Liberal Arts Education More Important Than Ever

This Op-ed ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, November 28, 1999.

During the week of November 15, nearly 300 colleges and universities from around the country carried out a special series of outreach activities aimed at middle and high school students as part of the first-ever "National College Week." Organized by the U.S. Department of Education and numerous organizations, National College Week sought to drive home the message that, with proper academic preparation and informed financial planning, Americans can achieve their dreams of a college education.

It is an important message: American students and their parents should know that college education is both attainable and affordable, in part through the wide-ranging loan and grant programs made available by national and state governments, private organizations, and by colleges and universities themselves.

This might also be a good time to ask a more fundamental question: is higher education good for America? In other words, are we educating young people as effectively as possible to meet our challenging future?

Certainly, study after study shows that those with college degrees enjoy, on average, a higher degree of financial success than many of their counterparts who have attained only a high school diploma. But the economic benefits should be only one reason, and not the most important, for a national effort to bring more students to college.

If we are to navigate skillfully the turbulent changes of the twenty-first century, we must educate students not only to process information effectively, but to think wisely and well. To my mind, nothing fosters that end better than a liberal arts education.

Now I know to some people liberal education -- the disinterested pursuit of knowledge as its own end without immediate application -- may seem like an outdated idea appropriate for an aristocratic elite of an earlier age, but not now useful for those of us who must work and deal with the day-to-day, ever-changing, modern world. On the contrary, I'm convinced that now more than ever a liberal arts education "works." Let me first defend its "nonutilitarian" nature.

I believe some vestiges of the ivory tower should coexist with the fast-track, high-tech world. We still need havens where the serenity of a contemplative mind can be fostered: where the joys of learning for learning's sake are appreciated; where students can ponder great books without regard for their vocational application. Liberal education at its best is, in fact, revolutionary. It transforms students; it awakens them to a fuller life of the mind; it causes them to question their goals and values; it makes them better companions to themselves. "The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door," says Emily Dickinson, and it is certainly true---as Lily Tomlin has added---that "we're all in this alone." But, it is also true that "we're all in this together," bounded each to each, through culture and history and through our shared use of this finite planet. Much can be learned about the continuities as well as the changes in human history by studying the liberal arts and sciences. It has been said, for example, that the forms of art reflect the history of humanity ever more truthfully than documents; and what pleasures they have to offer to the human spirit as well.

To be sure, majoring in art or ancient history, philosophy, dance or physics or any other number of liberal arts subjects might seem downright impractical. "What are you doing to do with it?" people will ask. But the good news -- and the "utilitarian" part of my argument -- is that a liberal arts education, although it often works in an indirect and ineffable way, turns out to be highly useful. It helps to develop the skills, the knowledge, the critical thinking, the quality of mind, the reflective habits, the ethical perspectives that are needed to live a productive and fulfilling life.

Moreover, liberal arts graduates often make better employees, study after study has shown. For example, AT&T studied the career spans of two generations of corporate managers and found that liberal arts graduates excelled over business and engineering majors in almost every category: in leadership, communication, analytical skills and career success. Why? Because, in part, their education prepared them for change. Liberal arts graduates are potentially better citizens because their understanding of the present is informed by a sense of the past, and it is true that "those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it."

Liberal arts education fosters what John Cardinal Newman called a philosophical habit of mind, a skepticism, a confidence in the powers of one's own mind, a self-reliance, which are useful in all sorts of practical and pragmatic ways, and these qualities inform the best kind of democratic citizenry.

In sum, the best way to prepare our young people for the inevitable and far-reaching changes that they will experience in their personal and civic lives is to encourage them to take up and to extend the incredibly rich legacy of human knowledge encapsulated in the liberal arts and sciences. I put my hope for the future in the paradoxically conservative and revolutionary nature of liberal arts education.