The Practicality of a Liberal Arts Education
The following opinion piece by Dr. Thomas R. McDaniel, Senior Vice President at Converse, was recently published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press
“There is nothing so practical as a good theory,” said John Dewey, one of America’s most important philosophers. And I say there is nothing so practical as a sound liberal arts education.
The college curriculum today has expanded far beyond the traditional seven liberal arts, in part to answer every parent’s question: “So what can you do with your college degree?” Some parents and students focus too soon and too narrowly on specific job training and specialized occupational skills. Such a view can be myopic and, over time, quite impractical.
What is a liberal arts education? Robert Hersh, President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, did a survey in 1996 which indicated that 44 percent of high school students were unfamiliar with the term, and both students and parents overwhelmingly believed the reason for going to college was to prepare for a prosperous career. Almost none saw liberal arts as the best preparation for such a career. But if they want to be prosperous, students should take a closer look at the practical value of a liberal arts education.
The liberal arts are more than bodies of subject matter-history, philosophy, literature, mathematics, science, or the social sciences. They are more than vast quantities of information. At their best in the college classroom, they constitute the living legacy of the great thinkers and doers in our-and the world’s-civilization. In the classrooms of dynamic professors, the liberal arts connect learning to life. Mere note taking will not do; there must be debate, discussion dialogue among students and faculty; students must learn to defend and communicate their thoughts and beliefs, in well-argued oral and written discourse. Every career is enriched by such an education.
At the heart of the liberal arts is a view of how one learns. Everett Dean Martin, in a 1926 essay entitled “The Meaning of a Liberal Education,” summed it up this way: “One becomes an educated person by virtue of patient study, quiet meditation, intellectual courage, and a life devoted to the discovery and service of truth.” As the saying goes, education is more a journey than a destination.
Because that is yet another goal of liberal education, we should expect a liberal arts graduate in his or her journey to have mastered a number of academic skills that are very practical indeed: study skills, thinking skills, writing skills. Graduates should also have developed certain values, among them civic duty, personal responsibility, respect for people and their traditions, and intellectual honesty. Are not such skills and values central to success in the world of work?
At Converse our Founder’s Ideal calls for students “to see clearly, decide wisely, and act justly.” A concise summary of the ideal outcome of the liberal arts in action. With such qualities of mind and character, a person can claim to be liberally educated-whether the student, to quote Martin again, “has been trained in philosophy or mechanics.”
As a more contemporary educator, Cornell University President Frank Rhodes, put it, “the liberal arts are useful in the most significant way of all, useful for the business of living.”
One might ask: Just how does a liberal education prepare men and women who are better people and better employees in the modern work force? Here is my view:
First, by grounding students in their own cultural heritage. Surely, a contemporary citizen and employee is well served by a study of the past, of the great works of art and literature, of the philosophical explanations of great thinkers who sought answers to the eternal questi