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.