Appreciate the intellectual value of a liberal arts education
In recent years, the liberal arts education has been criticized for being impractical and distinctly non-vocational. The claim that reading Homer’s “Odyssey” and debating Kant’s ethical theories do not lend themselves to a career in engineering or medicine is undeniable, critics of liberal arts education say. Especially following the 2008 stock market crash, politicians and activists have promoted what is now amounting to a surge in science, technology, engineering and math education.
However, despite what critics may say, the liberal arts education is as vital as ever, first and foremost for employment: A 2013 study from the American Association of Colleges and Universities reveals that an overwhelming 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Supposedly, these are the exact sorts of skills a proper liberal arts education aims to cultivate in students. While these skills are also taught in science-based curricula, the humanities are language based and, thus, involve more reading, writing and critical thinking.
But it is important to think beyond the drastically increased job prospects enabled by a liberal arts education. Each one of us is shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to be here at Brandeis, and it is worth taking time to consider why.
Let’s begin with one of the most valuable parts of the Brandeis experience: great teachers. Great teachers in the humanities are characterized by a certain level of intellectual honesty. They instruct with humility and present contrasting viewpoints with the attention they deserve. These professors understand that learning is continuous. Of course, they are also brilliant, and inevitably, sometimes their lectures will pass right above our heads. But, without grossly oversimplifying, they bring the material to a place undergraduate students can understand. They challenge their students and offer them opportunities for real intellectual growth. They inspire. They convey to their students just what made them want to dedicate an entire career to teaching their field in the first place.
I hope you have had a great teacher at Brandeis. I have had two, and I know I will always be indebted to these people.
Great teachers are one of the reasons why we pay increasingly exorbitant amounts for this school. But for what? What is the end goal? I am inclined to listen to my instinct that we are here for a quality education. But reality says something different — we are here for the degree. And yet, even so, many of us will be underemployed for years after graduation. Nationally, in 2015, 6.2 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees held jobs below their skill level, according to findings by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education.
Despite not necessarily requiring the skills of a college graduate, most jobs require a degree.This is probably the most compelling argument of why to attend college. Still, the value of our education must extend beyond that.
In a Dec. 1, 2006 Hoover Institution essay, Peter Berkowitz noted the lack of a coherent, ubiquitous definition of the term “liberal arts education”: “The dominant opinion proclaims that no shared set of ideas, no common body of knowledge, and no baseline set of values or virtues marking an educated human being exist.” He proceeds to explain how, at certain universities, two students of the same major may pass through college having read few, if any, of the same books. A similar premise exists at Brandeis; even though majors require certain core classes, the general education requirements do not have the same rigidity. Only one class, the University Writing Seminar, is required of all Brandeis students, so it is likely that most students, even those with the same major, may graduate after studying significantly different curricula.
If American liberal arts educations lack a clear path to achieving their established objective of educating their students, students should be very concerned.
Should our society not designate certain texts of the Western Canon as vital to creating the educated citizen? Columbia University, well-known for its core curriculum, does. According to its website, the curriculum is a “set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major.” This traditional education seems to be effective.
But, with an increasing focus on being “global citizens,” the tradition of the West has taken a hit at other notable schools in higher education. Postmodern liberals, operating in a world which gives credence to “multiple truths,” have criticized this course of study as that of “the dead white men.” Instead of placing emphasis on this singular, influential tradition of thought, many suggest that students should study the works of the victims of Western Civilization —―Native Americans, for example.
At Stanford University last year, for instance, a group of students petitioned the student government to establish a referendum question on a ballot, asking students if they desired to implement a required two-credit class in Western Civilization. In a Feb. 21 editorial, the Stanford Review presented that the necessity of such a class lay “in recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic, and social institutions.”
The following day, an unfriendly opinion piece in the Stanford Daily rejected the Western Civilization proposal as “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism.” The motion was soon rejected by a 6-to-1 margin, according to an April 11 article in the Daily Caller. This demonstrated students’ clear preference to refrain from studying, according the Stanford Review, the “common ground [we] walk on.”
To be sure, the virtue of allowing students the freedom to choose classes of interest is almost undoubtable. But students are provided an enormous disservice when classes analyzing the works of great thinkers are not offered as frequently as, say, secondary topic-specific classes such as those in the Gender and Sexuality Studies department.
While the content of the liberal arts education has experienced shifts over recent years, its goal, according to Berkowitz, remains to prepare “students to understand the other constitutive elements of education, or the variety of material, moral, and political forces that form the mind, shape character, and direct judgment.”
In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace ignored the modern political contentiousness of the liberal arts education and asserted that a true value of this education lies in freedom, which “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in a myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” For Wallace, being educated meant not only learning how to think but also exercising a certain control over what you think. “The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing,” he explained.
Perhaps the true value of a liberal arts education lies in developing the ability to find meaning in the seemingly insignificant parts of life. Perhaps it lies in developing an intellectual, literary, political and historical proficiency or in learning how to read and write with a certain coherence and command. Perhaps it lies in cultivating intentionality in our endeavors. Maybe it is just copious intellectual, psychological and social growth jammed into four years off South Street in Waltham.
Whatever the true value of a liberal arts education, it is clear that we are lucky to be here. In this season of Thanksgiving, let’s express our immense gratitude to those enabling our presence here at Brandeis.