Making the case not for private choice, but public necessity.
Ancient Greece considered the liberal arts to be necessary for a free person to participate in democracy and civic life. But in the Greeks’ day, there was only one place in the world with democracy. And even there, only a small percentage of the population was able to participate. Today, 123 nations have participatory democracy, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population. If Aristotle were alive today, he’d likely imagine that to make that work, we must have developed massive global education systems for liberal education.
That’s why it’s been so frustrating to watch the evolution of a largely unsophisticated debate about the value of liberal arts education that’s pitted engineering fields against philosophy, literature, history and music—as though liberal studies and practical studies are somehow enemies, as though a world could possibly be in balance with one and not the other.
The attack on the liberal arts is ridiculous in its simplicity. It mocks the disconnect between what’s studied and what’s needed in the job market, ignoring the fact that liberal education is intentionally non-vocational and that vocational study is intentionally non-liberal. And for some reason, those who rush to defend the liberal arts have chosen to set up their defense on that point rather than concede it, acknowledging a critical role for practical studies, and then forcefully casting their own arguments for a critical role for liberal studies.
In choosing to defend the liberal arts on its contribution to employability, the defenders are playing weakness to strength rather than strength to weakness—Sun Tzu wouldn’t be impressed. Claiming that liberal arts is better at producing critical thinking, curiosity, or learning how to learn doesn’t give fair credit to practical studies like business, communication, engineering, and architecture. That claim is rather a case for the benefits of study in general, not liberal study in particular.
The liberal arts need a higher-minded defense that focuses on what makes it different from the practical sciences— and that defense must be centered on what’s differentially valuable about the liberal arts, to whit:
Liberal arts education is unique in its ability to develop independence of thought, to nurture wisdom, and to build both a deep empathy for others and broad context for decision making in uncertain situations.
These are the strengths that should form the bedrock of the case for liberal arts. But those are all public goods. And we’ve set up a system in which people pay private dollars (tuition) to create public goods.
Should an individual student choose a liberal arts education? Well that depends…
(Next page: Liberal arts as a public necessity)