Please read this wonderful post by Tim Burke on what liberal-arts education can and can’t do — or rather, what we who love it can plausibly claim on its behalf and what we can’t. Excerpt:
No academic (I hope) would say that education is required to achieve wisdom. In fact, it is sometimes the opposite: knowing more about the world can be, in the short-term, an impediment to understanding it. I think all of us have known people who are terrifically wise, who understand other people or the universe or the social world beautifully without ever having studied anything in a formal setting. Some of the wise get that way through experiencing the world, others through deliberate self-guided inquiry.
What I would be prepared to claim is something close to something Wellmon says, that perhaps college might “might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and the larger society as well”.
But my “might” is a bit different. My might is literally a question of probabilities. A well-designed liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee wisdom (though I think it can guarantee greater concrete knowledge about subject matter and greater skills for expression and inquiry). But it could perhaps be designed so that it consistently improves the odds of a well-considered and well-lived life. Not in the years that the education is on-going, not in the year after graduation, but over the years that follow. Four years of a liberal arts undergraduate experience could be far more likely to produce not just a better quality of life in the economic sense but a better quality of being alive than four years spent doing anything else.
There are several important elements to Tim’s argument, the most important of which are:
(a) It does no good to answer simplistic denunciations of liberal-arts education with simplistic cheerleading. Just as there are no books the reading of which will automatically make you a better person — thus the G. C. Lichtenberg line Auden liked to quote: “A book is like a mirror; if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out” — so too there is no form of education that will automatically create better people. But some forms of education, as Tim says, may “improve the odds.” That’s the point at which we need to engage the argument.
(b) If we who practice and love the liberal arts want to defend them, we also have to be prepared to improve them, to practice them better — and this may well require of us a rethinking of how the liberal arts tradition related to disciplinarity. As always, Tim is refusing the easy answers here, which are two: first, that the disciplinary structures created in and for the modern university are adequate to liberal education; and second, that we should ditch the disciplines and be fully interdisciplinary. Both answers are naïve. (The problems with the latter, by the way, were precisely identified by Stanley Fish a long time ago.) The academic disciplines — like all limiting structures, including specific vocabularies, as Kenneth Burke pointed out in his still-incisive essay on “terministic screens” — simultaneously close off some options and enable others. We need more careful scrutiny of how our disciplinary procedures do their work on and in and with students.
I’m mainly channeling Tim here, but I would just add that another major element that we need to be thinking about here is desire: What are students drawn to, what do they love? To what extent can we as teachers shape those desires? My colleague Elizabeth Corey has recently published a lovely essay — alas, paywalled — on education as the awakening of desire; and while I wholeheartedly endorse her essay, I have also argued that there are limits to what we can do in that regard.
In any event, the role of desire in liberal education is a third vital topic for exploration, in addition to the two major points I have extracted from Tim’s post — which, let me remind you, you should read.