberal arts (often conflated with humanities).

Some of the harm just within the humanities has been self-inflected, as we’ve seen in previous posts. Be this as it may, it is easy to see that in many respects, liberal arts education in the larger sense has lost its way because, having been overwhelmed by the seemingly more “successful” STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) it has lost its identity. What is it that liberal arts actually contribute to civilization? This is a fair question, and I doubt that many faculty members in these disciplines could give it a clear answer. It’s possible that if you asked ten professors in the humanities today what their disciplines actually contribute to society, you would get ten different answers assuming they didn’t dismiss the question out of hand as the product of philistinism. The question is worth revisiting, because it can be answered. Fortunately we don’t have to begin from scratch. Authors as well-known as Fareed Zakaria have defended liberal arts education (Zakaria’s most recent book is entitled In Defense of a Liberal Education) and decried education reduced to technical training, calling this emphasis “dangerous in today’s world.”

First, what exactly is a liberal arts education? We can start by analyzing the language. What does the liberal in liberal arts mean? It does not mean liberal as in liberal versus conservative. There is no such thing as a “conservative arts education.” Hopefully no one was tempted by anything so simple-minded. The liberal in liberal arts is derived from the Latin verb liberare, meaning to free. The classical sense of liberal honors this derivation and was in vogue in the 1800s but is mostly defunct today. Arts should likewise not be confused with art in the sense of drawing and painting, or the fine arts, or the performing arts, all of which are recent developments. This word, too, has a Latin root: ars, a generic word meaning skill. Words like artisan and artifact have the same root. Valerie Strauss, drawing on Gerald Greenberg’s material, does a good job of sorting all this out here. What, then, do the liberal arts do? With a nod to Morpheus, in The Matrix, they are intended to develop the mental skills to free your mind. They indeed open a door; the student, must choose to walk through it. What, then, is behind that door? What frees your mind? And from what?

If one goes back far enough in time, a liberal arts education involved a progression through seven distinct domains. The first three were known as the triviumgrammar, logic, and rhetoric, as Aristotle used those terms. The second four were called the quadriviumarithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Mastery of these was prerequisite for the serious study of philosophy and theology (fancy that!). The liberal arts were contrasted with the mechanical arts, which included agriculture, masonry, cooking, weaving, trade, weapons training, and so on. Some people were more suited for the former; others, for one or more of the latter. This is still true today, obviously.

A liberal arts education thus involves an integrated curriculum — a structured set of courses in writing, humanities (history, philosophy, literature, foreign languages), social inquiry (political economy — prior to the modern artificial division of the two into “economics” and “political science” — sociology, anthropology, etc.), mathematics from basic arithmetic at least through algebra and geometry, essential sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). It is important that content mastered in one domain not contradict content presented in other domains. A liberal arts education should have the intent of bringing about a certain turn of mind: able to think critically and judge independently; respectful of learning, truth, and morality; mindful of the differences that exist between people and how societies have changed through time; willing to ask the questions that need asking; capable of making decisions and understanding their consequences both short and long term. When some of us speak of liberal arts as central to what we call real education, this is what we are talking about. It should be clear how a liberal arts education enables students to examine the ideas they encounter, whether from politicians, employers (would-be or actual), journalists, etc., critically. Are their ideas logical? Do they fit one’s own experience? What do others with different experiences have to say? Does history suggest that a given idea has been tried before and found wanting? And so on.

So individual persons can free their minds from untested dogmas and slogans of various sorts through a liberal arts education. This will clearly cause problems for that minority in power which does not want its policies examined in detail and questioned, and we are not far from an explanation of the dwindling support for the liberal arts in our centralized society. Can liberal arts education free not just our minds but our society? This is a much more difficult question. For a society to remain free for longer than a generation, it is necessary that a critical mass of any population have this turn of mind and be able to transfer it to a critical mass of their children.

By a critical mass I mean a group sufficiently large and articulate to move the larger body and gain respectful notice from that minority in power. An educated critical mass will be able to draw on history for examples of what happens when the problems posed by power are neglected, and it will be able to communicate its concerns to a large enough audience to have a larger conversation: those in power may actually fear being deposed from their comfortable offices, possibly by those working within the rules. The members of this critical mass will be independent minded in more than thought. They will be able to take care of themselves by having achieved as much economic independence as is possible, as opposed to dependence on employment by others. They will have some understanding of what it takes to make a free society work, achieving whatever balances are possible and necessary, at least for a time, between personal aspirations and community needs. Determining the size of this critical mass would be a worthy pursuit, as well as limits on the size of the community. We are not referring to the majority of the overall population in either case, obviously. The majority never assumes leadership responsibility, for it is typically incapable mentally of doing so. Those in the majority can generally direct their own lives competently if trained in one of the mechanical arts, but the larger systems that circumscribe their lives must be put and kept in place for them. Only a benign critical mass can see to it that abuses of these are kept to a minimum.

We’ve sketched a kind of ideal here, and that can have hazards of its own. What can we do in the real world we are stuck in? Liberal arts education today can teach students writing and critical thinking skills steeped in close reading of important texts ranging from ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle to influential modern thinkers from Bertrand Russell to Thomas S. Kuhn, examining patterns of reasoning, identifying assumptions both stated and unstated, and then writing down one’s own responses and questions clearly to size up their accomplishments and the reasons why, as thinkers, they are worth knowing about. Liberal arts education would teach how fallacious reasoning works, and how rhetoric can be used to play on people’s emotions and lead them by their noses. In other words, it would do many of the same things as its ancestor, with an eye to creating that critical mass. If successful, it would teach appreciation for the ideas of others on their own terms, and not merely seen through the lenses of one’s own assumptions. It wouldn’t shy away from the difficult problems of how both physical nature and the human worlds work: what physical and biological laws govern the natural order — both because some of us want to know these things out of sheer intellectual curiosity, and because the knowledge of specifics might impact on situations or prove useful in ways we have not yet envisioned. For this last reason, pure intellectual curiosity should be encouraged, not belittled. We need to know as best we can, finally, what motivates different groups of human beings. What do they want, and what do they need? This includes peoples living on other parts of the planet. What would make their lives better? How can we work together to solve difficult problems?

Ideally, then, an educational system focused on liberal arts education should enable as many people as possible to be productive, contributing members of society who simultaneously have a sense of community and hence of others, while simultaneously accepting responsibility in an environment where we often will not agree on what to do. Those with a real education in this sense will understand such concepts as moderation in all things, an idea also going back to Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean; they will not confuse liberty with license; they will be very cautious with points of view held as absolute. They will be see when a certain policy is not working, or has brought about injustices, and be able to make principled, mid-course corrections that themselves can be checked so as to not lead to abuses and excesses.

Where, in this case, does STEM education fit in? Obviously it is meeting genuine needs, and should not be belittled as philistinism. STEM education is a clear descendent of the mechanical arts mentioned above for an advanced civilization, and can be developed once a liberal arts core (grammar, logic, mathematics, etc.) has been satisfied. The problem today is that STEM education has been ripped free of its educational moorings, these (with the exception of mathematics) dismissed as unnecessary. Education then becomes education for jobs. This is clearly not enough, one reason being a free and humane civilization’s need for that critical mass. Fareed Zakaria identified an important and very down-to-Earth reason why serious education cannot be mere job training. Technology is changing sufficiently rapidly that by the time a student finishes four years of university education, the job he had in mind four years before may be obsolete. He/she will not have the qualifications for what is available. It would be far better to educate students to think, analyze, plan, strategize, evaluate, etc. — all traits a liberal arts education equips a person to do — rather than train him for specific employment. A workplace in turmoil needs such people, as they can think clearly, recognize problems quickly, and work to solve them effectively. Is this not more likely to benefit employers?

Liberal arts educated people will not, of course, be satisfied with many of the employment options available today. They will not want to be temps, for example, as they will know when resources for full time work with decent pay are available (example: large universities). A solution some will suggest is to work for oneself. That is only a solution for those with something immediate to sell, and will prove to be an exercise in frustration and futility otherwise, for they will know this is not the best use of their skills. They will know, moreover, that many of those traits necessary to address some of our worst long-term problems have been ratcheted down within authority structures. These have to do with the consolidation of wealth and power in a few key organizations (mostly leviathan corporations) and extended families, the idea that central banks can control economies by controlling the money supply without causing long term economic dislocations, the relationship between extractive capitalism and the larger environment, and so on. Educated people will understand that the marketplace has a very important place in a free community but cannot solve every problem. Allow it to solve the problems it is equipped to solve, such as the production and distribution of foodstuffs and other basic items, but recognize its limits, as (for example) with people who lose the ability to participate, or with externalities such as the impact of pollution on surrounding ecosystems.

What, then, is a liberal arts education for? It is for those who wish to have free minds and live free lives, in free communities where freedom includes not just self but incorporates a sense of responsibility for oneself, those around oneself, and the world at large. Today, of course, this is increasingly difficult. A vast array of forces — economic, political, cultural, and so on — is working against this kind of education. Here is where the prevailing philosophy of education emphasizing technical training, or training for business skills, goes off course. Employers want skilled workers, but are baffled when university graduates cannot read and understand simple instructions. People generally want to be able to send representatives to Washington (or their state capitols) who represent their interests, and are frustrated when those considered “electable” continue to represent the interests of the rich. The culture seems deviant and out of control, manifesting a clash of worldviews one cannot understand without knowing the relevant history and philosophy (to oversimplify, as the matter deserves a separate lengthy post: Christianity versus secular materialism). What we need is a national conversation on how liberal arts education can be tailored to address these and other issues tearing at the foundations of our civilization.

Having defended liberal arts education, I definitely believe there are certain courses and majors now associated with it that students ought to avoid like the plague. They should stay away from women’s studies or gender studies as it is now sometimes called, and anything focusing on a single minority group. Why? Because nearly all are exercises in collective grievance, a sort of pseudo-liberal educational affirmative action. Sadly, today’s students need to look closely even at traditional subjects like comparative literature and foreign languages. They should find out who the faculty member is, and if that person has a reputation for using his/her podium as a launching pad for political activism. For example, if a professor considers Thomas Jefferson’s having owned slaves more important than his having authored the Declaration of Independence, then to get a real education, steer clear! Sadly, this is probably truer in “private” liberal arts colleges than it is in “public” universities.

A liberal arts education should free one’s mind from untested dogma and unquestioned authority. It should prepare a person to be part of that critical mass that places or maintains checks on power. Pursuing such an education all the way to an advanced degree is not for everyone, surely; but neither is it the mere indulgence of a self-proclaimed and somewhat narcissistic intellectual elite. It is a condition for prolonged freedom in any sense of the term conjoined with necessary community and worldly responsibility in any sense of those terms. Such a critical mass exists nowhere today, and has not existed for a long time. There is hope, however, within the unrest currently existing in the world. In the U.S., some of this unrest is found in Tea Party conservatism which does not, in my opinion, deserve the ridicule it often receives; also in what is left of the Occupy movement. Both are conscious of control by power elites with unearned privileges who control most of the world’s wealth and resources. Opposition is forming, so far not unified. Ranging from the rising tides of protest against the adjunctification universe in American neoliberal universities, joining with the rising unrest against the enormous and growing gulf between the power elites and the majority that must answer to its dictates or risk war and starvation, there exists hope that in the near future, such a critical mass might be built.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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