Nowadays, many liberal arts colleges promote the economic value of a liberal education. They boast that the impressive careers of liberal arts graduates offer an excellent return on students' tuition investment. Thus, while the cost of a quality liberal education may be high, the economic benefits down the line are greater still.
But while the economic success of liberal arts graduates is certainly worth lauding, we may be missing something more fundamental here. When, as a lawyer-turned-professor, I consider my own liberal education, I can see how it did much more than enhance my career prospects. In fundamental ways, it helped me connect my career aspirations to a meaningful, satisfying life. Looking back over 25 years now, I see how at its best my liberal education offered me increased possibilities not only of money, but significantly, of happiness.
An enduring puzzle of our times is why our well-documented rise in incomes has not led to an increase in our subjective well-being. While well educated Americans are clearly getting wealthier, we are not reporting higher levels of happiness.
Economist Robert Frank offers an intriguing explanation to this puzzle, one that bears on how we think about the value of a liberal arts education. The problem, he says, is not what we make, but how we spend it. "[G]ains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes."
The difficulty, according to Frank, is that we spend our money in conspicuous ways - such as on bigger houses - that are especially subject to the psychological process of adaptation. Under this process, as people generally buy bigger houses, the social norm for house size increases. Adapting to this rising standard, we need to spend more to get a house we can regard as acceptable. But while we come to spend more for our homes, we do not derive greater pleasure from them. Rather, the size of house that is needed to satisfy us has simply increased.
If we wish our growing wealth to help make us happier, says Frank, we need to shift our resources to what he calls "inconspicuous goods." These goods aren’t really goods, but are conditions, like avoiding a long commute or leaving a stressful job. And when our wealth helps us do these things, it does make us happier.
The picture is different for long commutes and stressful jobs because such experiences are less subject to the psychological process of adaptation that occurs with the increasing number of larger houses. "As it turns out," writes Frank, "our capacity to adapt varies considerably across domains." While we easily get used to larger homes, we never completely adjust to longer commutes.
Thus, the key to happier lives is spending more of our resources on inconspicuous goods, those marked by our lesser capacity to adapt. Because increased spending on such goods is more likely to foster our subjective well-being, we are here better able to get our money's worth.
Frank's argument is an intriguing one for me, as at midlife I deepen my understanding of the value of my own liberal education. A central benefit of a liberal arts education is an enhanced capacity for critical thinking, the ability to subject to independent scrutiny the received norms of our environment. It is because of this enhanced capacity to scrutinize social convention that liberal education works to liberate individuals, enabling them to choose freely their own views, rather than simply relying on tradition or authority.
Thus in principle, a liberally educated individual should be less subject to the process of adaptation Frank describes. This is because this adaptation process is rooted in the very social norms the liberal arts graduate has developed the capacity to scrutinize critically.
Because a liberally educated person develops a critical distance from the norms of his environment, he has, under Frank's analysis, a greater potential for happiness. In conspicuous purchases such as houses, he is less likely to need to exceed the norm to insure happiness and more likely to avoid unhappiness if below the norm. Less bound to more conspicuous spending, he also has the freedom to devote more of his resources to the inconspicuous goods that offer a greater contribution to his well-being.
I saw this transformation in myself, while undergoing my own liberal education. I had always been a night owl and fell easily into the rhythms of student life as an English major at Wesleyan University. As my college years progressed, I remember distinctly watching less TV. In classrooms and conversations, I was discovering a world more engaging and enduring than the world of conspicuous consumption then displayed on network television. I still kept my late-night hours, but the “Tonight Show” gave way to the stories of Melville and Kafka, two writers more concerned with understanding human psychology and relationships than acquiring material goods. The result was that, during my senior year, I don't recall ever discussing the size of house I hoped to live in. But I remember distinctly a line I repeated often when asked of my ambitions. I'd say: "Give me a library and the woman I love - and I'll be happy."
As a middle-aged, family man, my life is more complex now, but its underlying values abide. I met - and married - the woman I love. She delights and surprises me almost daily. And in my current academic job, I enjoy access to a first-rate library that satisfies even my overly curious mind. To be sure, I've even come to live in a very nice home, one that's far larger than the national norm. But when my friend tells me he could never move back to a smaller house, I immediately sense a difference between us. I've learned that my happiness depends less on where I live and more on what I treasure.
Vocational training, by definition, is designed to enhance our productive capacities. It equips us with skills for occupations ranging from X-ray technician to software engineer. Liberal education contributes to our productive lives as well, as I know firsthand from my own legal career.
But liberal education can do more. Significantly, it affects not only our skills as producers, but also our discernment as consumers. When it works, it changes for the better the satisfactions we seek. Over the course of a lifetime, a discriminating sensibility in this regard can contribute more to our happiness than the raises our jobs provide.
Of course, liberal education performs this broader role only when it confers more than intellectual insights. A liberal education must reinforce such insights in a way that fosters in students a new set of habits and dispositions. Such an education's intellectual virtues must, in short, become moral ones.
I have no doubt that this has always been a difficult task. Indeed, as a professor teaching today, I see it's becoming harder as an already overly commercialized culture becomes even more so. But I know from my current vantage point how a liberal education succeeded with me in ways my earlier self couldn't have foreseen. More importantly, I see in my classes how students surprise themselves daily with the persons they are becoming.
Thus, in promoting the value of a liberal education to the wider public, we should attend to the way it can change the consumers we become. Altering the satisfactions a person seeks changes his life in ways more profound than the paycheck he receives. For the wider public, this is the story of liberal education that has yet to be told. I suspect we can tell it best by telling our own individual stories, how our liberal educations transformed our lives, and how happiness in an unexpected way became possible.
Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.