The Practicality of a Liberal Arts Education
“There is nothing so practical as a good theory,” said John Dewey, one of America’s most important philosophers. And I say there is nothing so practical as a sound liberal arts education. Academic leaders are sometimes challenged to defend the value of a liberal arts education in a world that seems more interested in promoting preparation for careers and professions. STEM subjects are important—but not to the exclusion of a broader liberal arts education.
The college curriculum today has expanded far beyond the traditional seven liberal arts, in part to answer every parent’s question: “So what can you do with your college degree?” Some parents and students focus too soon and too narrowly on specific job training and specialized occupational skills. Such a view can be myopic and, over time, quite impractical. In fact, a 2014 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities says at peak ages (55–60 years), those workers who majored in the humanities or social sciences earn annually about $2,000 more than those who majored in professional career-oriented subjects. Want to do well on the LSAT and in law school? Major in philosophy, history, or English.
What is a liberal arts education? Traditionally, this is a curriculum rich in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Robert Hersh, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, did a survey in 1996 that indicated that 44 percent of high school students were unfamiliar with the term, and both students and parents overwhelmingly believed the reason for going to college was to prepare for a prosperous career. Almost none saw liberal arts as the best preparation for such a career. If anything, this attitude is more prevalent over twenty years later. But if they want to be prosperous, students should take a closer look at the practical value of a liberal arts education.
The liberal arts are more than bodies of subject matter, such as history, philosophy, literature, mathematics, science, and psychology. They are more than vast quantities of information or technical skills. At their best in the college classroom, they constitute the living legacy of the great thinkers and doers in the world’s civilizations. In the classrooms of dynamic professors, the liberal arts connect learning to life. Mere note-taking will not do; there must be debate, discussion, and dialogue among students and faculty. Students must learn to defend and communicate their thoughts and beliefs in well-argued oral and written discourse. Every career is enriched by such an education—and smart business recruiters know it.
At the heart of the liberal arts is a view of how one learns. Everett Dean Martin, in a 1926 essay entitled “The Meaning of a Liberal Education,” summed it up this way: “One becomes an educated person by virtue of patient study, quiet meditation, intellectual courage, and a life devoted to the discovery and service of truth.” In our current era in which “fake news” has emerged as a serious issue for college students (and others), information literacy—developing critical thinking about digital source material—is yet another imperative that a liberal arts education can address. Measurable outcomes are important, but so is the dynamic process of learning itself. As the saying goes, education is more a journey than a destination.
Because that is yet another goal of liberal education: we should expect a liberal arts graduate on his or her journey to master a number of academic skills that are very practical indeed: study skills, speaking skills, thinking skills, and writing skills, to mention a few. Graduates should also have developed certain values, including civic duty, personal responsibility, respect for people and their traditions, and intellectual honesty. Are not such skills and values central to success in the world of work?
At Converse College, an institution that has always valued liberal learning and where I served as dean, provost, and senior vice president for 30 years, the Founder’s Ideal called for an education that would enable students “to see clearly, decide wisely, and act justly.” This is a concise summary of the ideal outcome of the liberal arts in action. With such qualities of mind and character, a person can claim to be liberally educated whether the student, to quote Martin again, “has been trained in philosophy or mechanics.”
As a more contemporary educator, Cornell University President Frank Rhodes, put it, “the liberal arts are useful in the most significant way of all, useful for the business of living.” One might ask: just how does a liberal education prepare men and women who are better people and better employees in the modern work force? Here is my view:
First, by grounding students in their own cultural heritage. Surely a contemporary citizen and employee is well served by a study of the past, of the great works of art and literature, of the philosophical explanations of great thinkers who sought answers to the eternal questions: what is good, true, and valuable? Our era is not the only one to encounter such questions as our students consider what is worth knowing and doing in both our present-day “groves of academe” and in a world outside that is fraught with moral dilemmas. Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle provided surprisingly insightful answers to such queries centuries ago.
Second, by broadening the worldview of each student. Students whose field of vision extends across countries and continents, in our shrinking world, will develop a rationale for decision-making, in life and in work, which will keep change in context. College students today may well find their post-college work now a matter of global import as the digital revolution makes communication across countries remarkably easy. As Thomas Friedman has said, the world is now “flat” with digital pathways that erase border security and make the world our neighborhood.
Third, by promoting intellectual inquiry, an active curiosity about the world, and a lifelong love of learning. A sound liberal arts education prepares students for the unpredictability of the future. Mere job training will not suffice as today’s college graduates can expect to be employed in six or more jobs in their lifetimes. Liberal learning teaches students how to ask the important questions, how to solve problems never anticipated before, and how to work with others for the common good. Such abilities will never be made obsolete by change. And these very abilities are exactly what business recruiters and professional graduate degree administrators say they are looking for in today’s college graduate.
What an education in the liberal arts does, ultimately, is prepare people for a vocation. An occupation reveals only what you do, what you are busy about. A vocation—a “calling”—bears the stamp of a person’s heart, mind, and soul. The liberal arts are avenues into this inner landscape for students we prepare for the world beyond the classroom. An undergraduate student needs to develop the knowledge and skills to earn a good living but, more importantly, to live a good life. In this respect, a liberal arts education is both the most personal and practical preparation for life and work we can offer today’s college student.
Thomas R. McDaniel, PhD, is professor of education emeritus and former dean and provost at Converse College; he is the author of School Law for South Carolina Educators.