Liberal arts: Who needs ’em?

Academics are struggling to persuade students that learning the liberal arts will help them in the real world. But the arguments tend to emphasize getting into law school, writes Naomi Schaefer in the Wall St. Journal. Or doing the laundry. Is that all there is?

Some colleges have found a creative way to reassure students they will be getting something practical for all that money. A couple of years ago, Harvard University started offering “Life Seminars” on non-Kantian subjects: “Plumbing 101” and “Advanced Doing the Laundry,” for instance.

. . . These courses are not for credit, but they do, in their silly way, point to a problem: the gap between normal classroom experience and postgraduation reality. Some academic departments are trying to bridge the gap themselves. The Web site of the philosophy department at Indiana University, for instance, boasts that its graduates are more likely than those in almost any other major to be accepted by medical schools, that law schools value the analytical skills that philosophy teaches, and that businesses at least won’t hold a philosophy degree against you. “Philosophy is quite suitable as a major for pre-professional students. . . . The study of philosophy has practical value.”

. . . Are these the only answers — that the study of the liberal arts applies to, well, something else?

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind.

Benefiting the republic was in fact one object that Jefferson had in mind by founding a public university. It seemed obvious to him that a proper education would advance “the prosperity, the power, and the happiness of a nation.” How do Greek and astronomy do that? By generating “habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue” and by controlling, “by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.”

But today’s liberal arts classes are “self-exploration with fancy texts,” writes Schaefer. Not much good for building habits of application or a love of virtue.

John Stuart Mill said a liberal education offers “the deeper and more varied interest you will feel in life: which will give it tenfold its value, and a value which will last to the end.” I think that’s about right.

About Joanne


  1. I think Mill is absolutely right. But who, these days, is going to shell out thousands of dollars for “deeper and more varied interest”?

    I managed to put together a fairly balanced liberal education for myself. I took literature, social sciences, computer science, calculus, ancient languages, ethics, philosophy, art, etc. I think my education has served me well intellectually. I can’t pinpoint the exact job it prepared me for, though.

  2. Good post. I have a BS in Civil Engineering ’81 and a good job in project management. However, what I miss most is the benefits of a classical education (probably a better term than a liberal education given its devloution into “self-exploration.” I was well prepared for post graduation in many ways, but I am daily reminded of my ignorance of language, music, history, philosophy. I read a good bit and have filled in as best I can given my limited time. But there is no comparison to sitting under a professor who is an honest thinker and master of his/her field.

    Next time around I am going to do 4 years at St. Johns College or some similar institution.


  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    Jason, self-education is the best kind (in a way really the only kind)- don’t feel shy, just keep diving into that library. You can give yourself a far better liberal education than most colleges provide nowadays, and it won’t cost you a nickel.
    Throughout history some of the most learned people have been autodidacts.

    One hint for finding out about worthwhile books that otherwise might escape your notice, is to read good book reviews regularly- especially the New York Review of Books and the (London) Times Literary Supplement. The NY Rev. is the one magazine subscription I simply could not live without.

  4. Steve, Thanks for the encouragement. “life-long learning” has become a cliche but it remains a very real truth. Anyone not constantly amazed by life, the world, nature… is living in a coma; or in front of the TV.


  5. Walter Wallis says:

    I seriously question the value, to the general public, of subsidizing “liberal arts” degrees that have become more and more just a tag that says “I didn’t have to go to work because daddy is rich.”
    The behavior of the Chomskies and his ilk prove that only working folk should teach. I also object to being billed for the expense of Kennedy kids going to summer camp.

  6. Walter, my daddy is far from rich. And I paid for my liberal arts education myself.

    JasonT: always has very good conversations about books going on.

  7. Chris Hoess says:

    The contempt for “self-exploration” is probably deserved in light of the current use of the term to mean “Tell me your feelings,” but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    I see the purpose of the “classical” education as twofold: first, to discipline the mind to order, reason, and systematic thought, and second, to bring about improvements of character through the consideration of the ideas put forth by great writers.

    The latter task, does, indeed, require self-exploration, but not by merely articulating visceral and emotional reactions. As others have observed, this is in many ways an anti-social process; while the debate and cross-questioning of others may help the chain of reasoning, ultimately moral understanding must occur in a person’s own silent contemplation.

    It is clear why a modern liberal-arts education can no longer fill this role. First, the powers-that-be now reigning in academia are, to be generous, not always well-disposed to free thought. (Doubtless, this has always been true to some degree. It is made particularly odious, today, however, by the role of counter-cultural guerilla acted by many academics to conceal their true nature: the Anti-Establishment Establishment.) Second, the immense void which multi-culturalism created, to be filled with those Other than the Dead White European Male, may not have been filled wisely or well. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And indeed, how can we expect that these should all have the value of the classics, when they were selected not that students might reason about the great questions and dilemmas of life, but to inculcate the lesson that Western civilization is wicked and that we must atone for it. (Of course, it is not impossible for a person getting a liberal-arts education today to become proficient in reasoning and to develop moral character, nor are all works outside the “classical” canon found wanting when weighed against them; but the education is likely to put many stumbling blocks in the way of such development, and the selection of works to be taught is not directed towards choosing those best in a “classical” sense.)

  8. Walter Wallis says:

    Most liberal arts colleges are just basic training for democrats. Let the democrat party pay for them.

  9. St. John’s College in Santa Fe has a summer program for adults called Summer Classics that’s a lot of fun. There are a series of one week programs with a choice of books to read (or opera). For instance, I spent a week discussing Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. And felt like one most of the time. This year, Week 1 has a choice of Sigmund Freud, Xenophon or Henry James/Joseph Conrad. For those who don’t know, St. John’s is all Great Books all the time.

  10. Bob Diethrich says:

    Joanne: that sounds great.

    (Please leave the politics out of my next statement)

    IN December of 2002 Newsweek did a profile of Dick Cheney and in the article it said that after 9/11 Cheney met with a favorite classics professor and re read the Greeks, seeking the wisdom of the past.

    That to me is what a classical education means. One of the archons trusted with our governance (in a system that developed in Athens, grew to maturity at the Roman Forum, was fine-tuned at Runnymeade, tweaked by William and Mary in 1689, aged by Jefferson and brought to beautiful fruition by Madison et. al in Philadelphia in 1787) went back to the basics to try and determine his view for the future.

  11. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Those who connect the broad-education-vs.-practical-skills argument to current politics should remember this argument is at least as old as “Wealth Of Nations.” “The Two Cultures” is modern on history’s time scale, but written in relatively conservative times.

  12. Walter Wallis says:

    I always prefered Kipling.

  13. Walter, some day you must come back to earth from whatever planet you currently occupy.

  14. Chris Haynes says:

    I bypassed a degree in favor of a 20 year military career. 7 ships, all major seas and all continents with countries visited too numerous to count. Read (& understand) 10 books on anything and you’ll know as much or more than most. So says my father, another self taught man. I now teach software in the SF bay area (ten books theory). While I have often thought about going to college to obtain a degree, the liberal curricula here keeps me from doing so. I will continue my fathers ten books theory and probably home school my children. Broad world views as offered by liberal arts degrees can also be obtained by broad world travel. I have lived in Japan and Sicily for 3 and 2 years respectively, speak 4 languages (out of necessity) and would not trade my “liberal arts” degree for anything. I will never pay for an education that leaves me with very few marketable skills and a warm fuzzy feeling about myself.

  15. Walter Wallis says:

    Chris, thank you for your service. Some of my best friends were sailors.
    Michael, Kipling was a lot closer to the earth than Kerry.
    The world is a better place because of me and Chris. How about you, Michael?

  16. Learning can have value or not. It depends on the student. That something has no practical value only means that it isn’t being used in a practical manner.

    When I hear anyone bemoan their inability to get a job, it is not because their degree is useless but because they haven’t found a way to make it useful. Liberal arts is a training for the mind, not a trade. Education for education’s sake is a wonderful thing, but its value is personal. It’s a cerebral version of breast augmentation: it can make someone more confident but can also expose one to the argument that the money could’ve been better spent elsewhere.

  17. Walter Wallis says:

    In theory, jon. Try to read through the catalogs without gagging.

  18. Majoring in liberal arts is like seeking to get a degree in undecided. While philosophy and humanities classes can be very rewarding, where is the pratical value that focusing in these areas are supposed to give. From what I have seen the arguement that a liberal arts education gives one a sense of order and teaches one to think, is a bunch of baloney. More practical disciplines such as a business education, on of the sciences, engineering, even English give one these benifits while also providing one with many of the skills and practical knowledge needed in the workforce.
    As far as expanding knowledge in the “loftier” area such as history, phlosophy, and the arts one is almost always bettered served by learning on ones own. That way you don’t have to suffer through a prof’s political discourses while trying to enrich your education.

  19. My mother, a college professor, always said that if you’re going to college to learn how to think, it’s probably too late. The liberal arts & sciences are best studied in middle and high school. But honestly, any discipline, diligently studied, will be a good preparation for life and work. Passion for the subject is key.

  20. Man, I just got a liberal arts degree. What a mistake! I swear that the only people in my class who are employed either had family connections or are filling diversity requirements. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I have accrued literally tens of thousands of dollars in loan. Why didn’t I just go to a state univeristy?