The Need For A Liberal Arts Education. It's About Being Human

By Father John Walsh on May 2, 2015

Every once in a while someone delivers a commencement address to graduates that makes you sit up and notice.  A recent address by Fareed Zakaria, at Sarah Lawrence College, the quintessential liberal arts college, admitted that to speak about the liberal arts is not very cool. What you’re not supposed to do is get a liberal arts education … A liberal education - as best defined by Cardinal Newman in 1854—is a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge” for its own sake, rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or do a job. However, the President of Yale, the late Bart Giamatti, asked in one of his beautiful lectures, “what is the earthly use of a liberal education?”  Zakaria says it teaches you how to write.  

Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined.  Whatever you will do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill. And it is, in many ways, the central teaching of a liberal education.  The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak and speak your mind.  It also teaches you how to learn.  Most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure, a great adventure of exploration.

Steve Jobs said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.  It is technology married with liberal arts, married to the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”  At its essence, a liberal education is an education to free the mind from dogma, from controls, from constraints.  It is an exercise in freedom.  Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph does not mention that he was president of the United States.  It proudly notes that he founded the University of Virginia, another quintessential liberal arts college.   Ultimately, a liberal education is about being human. It is what makes us human: It is in our nature that “we are all drawn to the pursuit of knowledge.” 

So, as you go out into the world, don’t let anyone make you feel stupid or indulgent in having pursued your passion and studied the liberal arts. You are heirs to one of the greatest traditions in human history, one that has uncovered the clockwork of the stars, created works of unimaginable beauty, and organized societies of amazing productivity. In continuing this tradition you are strengthening the greatest experiment in social organization, democracy. And above all, you are feeding the most basic urge of the human spirit, to know.  

Jackson Lears in Commonweal, April 20, 2015, reviews Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz.   Deresiewicz confirms Zakaria’s positive attitude toward a liberal arts education.  He affirms that the merger of postmodern irony and positivist scientism has been underwritten by neoliberal capitalism - whose only standard of value is market utility.  He shows that there was a time when the big words of the humanities still carried weight. They sustained yearnings and aspirations; they sanctioned the notion that the four-year transition from adolescence to adulthood might be a time of exploration and experiment. One place to explore answers to that question was the liberal-arts curriculum.  Many students acted on the unarticulated assumption that reading, reflection, and introspection might provide the foundation of an independent self - skeptical of official pieties, capable of imagining more capacious ideas of patriotism and courage than the ones provided by the dominant culture - a self that could speak truth to power. 

Nowadays “speak truth to power” has to be placed in inverted commas, to distance us from its earnestness.  Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self.  Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood - a self- determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity - has come to seem archaic.  In many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.  We need a defense of the humanities that takes these cultural developments into account; that claims more for the liberal arts than the promotion of “critical thinking” and “people skills”; that insists, without slipping into platitude, on the importance of the humanities for their own sake.  

Deresiewicz presents a devastating critique of the idea that college education is simply about learning marketable skills and he makes a compelling case for the humanities.  He revives, in effect, the old words - the old quest for meaning, self, and soul. Students are having a very difficult time and the number of breakdowns is almost a point of pride, part of the price for high academic standards.  The easy equation of students with consumers confirms Deresiewicz’s conclusion that the schools finally don’t care about learning at all - or about teaching.  Teaching is not an engineering problem.  Educate’ means ‘lead forth.’  A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students.  A teacher awakens; a teacher inspires … Leadership lacks content and where content is absent, power pours in.  

Deresiewicz does not mince words: “An undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted. The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully… A self is a separate space, a private space,” Deresiewicz writes, “a space of strength, security, autonomy, creativity, play.”   Deresiewicz writes that the liberal arts curriculum remains “the best training you can give yourself in how to talk and think”—“to reflect...for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”   Arguing for the importance of the humanities is by no means a merely academic gesture.  The liberal-arts tradition has a radical edge; it is a prod to the moral imagination, a seed-bed of political possibilities. The first step toward challenging illegitimate power is the recognition that you can indeed take that step - that there are alternatives available to the future on offer.  

A liberal arts education offers the much needed component of critical thinking to question the assumptions of all institutions and require them to focus on the growth and development of the human narrative. 

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