The Practicality of the Liberal Arts, part 2

[This essay was originally published on my Blogger site on 2 March 2010. This is the last content post from the old blog; I plan to begin posting fresh content here next week.]

At the end of my last post, I raised two questions concerning the value of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. Here I’ll begin to address the first of those questions: Are the liberal arts practical?

This question is a bit tricky for a couple of reasons. First, when most people talk in terms of practicality, they mean something that is A) intended for a specific end, and B) as efficient as possible in the pursuit of that end. Moreover, the end is nearly always something that is tangible and easily measured. Thus the practical method for producing 10,000 pairs of shoes is by using modern factory equipment rather than by hand. The practical way to travel 1,000 miles is by airplane rather than on foot. So far, so good.

But what if your end is to achieve happiness or to find inner peace? Does it make sense to speak of practicality in pursuit of these goals? Perhaps, but I think most people would agree that the terms of the discussion will change dramatically once we are speaking of intangible ends that cannot be quantified. (Yes, I know that some disciplines, such as neoclassical economics, try to quantify these things, but the honest practitioners admit that their constructs are flawed at best.)

Another reason this question is tricky is that some people are unclear or even dishonest about the end of their education. When, in response to the question “Why are you in college?”, a student replies, “To get an education,” what does he mean? He could mean that he wants to become a more mature and well rounded person (Socrates’s “shaping of the soul”). He could mean that he wants whatever skills will land him a high-paying job. He could mean that he is there to play football, or to find a girlfriend, or to go to lots of parties. If we want to talk about the practicality of the liberal arts curriculum, we must be very clear about what exactly we think the end of education is.

My limited personal experience and reading in this area leads me to conclude that most college students don’t want their souls to be shaped. They see college either as a financial investment that will pay future dividends or as an opportunity to run wild for a semester or two before they flunk out. I confess that if these are the goals of “education,” then the practicality of the liberal arts is much harder to demonstrate. The greatest strength of the liberal arts from this perspective is that they inculcate skills of reading, writing, speaking, and thinking that are beneficial in nearly all career paths. The lack of these skills among today’s university graduates, as evidenced by numerous employer surveys published in recent years, is evidence for the continued necessity of the liberal arts.

Even so, a liberal arts education will not provide technical training (I’m using “technical” in the broad sense here) of the sort that prepares one to step immediately into a specialized profession (e.g., accounting, dietetics) with knowledge of all its associated tasks. Thus we hear complaints about the “uselessness” of the liberal arts. Parents of college graduates are outraged when, after they have spent tens of thousands of dollars in tuition on a liberal arts degree, their children don’t seem to be prepared to enter the workforce. Show me the money!

Let’s concede for the moment, then, that in this particular sense the liberal arts are impractical. (I’m not forgetting my earlier argument about general strengths acquired from a liberal arts education, just putting it aside temporarily.) Does this mean that universities should abandon or downplay the liberal arts curriculum in an effort to “produce results”?

More to come . . .

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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