Value of the liberal arts

(Recently I was invited to speak to our academic advisors on the value of the liberal arts to today’s students. I thought a couple of readers out there might find it interesting … so here it is.)



I have no doubt that academic advisors routinely hear at least one of the questions in the title of my talk. Students facing general education requirements want to know why they have to take a certain class, and what it does for them or for their major. And other students who feel drawn toward the liberal arts might pause to wonder how this or that major is going to get them a job in today’s desperate economy. I’m focusing on liberal arts classes and majors today for three reasons: first, it’s one of the few things I think I know anything about; second, I’ll bet that the questions I’ve raised are raised more frequently about liberal arts classes and majors than about any other kind; and third, the liberal arts are, as usual, under fire from every direction for being impractical or irrelevant or “degrees to nowhere,” and, as usual, I feel the need to rise to their defense, and (I hope) give you some ammunition so you can defend them too.

So here’s my plan. I want to begin with sketching some long-range history of the liberal arts – what they are and why they are – along with the philosophy behind them. (That’s what you get for inviting a philosopher!) Then I’d like to turn to what the liberal arts do for today’s students, and tie that in to an ongoing initiative sponsored by the American Association for College’s and Universities called “LEAP” – Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Then I hope to leave some time for questions and comments from you.

History and philosophy of the liberal arts
When the College of Humanities and Social Sciences published its first-ever college magazine this summer, we settled on the name Liberalis even though we knew we might get some nasty comments from those in our community who might recoil at the name. “What sort of commie pinko big-government ACLU-supporting college are you running up there?” But we felt the name is worth standing up for. The Latin word “liberalis” is an adjective, and it means “pertaining to freedom”, or “dignified and honorable”, or “generous.” The word stands for the set of qualities you would expect to find in a well-educated Roman who is concerned with the well-being of the republic, and with the higher virtues of being a human being. We thought this old word really fits what we want our college to be about; in the words of our dean, John Allen,

“We are interested in all kinds of freedoms – political and social freedom, but also freedom of thought, freedom from prejudices, and freedom from fixed forms of thinking. We’re trying to cultivate in ourselves and in our students the freedom to explore ideas and to criticize them. Also, we try to be people who affirm the dignity and honor of human beings, from all places, cultures, and times.”

That essentially captures the aim of the liberal arts: freedom to explore, think, and question, but always with dignity and respect.

That’s the aim of the liberal arts, but what are they, exactly? To answer that, we need a little history. A long time ago, back in the 5th century A.D., there were the original “liberal arts,” which numbered seven: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (so, all having to do with clarity of thought and expression), and then arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the ancient equivalents of what we would today identify as the STEM disciplines). These were the things you needed to be taught if you were to take your place in civil, educated society. The liberal arts continued to be the core of higher education through the middle ages – in fact, to get a BA, you studied the liberal arts for six years, and if you still wanted more school, then you’d enroll in graduate school in law, medicine, or theology. So the liberal arts weren’t part of the curriculum; they were the curriculum.

Then, throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, science happened to the universities. (I say “happened to them” on purpose; for the scientific revolution was a radically different way of approaching nature, and radical changes never come from within the university. They always come from the outside. Universities are built to resist change – like I need to tell you that!) Under the banner of “science,” many new fields of study were born, and many old disciplines were radically transformed. The liberal arts still stayed at the core, but universities began to expand into various different directions – first into physics and chemistry, then biology, then history and psychology and sociology, and so on. It did not take long before the ancient list of liberal arts began to look too crude, too simplistic, and too limited as the core of what an educated citizen ought to know. A new list was born, and the liberal arts were broadened to include the study of literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science. Once again we have a snapshot, taken at some point in the history of higher education, of what people at the time thought every educated person should know. In a bit I’ll suggest that it’s time for us to revise the list again.

Research-intensive universities developed in the United States in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, modeled mainly after the ones up and running in Germany. As the growth of specialized knowledge accelerated, and disciplines grew narrower and narrower, there was a real danger of losing any central core of knowledge that all educated people could share. Thus was born the very idea of “general education”, or a raft of classes every student had to take in addition to the very specialized courses required for each major. Universities handled general education in different ways, but the liberal arts always figured prominently in everybody’s plans because they represented, of course, the stuff every educated person is supposed to know.

Here we come the closest to a real answer as to what the liberal arts really are: what we, as a society, believe every educated person should be familiar with. This sort of definition is a lot more meaningful than a list, as we shall see.

One interesting tension within the idea of general education has been discussed by Louis Menand in his recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas. Menand writes that general education came about because educators felt that students, in addition to learning specific, practical skills for special careers, needed to gain some love of learning for its own sake. That is, the engineer didn’t just need to know how to plug in equations to solve problems, but needed to experience the sheer wonder of why the book of nature should be written in the language of mathematics in the first place. General education was supposed to provide this “sheer wonder” part of education, the part that makes learning so truly wonderful, the part that makes college so meaningful to young and eager minds. Nowadays, however, the share price of “sheer wonder” is at an all time low (I say with regret), and general education programs and the liberal arts generally are being forced to show that they do impart practical skills – something they were originally designed not to do, at least in the U.S. educational system anyway!

Now I don’t think this is a tension we need to worry about; we just need to find our way around it. As Menand wisely observes,

“The divorce between [the liberal arts] and [professional training] … rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is nonsense. Disinterestedness is perfectly consistent with practical ambition, and practical ambitions are perfectly consistent with disinterestedness.”

In other words, the ivory-tower academics need to take it upon themselves to show how their ideas engage with a real human life; and the practical-minded doers of the world need realize that there’s more to education than being trained for a career.

As we have seen, the liberal arts have always been defined as the knowledge and skills every educated person ought to have. But why should this be so? Why not let educated people know ten thousand different things? The reason is that as a society we expect some social and cultural payback from our educated citizens. Yes, they can do their jobs well, and make some money, and pay their bills, and that is all very good. But we also expect them to bend their minds toward the shaping of our society and our culture. We want them to teach future generations; to vote intelligently upon sound information, and serve in public office; to donate time and money to worthy causes; to consume media (music, movies, books, art) in ways that will encourage our better human virtues. Culture is an on-going process – we take it in, we push it out – and we can do this either with deliberation or in ignorance. The very establishment of a university, especially a public one, is an attempt to make us better at what we are doing as shapers of society and culture. The liberal arts, and even general education, so far as it goes, are meant to prepare students for this broader social and cultural expectation.

So that’s why the psychology major, the finance major, the civil engineering major, and the English major all need at least a little training in the liberal arts. It’s because we expect something from them beyond enjoying a successful career. We want them to make our society and culture better. Each of them is more than a job applicant; they are human beings, engaged in the task of transforming the past into the future, and they need to know this and take responsibility for it. It’s important.

We have also seen that what counts as the liberal arts changes as the world of knowledge changes. I think it is worth exploring what the liberal arts need to be today for us. The list we have now, you’ll recall, includes literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science. I don’t deny the significance of any of these. But I think there are some further ideas that need to fit in there somewhere. For example, I think it would be good for all of our students to understand some basic human psychology, and how we make decisions, and how irrelevant causes can skew and distort our thinking. I also think everyone needs to know the basic mechanics of Darwinian evolution, since that turns out to explain more and more of our world. And although I haven’t made up my mind completely about economics – parts of it look too much like astrology – I think every student has to have a comfortable grasp of the key ideas, concepts, and relationships. So I would welcome a serious discussion about what the liberal arts are for us today. And the central question would be, “What do we want all of our students to know, regardless of their major, in order to be first-rate citizens of the future?” Once you start thinking in those terms, you are already buying into the liberal arts as a valuable institution.

Liberal arts and today’s students, and LEAP
Now to turn to the particular value of the liberal arts to our students, and Utah’s commitment to liberal education.

It is a tired but true statistic that our students can expect to go through eight or more substantive career changes in their lives. The uncertainty in our students’ futures is more meaningful to me when I think about what I didn’t know twenty years ago. Twenty years ago it was 1991 and I was in graduate school. Here is what I didn’t see coming: the invention of the internet; iPods, Facebook, and Twitter; computer apps, at least as we know them today; and China, as a world capitalist power. Think of all the careers either shaped or created entirely by these changes. No one should be so foolish as to guess what the next twenty years will bring.

But of course as educators and advisors we are at least a little bit in the business of trying to make that guess. We want our students to be prepared for the future, even if we’re not sure exactly what they should be prepared for. About six years ago, people in the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) began to call together groups of educators and business leaders to see if they could begin to outline the kinds of knowledge and skills they think the present now demands, and the future will call for – at least, under any likely scenario. I will summarize what they eventually came up with:

• Students will need knowledge of human cultures, along with knowledge of the physical and natural world;
• Students will need intellectual and practical skills, including critical inquiry, analysis, effective and clear communication, math, information literacy, and the ability to work in teams; and
• Students will need knowledge of civics and politics; they will need to know how to confront ethical problems; they will need to navigate among different cultures; and they will need to be lifelong learners.

This list of desired outcomes of education came to be the heart of a national initiative, called “Liberal Education and America’s Promise,” because the desired outcomes so closely align with the specific skills and kinds of knowledge the liberal arts are supposed to impart. Business leaders across the nation told the AAC&U that technical sorts of training were, for the most part, not all that important to them, since technology often changes faster than university curricula do; what they want are students who know how to think, problem solve, and learn, and students who know how to deal with other people and communicate productively with them even across languages and cultures.

This means the liberal arts are not merely a nice layer of icing on the cake, or materials to be used at making yourself good company at dinner partiers. They are at the heart of what forward-looking business leaders need to see in their potential employees. It is for this reason that a thorough training in the liberal arts – like a major in one of them – might be a very good professional move. (One caveat: though business CEOs are very much in tune with the ideas of LEAP, human resource managers typically are not; so liberal arts majors will still need to prove their usefulness at entry level jobs before ascending into corporate hierarchies.)

The LEAP initiative is not just aimed at what business leaders need. It is aimed also at the sorts of citizens we all think we need now and will continue to need as geopolitical boundaries shift, nations emerge, and cultures clash. Whatever the world turns out to be, it will be changing quickly, and institutions will collide with cultures and individuals. We need people who can think, learn, communicate, and act with responsibility and integrity. We need and will need the liberal arts more than ever before.

The AAC&U has selected six states to pilot the recommendations they have made, and Utah is one of the six. As anyone who knows him would expect, Norm Jones has been a leader in our state in fostering LEAP discussions across our state institutions. Utah is further along than most states in where we are starting, since our major programs have been assembling regularly to share best practices and ease transfer issues – which includes thinking through our curricula and what outcomes we can expect from them. Indeed, in several respects Utah has been held up as a model for others to emulate. We are not there yet – in fact, with the changing world we are in, we will always be a work in progress to some extent – but we are already having exactly the sorts of discussions we need to have to connect the promises of a liberal arts education to what the present and the future will demand from our students.

I am a professor, and so it is too easy for me to spend too much time in loftier observations and speculations. So let me close with something useful. I would like to offer two ready-made answers you can use when students come to you asking why they need to take that dumb humanities course, or why they shouldn’t be afraid to major in philosophy. Here they are:

Question 1: Why do I need to take that humanities course?
Answer: “Because there’s more to a university degree than what you learn through your own major. We want you to be good citizens of the future – and that requires knowing a lot of different things, especially humanny sorts of things.”

Question 2: Why should I major in [INSERT “NOWHERE DEGREE” HERE)?
Answer: “Because in fact employers are looking exactly for the kinds of skills you’ll learn. It may take a bit of entry-level work before you get their attention, but once you do, you will go very far and do very important work.”


I hope these ready-made answers will be useful to you. And, more importantly, I hope the students you talk to will see the sense in them and begin to see their own education in broader terms. The students are our future, and we are counting on them. Let’s make sure they know what they need to know.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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9 Responses to Value of the liberal arts

  1. Chris Rawls says:

    Thanks for posting this! Well said. Well done.


  2. Marcello says:

    I doubt if you’re going to get many students falling for the answer you gave to your second question. Is it even true?
    The humanities are not important to most 2nd plus generation Americans, and if a child is not exposed to them in the family, from the start, they’re unlikely to understand the answer to your first question.
    The problem is a not a simple one, and I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere by having a pat answer to a pat question.


  3. Huenemann says:

    “Is it even true?” – yes, I think so. Do many students “fall” for it? – yes, it seems to me that quite a few students are eager to hear something about learning and studying making them better persons. I recently asked a big batch of them if they were reading anything just for fun, and about two-thirds of them raised hands, and the list was a pretty interesting mix: Memoirs of a Geisha, Affluenza, Agatha Christie, The Help, Heart of Darkness, Camus. I was pleasantly surprised, and publicly took back all those assumptions I had been making about them.

    Drat! I was hoping a pat answer would do, especially for a pat question! Oh, well, back to the drawing board…


  4. Marcello says:

    Hey, with 2/3 of them raising their hands in your scenario, I go along with you; seems there’s no problem after all.


  5. Huenemann says:

    Jesus Christ! When did I say there was no problem?! You’re the one who said “The humanities are not important to most 2nd plus generation Americans” – I’m just pointing out that that might not be true. Go bother someone else. Sheesh.


  6. Marcello says:

    Good grief! You sure have a short fuse. If after this last attempt to connect with you, you still want me to go elsewhere, I will. And without another word.

    I submitted my first comment because the problems colleges in general face these days interest me. In fact, from experience and what I’ve read recently, e.g. last week, that the master’s degree is the old bachelor’s, and earlier, that large percentages of college students learn practically nothing, I’m glad I’m no longer actively involved with any institution of higher education. From your talk, and especially your two questions, I feel that you, as well as others whose papers I’ve read, are missing the point. The problem is vastly more difficult than either you’re aware of, or admit to. Convincing a few students to take a course in philosophy or literature, if you can even manage that, is not going to change anything.
    Yes, I was facile in my second comment, but it was in response to what you had written. I asked if what you said in the answer to the second question was true. Your answer: “-yes, I think so.” In other words, you don’t know. Your answer to the question is what you feel should happen in an ideal world. Also, your experience with the students you mentioned, while pleasant, and maybe even slightly encouraging, doesn’t prove much, certainly not anything with the 2nd generation point.


  7. Huenemann says:

    I apologize for my outburst. It seemed to me at the time that you were ignoring the setting and audience for the talk, and issuing conclusions without providing any justifications. But now I see I didn’t really explain the setting very clearly, and you probably didn’t feel right taking up a lot of space in a blog reply.

    So please let me back up and say what I should have said. This was a talk aimed at academic advisors, folks whose job it is to meet with students and help plan their schedules. They meet with dozens of students each day, and the students often are in some sort of academic difficulty, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. So I wanted to deliver something plain and useful to them that I thought would come in handy, and not get too bogged down in the details of what you rightly see as a very complicated problem (viz., the role of the liberal arts in today’s society). Also, a state representative last spring had called liberal arts degrees “degrees to nowhere,” and the advisors had taken for their conference theme “degrees to somewhere,” so I wanted to fit within that theme. So it is fair to complain I’m offering pat questions and pat answers – my defense is that it was a 20-minute luncheon talk, and the situation wouldn’t tolerate a more substantive analysis.

    Second. I’m not sure what you mean by “2nd generation Americans.” I assumed you just meant college-age Americans, but now I see that may not be what you meant. (People whose parents immigrated?) My point was simply that many young people aren’t as disinterested in reading as I had assumed. You’re right, my limited experience doesn’t prove much. But it is a reminder of me to try to get to know these young people better before believing the sorts of generalizations made of them in the media.

    Finally, “I think so” doesn’t imply lack of knowledge; it only implies lack of certainty. I think X is true, and have good reasons for thinking so, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be wrong. I’m *pretty sure* fallibilism is the way to go.


  8. Marcello says:

    It’s very nice of you to have taken the time to expand on what you had originally written.
    What I was getting at with the second generation business was that the grandchildren of immigrants here are already Americanized and have lost the old world values, one of them being learning for learning’s sake. I don’t know if any of what I say is true, although I think some of it is. In any case, if even entirely true, it’s probably only a small part of the total problem of student’s disinterest in the humanities.
    There are so many aspects to the problems all education is facing now, I’d love to talk at length (ad nauseum?) about it.


  9. I agree with Professor Huenemann here that students ought to see in a liberal university education the opportunity to transform themselves into humans who participate more fully in our shared cultural life. But I wonder if it is not disingenuous to ask students to adopt such a view when so many people in possession of power and influence have retreated from the very sort of cultural life that the liberal arts foster. That retreat seems to me untenable not just for the liberal arts but also public university education more generally. If we say that the shared cultural life that liberal education fosters is illusory, then we must also concede that education benefits the individual alone. Under that stance, the huge public investments in university education become nothing more than subsidies to those businesses who benefit from a workforce that they did not have to train. We should continue to encourage students to broaden their academic horizons, but we should also try to situate what is happening in universities in the trend toward privatization that has changed the game for students and educators alike.


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