‘Wicked Problems’? Avoiding Easy Answers 

The value of a liberal arts education is a perennially contentious subject that has engaged philosophers, politicians, and more than one long-winded college president. While one of the most frequent modern criticisms of a liberal arts education is that it isn’t terribly useful, the most common counterargument you will hear at Occidental concerns students’ role as active citizens.

Our students are at a crucial point in their lives in which our society issues an invitation to them to assume membership as citizens. That’s a pretty big deal. As newly minted citizens—most of our students still come to us at age 18—we believe it is incumbent upon them to understand not just their rights, but their obligations to the shared enterprise of living with and among their fellow citizens. That entails a deep understanding of the 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; democracy and its discontents; and the science behind global warming and effective modes of its redress.

For many students, their four years at Oxy constitute a political awakening. They inevitably find the persistence of these problems outrageous, even as the solutions they seek may differ. However, in order to have any impact, they need the full arsenal of skills that are part and parcel of their ­liberal arts education—the skills that are instrumental to first-rate research, numeracy, effective communication, and the ability to evaluate evidence and negotiate positions with which you disagree.

Most of all, our students need to cultivate respect for complexity. We live in a world in which simplistic solutions are being proffered by populists on the right and the left. Such solutions sometimes have the virtue of moral clarity, but they often lack a sophisticated understanding of the problem they are intended to address. 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.

In addition, our students need a number of softer skills that they acquire both inside and outside the classroom—especially in heated late-night conversations in their dorm rooms. These crucial skills include open-mindedness, empathy, and a willingness not just to challenge positions with which they disagree, but to listen carefully to them. We live in a world that has become so partisan that we imagine the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness, with no common ground between them. We seek out those with whom we fervently agree to reinforce those points of commonality with an almost religious zeal, and have lost the capacity to grow and listen and change our understanding of the world.

Of course, at Occidental the liberal arts involve not just preparation for active citizenship. We also provide our students with basic skill-building and teach them the value of advanced scientific research through an unencumbered pursuit of the truth and the importance of passing on of one’s cultural heritage (however fraught that might be). All of these approaches are foundational to the work we do, informing decisions about what gets taught and how, and jostling each other by making sometimes contradictory claims on our students. My guess is that if our students were to ask their professors which “justification” hews closest to their own beliefs, they would get many different answers. And that is as it should be.

There is another justification for liberal arts education that you rarely hear—one that extends back at least to Aristotle. That is the defense of education as essential to nothing less than our students’ future happiness. This approach asks our students to consider what makes for a life well lived. For the 19th-century English philosopher 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 the freedom to choose. There is real joy in that, and a very deep satisfaction. While arguments over which majors deliver the highest salary grab the headlines, in the end joy and satisfaction are results we hope all of our students find for themselves.

Jonathan Veitch

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