The Liberal Arts and Its "Justifications"

Good morning. It is so good to see you here at last. If you don’t feel sufficiently welcomed by our taiko drummers, well hell, I’m out of ideas.

 (I think we all owe Vince Cuseo—our VP for Admissions—and his crackerjack staff a round of applause for their keen insight in identifying your many fine qualities and working so diligently to bring you to Occidental! Can we give them a round of applause?)

I am not in the habit of giving the convocation address. You have a lot on your plate and I know you are eager to get to it. But I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes to say a few words about why you are here.

Don’t worry. I intend to keep this brief (and to the extent possible) light. My goal is to provoke you to think a little bit about what you’ve signed up for; what you want out of the next four years and beyond that shockingly brief horizon.

You have enrolled in a liberal arts college and I suspect many of you don’t fully know what distinguishes a liberal arts education from other forms of education.

The justifications (and even quarrels) over the years concerning the value of a liberal arts education have been many. It is a contentious subject that has engaged philosophers, politicians, and more than one long-winded college president. (I will try not to be one of them.)

Let me begin with some of the more recent challenges to the value of a liberal arts education and work my way back to some of its earliest justifications.

One of the most frequent criticisms of a liberal arts education--that you hear today--is that it isn’t terribly useful. And to make matters worse, it is shockingly expensive. The opportunity costs of going to college—so the argument goes--far outweigh its benefits. It is as if we could all just tinker around in our garages and emerge as Bill Gates!

Undergraduates are often urged to prepare for a career in a clearly identifiable trade by studying accounting, pre-law, computer programming, or something like that.  I was an English major in college and then went on to study history and literature in graduate school. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the question, “An English major! What can you do with that?" One answer to that is that you can become a college president. In fact, since much of my job entails communicating effectively across a variety of constituencies, I can’t think of a better preparation.

The truth is there are lots of things you can do with an English major—many of which have very little to do with studying literature. The defense of a liberal arts education as “useful" goes something like this:

  • A liberal arts education prepares you to become a “life-long learner," think contextually, or the more commonly to “think critically"—a term that is thrown around a bit too much without an adequate definition.
  • Here is one definition of critical thinking: It lies in the ability to take a complex idea, break it down into its component parts; analyze those parts; negotiate positions with which you disagree; and then assemble all of that in a compelling written and oral form.

Those are the skills of a successful manager in virtually any field of endeavor. You can learn those skills as an English major or as a chemist. And they are applicable across a wide variety of fields.

So a liberal arts education is useful—very useful in fact, if you think about the degree to which our economy is based on the management of complex organizations that depend on a sophisticated understanding of information and knowledge. A liberal arts education may be “the long way around the barn," but—counter-intuitively--it is the path to a much, much better job than a more explicitly “useful" course of preparation might anticipate!

There is, as you might expect, a certain ambivalence to justifying a liberal arts education solely on the basis of its usefulness—even if one feels confident that it is immensely useful. For most of its history liberal arts education has been justified on other grounds. Matthew Arnold famously observed that the purpose of a liberal arts education was to introduce each new generation to “the best that has been thought and said." That meant an approach to education that focused on “the classics." He was especially concerned about the “leveling tendencies" of democracy. And he worried that without a cultural and moral framework found in our classical inheritance, democracy would run amok.

This logic was especially influential in general education for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries until it ran afoul of the “canon wars" in the 1980s and 90s. Critics rightly challenged the ethnocentrism of the classical tradition. It simply left too much out—especially the experience of women and under-represented groups. And it masked—under the veneer of “civilization"—many of the West’s great failings: slavery, imperialism, et al. In addition, this approach to the classics gave the impression that most of what mattered happened in the distant past and that it could be adequately encapsulated in a circumscribed reading list. The needs of democracy, the pursuit of knowledge to its very frontiers, required a different approach. So after tinkering with various ways to expand the canon of prescribed readings, most universities threw it out entirely and replaced the education of first-year students with a value-neutral “skills-based" approach--embodied in your present-day distribution requirements. If one couldn’t agree on what values to transmit—so the thinking goes--at least we could all agree on what skills were required to be successful.

This value-neutral skill-building approach lent itself nicely to what has become the most dominant justification for the purpose of an education: namely, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This paradigm is deeply suspicious of any attempts to limit what can be studied; how knowledge can be made useful and exploited for private gain. One might describe this approach as “the unencumbered pursuit of the truth." (By unencumbered I mean that it is both unencumbered by constraints—especially religious and government interference--but it is also unencumbered by any obligations to history, culture, ethics.)

This justification of the unencumbered pursuit of the truth goes all the way back to Plato and the birth of philosophy, and it got renewed emphasis with the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. It doesn’t look backward, as Matthew Arnold would have us do, to the “best that has been thought and said," or the “wisdom of the ancients;" rather, it is resolutely forward-looking. And it is responsible for some of our greatest research universities as well as their related scientific accomplishments.

But while this has led to some of our greatest scientific discoveries, this value-neutral paradigm has also allowed us to blunder into some pretty significant ethical quagmires that have put us all at great risk. Upon the detonation of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer (the scientist who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos) famously observed, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." One can imagine similar apocalyptic scenarios embedded in the discoveries associated with computer technology, genetic engineering, or even the technology behind fossil fuels.

But there is another problem with this paradigm. Since it sees itself as primarily value-neutral, this “unencumbered pursuit of the truth" doesn’t tell us much about how to live a worthwhile life—what ought to matter to us and why. I will come back to that in a moment.

Values do matter. And we can’t get by on skill-building alone. By far, the predominant argument you will hear at Occidental for the value of a liberal arts education concerns your role as active (and even critical) citizens. As 18 year-olds you are at an inflection point in which your society issues an invitation to you to assume membership as citizens. That’s a pretty big deal. As a newly minted citizen, it is incumbent upon you to understand not just your rights, but your obligations to the shared enterprise of living with and among your fellow citizens. That entails a deep understanding of the social, political, cultural and historical dimensions of some of our most vexing social problems—the persistence of poverty, racism, sexism and inequality; the negative and positive impacts of the marketplace; capitalism and globalization; democracy and its discontents; the science behind global warming and effective modes of its redress, etcetera.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of these issues to your future. (These next four years will be for many of you, a political awakening. You will find the persistence of these problems outrageous—as you should.) However, in order to have any impact you will need the full arsenal of skills that are part-and-parcel of your liberal arts education: the skills that are instrumental to first rate research, numeracy, effective communication, the ability to evaluate evidence and negotiate positions with which you disagree. Most of all, you will need an appreciation and respect for complexity. I cannot emphasize that enough. We live in a world in which simplistic solutions are being proffered by populists on the right and the left. Those simple solutions sometimes have the virtue of moral clarity, but they often lack a sophisticated understanding of the problem. If any of these issues were easy, they would have been solved by now. They are what might be described as “wicked problems." And wicked problems by definition are characterized by multiple determinants—in short, by their complexity.

But in addition to these skills you will need a number of softer skills that you will acquire both inside and outside the classroom—especially in your dorm rooms during heated conversations that (hopefully) stretch late into the night: open-mindedness, empathy—a willingness not just to challenge positions with which you disagree, but to listen carefully to them. We live in a world that is so highly partisan that we have lost the capacity to listen to one another. We imagine the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness, with no common ground in-between. We seek out those with whom we fervently agree and we reinforce those points of commonality with an almost religious zeal; and so we have lost the capacity to grow, to change our understanding of the world.

I have summarized these various approaches to liberal arts education much too briefly. All of them—basic-skill building; advanced scientific research through an unencumbered pursuit of the truth; the passing on of one’s cultural heritage (however fraught that might be), preparation for active citizenship—all of these approaches, are present at Occidental—often without even being named as such, though they inform decisions about the curriculum, what gets taught and how, jostling each other by making various—sometimes contradictory--claims on you. My guess is that if you were to ask your professors which “justification" hews closest to their beliefs, you would get many different answers. Be on the lookout for them!

There is one other justification for liberal arts education that I have left unmentioned until now. It is very old—extending back at least to Aristotle. And that is a defense of education as essential to nothing less than your future happiness. Happiness! That’s important too. And it can be too easily forgotten in the midst of all the other things your education demands of you. Yes, in addition to all the rest of the things you will learn at Occidental, we want you to be happy too. To flourish. That, of course, is easier said than done. But if your education is successful, it is not too far-fetched to say that it should lay the foundation for many of the things in your life that will bring you happiness.

This approach asks you to consider what makes for a life well-lived. In order to answer that question you will have to give a great deal of thought to what brings meaning to your life. And how the choices we make in our daily lives—including our careers, friendships, family, obligations to our communities—are informed by that overarching notion of the good life. For John Stuart Mill that meant developing some notion of your life’s purpose and realizing your full potential--encumbered to be sure by the limitations of circumstances, but not so encumbered that it doesn’t admit a wide degree of autonomy, the freedom to choose and make your life something of value. There is real joy in that. Discovery. And a very deep satisfaction.

I wish you the very best!

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