The Case for Liberal Arts
It’s too soon to write obituaries for the classic, residential, liberal arts college. Applications at my own alma mater, Reed College, are up. Ditto for Haverford, Williams, and all their ilk.
But why would anyone pay for an education that provides no concrete job skills?
The answer traces back to the first European universities. Those universities had no founders but formed spontaneously because scholars gravitated to places with books and students gravitated to places with scholars. The University of Paris, for example, grew out of the community of learners around Notre Dame cathedral.
Early on, this first university organized learning into four colleges. Every student had to first get through the College of Art. Those who did were titled “beginners” or, in Latin, “baccalaureates”—whence comes our modern-day Bachelor (of Arts).
At that gateway college, students studied seven “arts”: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In short, they learned how to think, write, speak, argue, and calculate. Only then were they allowed to pursue advanced studies at the College of Theology, Law, or Medicine.
Mere baccalaureates could get positions in the church or secular jobs as “clerks” and “notaries,” so the College of Art did have vocational implications, but only as a by-product. Its core purpose was to turn raw noodles into “well-educated persons.”
That mission remains.
The well-educated person
A liberal arts education proposes to give students a survey from up high of the whole landscape of human knowledge. Then, B.A. in hand, students can make their way to the grubby real-world corner that suits them best. They’ll make better choices, goes the thinking, once they’ve seen the context. And their work will better serve the common good if they know how it fits in with the human endeavor.
Ultimately, then, the driving ideal of a liberal arts education is to forge well-educated persons. This presumes that “well-educated” is a coherent quality, quite apart from “good at this” and “good at that.”
What this quality is and how it’s formed remains always in play. In America, however, until about 30 years ago, the liberal arts curriculum had a definite three-part form:
1. First, a core course that gave students a big picture of where civilization had been and where it was going.
2. Second, distribution requirements led students to take courses in disparate disciplines and thus experience different modes of thinking and the range of human thought.
3. Third, a major immersed students in deeper study of one field.
The last two planks remain intact, but student activists of my generation dented the first one. We charged that core humanities courses really boiled down to reverent study of books written by “dead white European males,” ignoring the contributions of women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and others; and besides, we said, students being so varied, why should we all have to squeeze through the same portal?
Many colleges dropped the core course idea. But a few (Reed, for example) never abandoned the ancient doctrines. And at least one college, St. Johns, aggressively clung to a curriculum built almost entirely around “great books” (of Western Civilization.)
Now, however, many colleges are painstakingly reconstituting core humanities courses, often with a global cast. As it turns out, “we’re-all-different” is not really an argument for abandoning a core course. It’s the strongest reason to have one!
Still, the question remains: what good does it do any individual to be “well-educated”? Is this not an elitist concept analogous to the aristocratic notion of “gentleman?”
I’ll quote an answer someone gave me recently. Alicia Neumann earned her B.A. from Occidental, a traditional liberal arts college in California. Years later, she went back to school and got a Master’s in Public Health. Now she works in her new field and doing well. But what makes her good at her job, she confided, is mostly stuff she learned at Occidental.
“Just the ability to give and get information clearly!” she declared. “So much of my job consists of writing—emails, reports, letters! Or attending meetings, giving presentations. The ability to get my point across is major. I look around at some of my colleagues who skipped the liberal arts and they’re fuzzier at communication. It’s an obstacle in their work. It makes them less efficient.
“Then, there’s the ability to synthesize. A lot of what I did in college was collect information from many sources, discern patterns, and put it together to make a new point. Back then I did it with literature, but the underlying skill is applicable to everything I do now.
“One of my friends is a lobbyist in Washington, and she’s just zooming up through that world. Why? Because she can write and think.”
This is what a liberal arts education is about, just as it was 900 years ago at the College of Art in Paris. And this is why places like Reed and Occidental keep flourishing: they open pathways to leadership and power in America, not just because of whom one meets at such places, but because of what one learns there.
Yes, a good liberal arts education tends to produce America’s elite, but that’s not a reason to mark it down. It’s a reason to keep it open to students from all walks of life.