Critics of the Liberal Arts aren’t thinking critically


Many college leaders readily agree that the liberal arts have been under attack politically, socially, and culturally for well over a generation. They earnestly argue that a liberal arts education creates productive citizens to ensure a robust democracy.

These officials point to the heightened polarization within American society and a growing political chasm fueled by nationalistic rhetoric that illuminates the growing problem of income inequality in America.

They also wonder if anyone is listening.

Rhetoric about Liberal Arts and Democracy has Outlived its Shelf life

Let’s start with an obvious point. The core argument about how a liberal arts education educates Americans to participate in their democracy is sound and correct. The problem is that the emotionally-charged rhetoric has gone beyond its shelf life. American political discourse has become coarse and increasingly harsh.

Consumers who once sacrificed to provide their children with a liberal arts education now treat the experience as a transaction to be negotiated like a used car sale. It’s less important to be an educated citizen than it is to be employed in a good job.

That’s the problem. The media, and the politicians who watch the surveys and polls, understand the economic numbers that show where the jobs are or will be after graduation. For them, college has become more like a certificate provided than a degree earned.

Transformative Power of Liberal Arts Education is Undeniable

They fail to appreciate that a college degree not only provides the technical skills to acquire and do a job but also the critical capacity to move between jobs because a rapidly evolving economy will demand it. It’s what a liberal arts education provides that gets lost in the rhetoric.

It may be that the transition to a knowledge economy requires specialized skills that are more commonly earned by professional degrees. But what is missing is an understanding of the transformative nature of what a liberal arts education provides. In short, training in the liberal arts makes mobility within the global workforce possible.

Despite Common Misperception, Liberal Arts Education is Eminently Practical

Why? Because a liberal arts education at its most fundamental is eminently practical. In the best programs, the liberal arts teach students entering the workforce how to speak, write, use quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting. It is not narrowly a certificate program, which is exactly the point of the educational training.

The liberal arts prepare students to be mobile and negotiate in a global workforce. That’s why so many history and English majors run global corporations. They think better and understand more deeply the complexities that they face.

For years I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the Committee for the Selection of Rhodes Scholars in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With its rich collection of public and private colleges and “large state” status, Pennsylvania has one of the largest and most competitive Rhodes Scholar competitions in the United States. It allowed me to witness a parade of the best and brightest men and women in America. And it provided me with powerful lessons that informed my thinking.

What I learned that was most pertinent perhaps is that where a student attends college matters. It’s not an Ivy or a Research 1 university question, although they and the American service academies have their share of selection recipients.

What most impressed me was the exceptional quality of the candidates from the full range of colleges and universities represented. Each candidate in a unique and idiosyncratic way reflected the best of all of us – the promise of America. It was an honor to judge who would advance when all were already so unique and exceptional.

Power of Liberal Arts as Seen Through Rhodes Scholar Selection

But there was sometimes one deciding factor. In my view, those with the best grounded liberal arts experience tended to fare best in the Rhodes competition. They responded most confidently, understood the subtlety and nuance of the questions put to them, and put the intellectual puzzle pieces together quicker. The colleges and universities that they represented – and the faculty that taught them – created an environment in which they could thrive.

There’s another way to think about it that translates directly to the needs of the American workforce: Would you rather have an engineer trained narrowly in a field of specialty or one who had that specialty but was also grounded in the liberal arts?  One requires some level of additional training to work competitively in a changing marketplace. The other is ready to hire.

And that is the practical side to the liberal arts. The added benefit is that America retains and grows an educated citizenry. For American society, this is an extraordinary bargain no matter how many challenges lie ahead.