In Defense of Liberal Arts
by

Poor liberal arts. People don’t esteem the term—or its cousin, “liberal education”—very much these days, it seems. Evaluating the success or failure of an education now requires measurable outcomes, such as test scores or post-college employment. Learning is, more and more, about return on investment. K-12 education is increasingly focused on testing. In everyday conversation, the evaluation of a college major generally assumes the form of a question: “What can you do with that?”

This is a reasonable question, albeit one that liberal education finds itself mostly unable to answer. Conjuring the image of a thousand English majors working behind the counters of a thousand coffee shops, critics of liberal education demand to know what could possibly justify this outcome. Though the most popular major in America is, in fact, business, followed by the social sciences, nursing, education, and psychology—none of which are liberal arts subjects—it’s the useless liberal arts student, underemployed and deep in debt, that comes in for scrutiny.

From time to time, a few brave souls do pick up a pen to defend the liberal arts. Their justifications generally focus on some intangible characteristic students acquire along the way: improved critical thinking skills, increased empathy, better memo-drafting ability. Sometimes, as in The Heart of the Matter, a 2013 report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, writers point out the need for global leadership or an “adaptable and creative workforce.” There’s a focus on almost everything but what liberal arts students actually study—or what the liberal arts even mean.

Such defenses fall flat in that they present liberal education as the most self-indulgent of finishing schools, where one is prepared for the day-to-day reality of white-collar work by writing about Kant and Emily Dickinson. They do not even argue that the promised benefits—critical or creative thinking, for instance—could not be taught equally well by studying, say, engineering, a discipline that requires both.

Under this pressure, liberal education has begun to retreat. Even my own alma mater, St. John’s College, a liberal arts college par excellence, has recently dropped both “liberal arts” and “liberal education” from its own self-description—which is a bit like the canary you brought down into the coal mine drawing out a little pistol and shooting itself in the head. St. John’s now speaks about an education that develops “critical thinking and collaboration”—good things, to be sure, but skills one can learn behind that notorious Starbucks counter, where you’re at least getting paid. Or, for that matter, in kindergarten.

What is liberal education? For most people, it means education that isn’t a form of job training; if you take the phrase quite literally (which I do), it means an education that’s meant to free students in some higher sense.

I called St. John’s a liberal arts college par excellence, but a better turn of phrase might have been ad absurdum. There, “liberal arts” and “liberal education” are approached with an admirable open-mindedness. The goal of the program is self-consciously considered to be freedom. Students study philosophy and literature, but also mathematics (which is, after all, a liberal art) and the sciences. Since St. John’s has no majors, even the most wispy and poetic souls are expected at some point to get up and demonstrate proofs of Maxwell’s equations to their peers—often without notes. And if you think that’s bad, just wait until you’re expected to do the same thing with Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

These demonstrations come direct from Maxwell and Einstein, for the school follows a program of study wherein the students read primary texts only and discuss them in seminars. A faculty member (called a “tutor”) guides these as a kind of Socrates but doesn’t offer authoritative opinions. There are no tests, though students do undergo an oral examination on a book of their choice every year (and write a paper investigating some question, which they then defend in another examination).

Extramural reactions vary. The school’s disdain for expertise raises a certain degree of intellectual ire, as does the extreme impracticality of the subject matter. The school’s erstwhile refusal to present its education as job preparation in any sense certainly added to this doubt. Indeed, it demanded of its applicants that they consider why they intended to go to college at all. Which—as the job-preparation route turns out to be a dead end for many—is a question applicants everywhere should be made to ask themselves. If your liberal arts degree doesn’t prove to be the golden ticket to white-collar employment, the dirty secret is that neither do many people’s degrees in business or engineering.

But as someone who went through the program with a few deep reservations—which included my leaving for a year and then coming back—there is, I think, no other place where these higher goals can be pursued so openly and so easily. And if there are two different, mutually exclusive ends to education—freedom and job-preparation—it is good that there is (or was) at least one institution in the world that made that choice so clear.

Reflexive contempt for liberal education is not a new thing. It goes all the way back to the Athenians who found Socrates’ notably public philosophy self-indulgent and embarrassing. “It’s not shameful to practice philosophy while you’re a boy, but when you still do it after you’ve grown older and become a man, the thing gets to be ridiculous, Socrates!” says Callicles in the Gorgias. “When I see an older man still engaging in philosophy and not giving it up, I think such a man by this time needs a flogging.” Get a job, Socrates.

Or, to pick a more recent example (less than two hundred years old), John Henry Newman complains in The Idea of a University of the critics who insist

that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured.…This they call making Education and Instruction “useful,” and “Utility” becomes their watchword. With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a University; what is the real worth in the market of the article called “a Liberal Education,” on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or to improve our lands, or to better our civil economy; or again, if it does not at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon…. 

All those not-lawyers and not-doctors, it seems, have been disappointing their parents for a long time.

Much of Newman’s concern in The Idea of a University is with defining a specifically Catholic form of liberal education, but one needn’t be Catholic to appreciate his point: a serious liberal education frees the pupil and forms the soul, and encourages the pursuit of the truth as an end in itself. Such an education requires both seriousness of purpose and willingness to be an amateur. It’s not for intellectual dilettantes who flit from interest to interest, but it doesn’t create experts either. Knowledge is acquired, but the goal is not the acquisition of knowledge.

Subjects such as philosophy, classical literature, and mathematics should be studied because they are themselves goods that the student should aspire to understand and make his own. They are—to put it strongly—among the good we live life for. Like Socrates, who was poor and shabby, the student of the liberal arts may never make much of himself. But for Socrates—and for his students—that was never the goal.

Since graduation, I have kept tabs on what my former classmates are doing with themselves. Some have taken the traditional routes of law or graduate school. Some work at non-profits. Some teach. A few are freelance writers or full-time journalists, who perhaps employ their education most explicitly (I recall fondly the friend of mine who asked a politician, “What is justice?”).

Then there are the ones who chose something different: a firefighter-in-training; a part-time welder and part-time Alaskan fisherman; a park ranger. And so on. These people use their educations as much as the others. Maybe more, since they also have the courage to pursue something different from what they is expected.

As for me, I suffered a period of prolonged underemployment. But though I was doing a job I neither was supposed to be doing (given my degree), nor especially wanted to do long-term, I still learned a great deal from my experience. What I found was that even when I was working at a low-prestige, low-paying job, my so-called useless education continued to provide me with something genuinely valuable. It was at that time that I discovered how freeing a liberal education truly is.

A defense of liberal education on its own terms, the idea that education is one of freedom’s necessary conditions, that the humanities teach us how to be human, will strike many as elitist.

But sooner or later, people take stock of life and wonder what it is for—and we ought to prepare them to answer. No matter how successful we become, none of us gets to escape this question, any more than we can escape the questions of how to live, or how to understand the world, or of how to organize our society. The person with the successful job and the nice home will still, one day, be called to make an account of himself.

Of course, success is a tricky word; it depends rather on the ruler you are using to measure. In that confrontation between Callicles and Socrates, after all, which of them is successful? We know, of course, what Callicles would say. He ends his admonition by conjuring up the idea of Socrates on trial and put to death without being able to defend himself—prophetic: though Socrates did defend himself, it was to people who did not understand what he was saying.

Look around you: There are many Callicles in the modern world. Let us raise our voices on behalf of Socrates—before he’s judged and put to death once more.

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