Start spreading the news: as Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce says, “Majoring in business pays off. In most programs, business students’ median annual earnings two years after graduation are roughly 10 times their monthly debt payments.”
Wait a second. My undergraduates already know that.
Or to take some other examples of high-ROI fields: “Those with a bachelor’s degree in #architecture and #engineering have median lifetime earnings of $3.8 million, well above the median of $3.2 million for all master’s degree holders.”
No longer does the “simple advice to high schoolers to ‘go to college’” suffice. What one studies and where one studies matter greatly in terms of return on investment. Which degrees earn the most? No surprise: computers, math, health-care practice, architecture, engineering and business.
Which leaves the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, where?
If, for most students, the primary measure of an undergraduate degree is return on investment, shouldn’t our institutions double down on those high-demand, high-return fields and let the liberal arts shrink to an appropriate size?
I don’t think so.
The most distinctive feature of American higher education is the value it places on liberal education. Nor is this simply a legacy of a more elitist education in the past. Even as American colleges and universities broadened their curricula during the 19th century and embraced electives toward the end of that era, these institutions gradually and unevenly adopted gen ed requirements to ensure that all undergraduates achieved the rudiments of a liberal education.
Why did they do that? To ensure that all students acquired transferable soft skills? In part. To cultivate culturally literate graduates? In small measure. The primary purpose was more ambitious: to nurture a certain kind of person—observant, reflective, sensitive and thoughtful, but also someone who is an independent thinker.
In his account of the biblical story of Joseph and his sale into slavery by his brothers, Flavius Josephus, the Romano-Jewish historian, wrote that the captive’s Egyptian master “held him in all honor and gave him the education that befits a free man.”
That phrase—“the education that befits a free man”—has become a synonym for a liberal education—an education that combines breadth and depth, that cultivates a capacity to engage rigorously and critically with the major issues of the day, appreciate culture in its multiple manifestations, and serve as the essential foundation for informed citizenship.
It’s a broad, general, well-rounded education that liberates individuals from provinciality, narrow-mindedness, superstition and insularity.
At various times, such an education has been defined in very different terms. There was the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British conception of an education that befits a gentleman of property—chivalrous, honorable, generous, well-mannered, with refined tastes.
That gentlemanly definition drew a stark contrast between a liberal education, grounded in the arts and humanities and especially the classics, and a more practical, applied, vocational or pre-professional education.
Then there was the Great Books tradition that grew out of Matthew Arnold’s vision of an education designed to refine individuals and elevate and reform society. As he wrote in his 1869 classic Culture and Anarchy, the purpose of such an education is “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”
The progressive educator John Dewey was perhaps the most influential critic of a liberal education as it was understood in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a 1944 essay entitled “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College,” he dismissed an education based in the Seven Arts as elitist and archaic. Rooted in class ideology, “the traditional doctrine of liberal arts cannot be understood,” he asserted in Nietzsche-like language, “except in connection with the social fact of division between free men and slaves and serfs.”
A truly emancipatory education, he thought, must overcome the false divide between a liberal education and a practical, applied or technological education; break free “from the strict and narrow curriculum of the past”; and recognize the imperative of addressing contemporary controversies with what Barack Obama called “the fierce urgency of now.”
Today, what normally passes for a liberal education resides largely within the curriculum’s lower division and consists of an uneasy hybrid of somewhat discordant elements. It typically encompasses the social and the natural sciences as well as philosophy, literature, history and the arts. It is defined and defended not on the basis of exposure to masterworks of art, literature and music designed to give its recipients a touch of class, or to the fluency in history, philosophy and theology that makes someone appear cultured, but rather by the skills it purports to offer: critical thinking, moral and logical reasoning, historical, psychological and sociological perspective, numeracy, cross-cultural awareness, and strong problem-solving and communication skills.
For all practical purposes, the liberal arts portion of the curriculum today does not assume that there is a corpus of texts or core issues that every undergraduate should encounter. Still, there’s an ongoing belief that every undergraduate should acquire the rudiments of a liberal education. This commitment raises a number of questions.
1. In theory, general education requirements are supposed to guarantee that all undergraduates receive a truly liberal, rounded and robust education. But do they really?
Of course not. Most students meet such requirements through discipline-based survey courses, mainly at the introductory level. As conservative critics frequently point out, there’s typically nothing to ensure that students are exposed to Shakespeare and the masterworks of literature, art or music; to world history; or to major philosophers, political theorists or theologians.
Since these lower-division courses tend to be large, students also do not receive the kind of instruction and feedback that are essential to learning how to write well, speak eloquently or formulate reasoned arguments backed by carefully evaluated evidence.
2. Should we be concerned If most undergraduates do not receive that kind of a liberal education?
If one believes the primary purpose of a liberal education is to ensure that students acquire certain cultural literacies and certain cultural dispositions (such as a refined sensibility, aesthetic taste, a capacity for connoisseurship and an ability to formulate and evaluate historical analogies and to make careful aesthetic and moral discriminations and judgments), then it’s obvious that most undergraduates only receive a rather crude copy or simulacrum of a liberal education.
Enriching a student’s psychological, moral and emotional interior by exposing them to the products of great human minds is not a goal of the kind of liberal education that undergraduates typically receive.
But if one feels that the prime purpose of a liberal education in the 21st century is expose undergraduates to topics, methods, interpretive frameworks and skills that tend to reside at the margins of the more practical or applied disciplines—such as mathematical or historical or sociological or psychological thinking, literary or artistic analysis, or the scientific method—then the current approach, with its emphasis on maximizing students’ options, is more justifiable.
3. Was John Dewey right: Is liberal education in practice, if not in theory, class and culture bound, backward-looking and excessively abstract?
At its best, a liberal education inducts its recipients into what the Enlightenment called the Republic of Letters, a community of independent thinkers and an international network that embraces those who are interested in the arts, the humanities and the sciences. It cultivates an educated, literate class in dialogue with writers, thinkers and artists past and present, domestic and foreign and of all cultures.
As the religious scholar Matthew Rose, puts it, a liberal education makes our students members of what “the Czech dissident Vaclav Benda called a ‘parallel polis,’ a community of free thought existing apart from broad political support.” It offers leaven for the soul.
4. Should the champions of a liberal education defend it on instrumental grounds—that it provides the kind of transferable soft skills necessary in a volatile society—or on some other basis?
Certainly, a liberal education, like I suspect education in any field, has practical benefits. According to the pundit Fareed Zakaria, its value lies in its ability to teach students “to read critically, analyze data and formulate ideas,” making them more nimble and adaptable in an unforgiving economy.
But, of course, liberal education’s real purpose lies elsewhere: it, in the words of the classicist Barry Strauss, gives its recipients “the tools to challenge the dogmas and unspoken assumptions of [their] age” and “to think broadly and creatively.”
I believe that a liberal education should undergird an undergraduate education, irrespective of a student’s major. But if that’s our goal, then we need to alter the way we conceive of many of our lower-division courses.
- These courses need to address big questions. A disciplinary focus is not enough. A liberal arts education is ultimately about values and judgments. In addition to tackling the pressing issues of our time, including issues of identity and disparities in wealth, power and access to education and opportunities to flourish, it should also speak to enduring issues involving aesthetics, divinity, evil, free will, justice, morality or the meaning of life.
- These courses need to be more skills focused—and ensure that students master those skills. If we’re serious about the skills that a liberal education confers—analytic and creative thinking, close reading, inquiry, interpretation, reasoned argument, and written and oral communication—then we need to do more to ensure that students actually master those competencies. Therefore, it’s essential that these courses need to provide ample opportunities for genuine dialogue and regular, substantive feedback.
- There is no reason why a liberal education needs to exist separate and apart from a vocational, technical or pre-professional education. A surprising number of famous poets and novelists practiced medicine. Not just Michael Crichton, but Anton Chekhov, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Keats, Somerset Maugham and William Carlos Williams. Literature, a growing body of research suggests, can sensitize physicians to patient emotions and narratives and promote empathy and compassion. It can alert providers to patients’ perspectives on disease, the existential experience of illness, the doctor-patient relationship and the limits of scientific medicine.
A liberal education should play a central role in professional identity formation. Knowledgeable professionals are not simply skilled technicians, but should be aware of the history and ethical standards of their field and attain a high level of self-awareness, empathy, responsibility and emotional intelligence, as well as advanced communication skills that a liberal education can cultivate.
In my view, our institutions need to do more to fully integrate and embed the humanities into undergraduate preparation for business and the professions. Let’s take business as an example. The challenges that many businesses currently face aren’t narrowly financial but involve issues that lie at the heart of a contemporary liberal education: privacy, race and gender, diversity and intersectionality, alienation and atomization, truth and bias, cross-cultural perspectives, and ethical awareness.
Any liberal education worth its salt should cultivate a graduate’s ability to make sense of complex interpersonal dynamics; appreciate dynamic, complicated, ambiguous, volatile environments; challenge prevailing assumptions; and think critically and skeptically about overly simplistic thinking. On a more practical level, businesses need to fashion narratives and learn how to motivate and retain a new generation of employees by investing work with social meaning and enhancing the workplace experience. Those with a liberal education strike me as especially well prepared to help guide this process.
The notion that liberal education ought to provide the essential foundation for a college education regardless of field is a distinctively American article of faith. It’s an idea that we should reaffirm by transforming it from a rather vague precept into a genuine reality.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.