A Liberal Arts Manifesto

This sentimental article, In Defense of the Liberal Arts, caught my eye.  I am currently finishing a philosophy degree in my university’s Arts Faculty, but I consider myself to be a scientific thinker and have become increasingly skeptical about the methods and subject matter of the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, Jon Meacham’s article doesn’t provide much insight into the benefits of a liberal arts education, except the broad claim that it nurtures creativity.  Students of liberal arts, he explains, have “a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected”; they may become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who define the future of our economy.

If training the creative entrepreneurial mind is the goal, however, a liberal arts education isn’t ideal; Meacham himself notes that expertise in Homer and Shakespeare has a questionable economic value.  Students could be taught to think creatively about the related subjects of technology, business, and economics, for example – the details of which are exceedingly relevant to economic success.

But I don’t mean to downgrade the liberal arts.  Reflecting on my own education – a blur of reading hundreds of pages and writing nearly as much – I have benefited in ways that will serve me in the future.  I have learned to understand alternative viewpoints; to see patterns and make comparisons; to clearly articulate my own ideas in writing.  More broadly, I have learned that the answers to life’s questions – whether philosophical or political, theoretical or practical – are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Questioning the benefits of any particular education is certainly valuable.  In fact, it might be useful to offer students a wrap-up course within their department, explaining major themes and take-away lessons.  The practical benefits of some courses of study may be more apparent than others, but I suspect that they’ll all retain their place in university culture – if only as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.


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