Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 25, 2014

bleg: on defending liberal education

Every defense of liberal education in general, and the humanities more specifically, that I can think of makes one or more of the following arguments:

  • studying the liberal arts makes you a better citizen
  • studying the liberal arts makes you more empathetic and compassionate
  • studying the liberal arts teaches you critical-thinking skills
  • studying the liberal arts makes you a capable communicator, in speech and writing
  • knowledge is good for its own sake

Have I missed anything? Are there any other common defenses that I'm overlooking?

15 comments:

  • I've occasionally run across the argument that a liberal education is meant to teach you what the good life is and equip you to live it. Googling "liberal education good life" turns up a number of different links which say this, both articles and college mission statements.

  • Studying the liberal arts brings you closer to God.


    Studying the liberal arts makes you better at complex, intuitive pattern recognition and analogical thinking across domains/subjects (skills critical for success in business and many other fields; note this is not the same thing as "critical thinking," which might well be developed by a liberal arts education but is also well developed by an engineering education).
    Studying the liberal arts is part of a well-rounded life and is specifically optimally done in young adulthood (as opposed to the acquisition of certain technical skills which are optimally done "on the job" id midd adulthood).

  • Better Christian; brings you deeper in touch with God and nature

  • You forgot "studying the liberal arts makes you more fun at parties".

  • Also: Makes you more fully human

  • It can be folded into some of these other arguments, but: they connect you with the past, with tradition, allow you to draw on those resources, to become part of a greater and continuing whole.

  • Interesting to think about the ways that some of these arguments can be lumped together. I don't like the formulation "makes you more fully human," but many of these can be grouped under the broad headings of better know what it means to be a human being, better know what it means to be a citizen, and gain practical life skills.

    And to extend the latter point, this might sound more cynical than I intend, but sometimes I see very utilitarian defenses of liberal education that simply have to do with employability. The statement "potential employers prefer job candidates with degrees in the liberal arts because such degrees prove that the candidates can think/write/what-have-you" is logically distinct from the claim that you will actually learn how to think/write/what-have-you. (Of course, it isn't just liberal education that is justified on the ground that the degree is a useful proxy of some skill set.)

  • Another thought, which aligns with the thinking in your previous post (about Baylor vs. "a university" in the abstract).

    I've always had a love/hate relationship with the idea that a liberal education makes you a better person. Because I kind of believe it, and kind of believe that scores of people I know who have no such education are no worse for it (and indeed are far better human beings than I).

    But thinking about this made me think also of theology as a discipline narrowly. Now, I'm a bit of a theology geek, and I read a lot of theology. I think that reading a lot of theology makes me a better Christian. Now, I know scores of Christians who are better Christians than I and who know almost no theology whatsoever. But I myself am an intellectually restless guy with a high IQ who reads a lot of books. I'm quite sure that if I didn't read a lot of theology that I would be prone to doubt - and not the intellectually respectable kind of doubt but the morally and spiritually lazy and self-absorbed kind of doubt. Reading theology makes ME a better Christian (I think) but it doesn't make "a person" a better Christian.

    Similarly, a liberal education makes some people better people. But we should be careful not to generalize. A liberal education, like every other pursuit that could occupy a sizable chunk of one's time on Earth, cannot be separated from the idea of vocation - that some are called to things in life without which they would not be fulfilled or fully mature as human beings. But my vocation ain't always yours, and vice versa..

  • This may be a refinement on knowledge for its own sake, but what about the idea of the liberal arts giving you a broader range of delight, or wonder, or as Nicholas Wolterstorff would say, the ability to lament.

  • For me, the only one that does not immediately open up a huge number of exceptions is

    ● studying the liberal arts makes life richer (though not particularly in the sense of financial wealth)

    I’m attracted to the idea that studying the liberal arts makes one more fully human, but as Stephen discusses above, that dismisses a whole lot of people who are quite fully human yet have no acquaintance with the liberal arts. Like him, I’m intellectually restless and read a lot, which makes me overstimulated and overeducated. We’re especially prone to abstraction and raising false idols.

    Having just read Joe Bageant’s redneck memoir (Rainbow Pie), I also recognize that many of the folks described therein are/were far more fully human than me by virtue of connection to place, extended family, and local tradition, which was eventually swept away by commoditization of everything (late-stage capitalism). Yet almost none of them had better than a grammar school education.

    There are a great many glories to be discovered in studying the liberal arts, but it/they are by no means a panacea, nor do they require defense. Those few whose minds are bent that way will seek them out naturally, just as others will (rightly) repudiate pointy-headed intellectuals who have ruined everyone’s lives through all manner of manipulation and coercion.

  • 'the kind of education fit for a free person, as opposed to a slave'

  • Some thoughts:
    1. Aside from "more fully human," one could also consider "more fully humane" as well.

    2. Agreed with commenters that "...teaches you what the good life is" is a significant point.

    3. Overlapping with "good citizen" and "good life" and "good Christian"--but nevertheless not completely encompassed by those--is the idea that the liberal arts teaches you what the virtuous life is. But in that case the virtuous life turns out the be the good life; the good life turns out to be the virtuous life... and so both fit.

    4. A different one that has struck me more powerfully lately: the liberal arts (particularly stories) equips you to wrestle through the varied and unpredictable experiences of life. That is to say, the liberal arts provides you a context that can help you orient the great and terrible events of your life.

    Victor Davis Hanson--whom I've liked less and less each year of Obama's presidency, since he seems to be sliding more and more into unvarnished punditry--gave an address at Hillsdale College around 2008 to that effect (can't seem to find record of it). And, too, Daniel Mendelsohn's beautiful defense of the liberal arts in the New Yorker in the immediate aftermath of the Tamerlan Tsarnaev burial fiasco.

    In other words, the liberal arts may not make the tragedies (or triumphs, I suppose) of your life more explicable or intelligible or even particularly easier, but they at least provide some grounding upon which you can wrestle through them...

  • A very belated thanks for the responses here — which I hope to pick up on and respond to at some point soon. But right now I'm busy busy busy.

  • for some (many?), studying the liberal arts means one will need to hustle to put a life together after college. rather than falling into a pre-defined slot. for the liberal arts person, the hustle starts immediately. for the non-liberal arts person who prepares him/herself for a career, that career is likely to hit a wall or become irrelevant, etc., at some point. it's harder to learn the hustle later in life.

  • I tried to post this earlier in the week, but for some reason it didn't come through.

    I have recently been reading George Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle', and he seems to argue that one cannot actually defend the humanities--at least, not any more. They remain valuable, but the beliefs of the culture they were central to can no longer be held. I can't say that's a common approach, but I wonder what influence it has had.

    Are you interested exclusively in defenses of the humanities and liberal arts? Because the one place I think the arguments for the liberal arts are still stated with a swagger are the brochures of the top liberal arts colleges. The argument runs more along the lines that studying at such a college makes a talented son or daughter into a pluripotent student, capable of going in any direction they are passionate about while making a living to boot. It allows for a more personal and humane success, I suppose. The colleges do not necessarily associate this with the humanities per se, but the rhetoric available to the name 'liberal arts' in that context might make for an interesting counterpoint to the arguments you cite above.

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