Do We Need Liberal Arts Schooling or a Liberal Arts Education?

Faculty are nervous, at least some of them. The higher education headlines highlight questions about online learning, the affordability of higher education, open learning, high school / college dual credit programs, competency-based education, alternate credentials and a growing focus on workforce development and professional programs. Amid such changes, I see a growing number of faulty, especially those in the humanities and liberal arts, speaking up about what is lost with each of these areas, even while others in the liberal arts are among some of the greatest champions for one or more of these developments. I read heartfelt as well as carefully thought-out responses to these movements, and there is much to learn from such texts. I particularly appreciated Martha Nussbaum’s 2012 text, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

The case for the liberal arts has not changed over the years. The liberal arts prepare literate and thinking people. They seek to cultivate good citizens who will promote and uphold the principles of a democracy. They equip one to fully embrace the life of a free person. They help one explore the life of truth, beauty, goodness. It is not difficult to agree with such outcomes. However, are we talking about the liberal arts or a formal liberal arts curriculum? Are they the same? Were they the same for people in the past?

Consider some of the texts that will be read in many formal liberal arts curricula. They are texts from antiquity, and often more recent literary works. Among many others, one is likely to read Whitman, Hemingway, Shaw, Salinger, Sandberg, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Frost, Twain, Blake and Austin. Interestingly, what these authors share in common is no formal college liberal arts education. The student of history and government will study US presidents like Washington, Van Buren, Lincoln, Taylor, Cleveland and Truman as well. None of these people had a formal college education either; with Washington, Lincoln and Johnson having only one year of any formal education between the three of them. Yet, many of these people had liberal arts influences. Many read widely and nurtured disciplined habits of the mind that we might associate with a liberally educated person. They were self-directed and lifelong learners who read, wrote, spoke, and lived the principles often identified with a liberal arts education. Is this what we really want, not just people with liberal arts credentials, but people who live with a liberal arts world view?

The liberals arts are about more than courses, credits, degrees and programs. As such, perhaps the debate for a formal liberal arts education is not as critical as one about the importance of the liberal arts in an individual’s life and community. In other words, if one truly wants to defend the value of the liberal arts, then perhaps there is need to think more broadly than formal schooling, instead looking at ways to encourage and nurture a value for the liberal arts in the world beyond school. It is one thing to read Chaucer to pass the quiz, test and class; and yet another to read such a book in evening after a long day of work.

The University does not own the liberal arts, nor does any particular school or department in higher education. By narrowing the debate about the liberal arts to the method of learning…to formal programming, we may risk losing the spirit of the liberal arts. The liberal arts is about knowledge, skill and disposition. The “how” is not as central. It might be for some proponents of formal classical education, but not as much for the broader community of liberal arts advocates.

If the debate is really an economic one, with employees of liberal arts programs fighting for the viability of their jobs and programs, that is one thing. Yet, it is a qualitatively different thing to discuss the value of a liberally educated person. One can shared that value without necessarily advocating that more people should study at liberal arts colleges or pursue liberal arts degrees, or that a formal liberal arts education is worth the cost. In other words, for the sake of the liberal arts in contemporary society, I suggest that it is time to carefully separate the two. Both are worthwhile discussions, but the program is not the only possible route to promoting the liberal arts. In fact, I suspect that investing more time, energy (and resources) into the promotion of the liberal arts in society may well benefit the programs. Just look at what CSI did to criminal justice and forensics programs, or what Indiana Jones did for archeology programs in the past. After all, I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare didn’t get his start in the lecture halls, but rather in the public square (or rather the theater).

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