In Praise of Liberal Arts

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I saw a post meant to be a put down of a young woman who had majored in Liberal Arts in college. She held a sign asking for help because she was unable to find a job and owed twenty thousand dollars in student loan debt. Next to the sad image of the girl was a young man with a sign boasting that he had learned a trade and had a great paying job and no debt. It was obviously meant to make the argument that a degree in Liberal Arts is a waste of time and money and such majors should probably be dropped from university offerings. It is a trope that is rather popular these days, but I would argue that it would be horrific to blindly condemn certain types of learning as useless without a critical examination of the value of a foundation in liberal arts.

There was a time when a Liberal Arts education was the foundation of higher learning. Often it represented the first level of post high school education designed to create an individual with a great breadth of knowledge. Sadly the more “practical” majors have taken favored status in recent years. We warn our young that they are more likely to gain employment with a study of engineering or business  than history or English literature. It has become an often accepted given that has replaced the old way of hiring Liberal Arts majors for their wide range general skills to a preference for graduates with more specific technical abilities. Over time society has seemingly devalued the liberal arts to the extent that we all actually denigrate those who still seek to follow such majors. 

I would instead propose that advanced civilization would lose a great deal if we were to junk the great courses in favor of only those that lead directly to something that appears to be useful. There is no doubt that we need engineers, accountants, chemists and such but those versed in history, philosophy, literature, languages, and the social sciences have much to offer that we would miss were we to be successful in guiding all young students away from the liberal arts. 

History teaches us that we humans have maintained similar characteristics over time. It outlines where we have been and points in the directions into which we are going. It is important for understanding the complexities of our relationships and meting out justice with knowledge of both the past and the present. Geography teaches us how the earth itself often determines cultures and economic patterns. Psychology and Sociology explain why we behave in particular ways. Philosophy explores the very essence of how we think. Literature is a gateway into the ways in which we humans soar above the animals or devolve into the destructive urges of hubris. Political Science tells us about the systems that we have invented for governing and how they differ according to the needs of a particular society. In other words a Liberal Arts degree informs us in ways that prompt consideration of ideas, precedents and critical analysis. It is the very foundation of great leadership and the ability to accurately judge the merit of how we should do things. It is far from a waste of time, money or effort. In fact Liberal Arts majors bring critical skills of logic and analysis to education, business, communication, the law and countless other professions. 

One of my greatest concerns about today’s world is the ignorance of the world that is shared by far too many people. Few are well versed in history and so they simply accept that we are where we are as a matter of fate Knowledge of political systems has been reduced to stereotypes and anecdotes. In the United States most people speak only a single language. Reading has often been reduced to browsing graphic novels or enjoying simple stories of pulp fiction rather than seeking the beauty of finely written words. Rarely is any student taught the fundamentals of rhetoric or critical thinking. We are so busy mastering what we see as useful that we forget that one of the greatest skills of all is learning how to learn, because very little in the practical or technical world stays the same over time. 

A well educated and modern society demands that we have the so called “practical” majors along with a fleet of individuals trained in trades like plumbing or mechanics and such. In our quest to train our young, however, we must also honor those who maintain the importance of the Liberal Arts. We need people who are willing to continue the march of civilization through both science and the arts. When we think of Leonardo da Vinci surely we can see that both his study of human anatomy and his representation of it in great drawings and paintings were incredible contributions to society. Galileo helped us to understand the universe but Shakespeare explored the universe of human nature. How can we possibly hold one in higher value than the other, and yet it is what we do each time we poke fun at someone with a degree in one of the arts while celebrating those in the sciences or who have certifications in a particular trade. 

I have learned as much from reading a great historical tract on the rise of fascism as I have from studying a mathematical algorithm, All learning widens our horizons and pulls us from a narrowness of mind. Perhaps it is time that we celebrate all knowledge and those who put in the time, effort and money to gain it. It is never a waste of time to learn something that we did not know only moments before. Ours should be a lifetime of research and analysis. If we all did that I suspect that we would be far less inclined to engage in petty squabbles or unproven lies. We would know how to spot a hoax or the how to detect the difference between facts and opinions. That sad young woman with the sign should not have to defend her choice of studying Liberal Arts. Instead she should be celebrated as a benefit and important contributor to our society. Like the monks of old who toiled over the copying of great manuscripts our Liberal Arts majors are preserving knowledge that we must never lose.


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