Some thoughts on Liberal Arts

If I were to pick my greatest strength and greatest weakness as a student and an academic, they would be the same: I am utterly self-indulgent when it comes to researching things that interest me and sharing that research with others. This character trait is a strength in that I have diverse interests that only continue to become more diverse as I chase initial questions down rabbit-holes. Sometime during my junior year of undergraduate work, I idly jotted down: “I have more questions now than when I started.” I am curious, so this basic realization is what makes academia fun for me and should serve me well in the long run (I have a notebook that is filling up with ideas for research projects at some point). Unfortunately, I am indulgent enough that when I end up in a class that I do not care about, I have a hard time performing well. I do the work, of course, but the execution and diligence on the papers and the retention of information is something I struggle with.

This confession may be a faux pas, but it is true. I also believe that there is only marginal inherent benefit to the study of history. The main repetition of history is due to human nature, so you will not solve the future by studying the past.1 Frankly, history falls into the same category as literature, art, and most scientific studies that exist to indulge curiosity and make people more well rounded. Sure, people might be better prepared for the workplace if we only taught essential skills,2 but they would also be mindless automatons. How boring would that be?

For those people who require the skills based learning to justify the existence of a field, the liberal arts do teach research, critical thinking, argumentation, and writing. These are widely applicable skills and, frankly, ought to be further emphasized (particularly in large lecture classes there is more emphasis on dumping information on the students and expecting them to regurgitate it rather than any sort of educational process).

Yesterday, I listened to some authors answer questions about how to write interesting characters. One of the main tips they offered was to give the characters interests and hobbies. The same is true for people, I think. The liberal arts ought to help foster interests and curiosities. Most people will not pursue a career in those interests (though perhaps a related field), but the interests and activities will stay with them, resulting in a population that is better informed and more well rounded. Armed with basic skills and rounded interests, discipline specific skills can be learned on the job where the employers will have a chance to fashion the type of worker they need. Unfortunately there has been more of an onus on colleges to teach job skills recently, which I think does a disservice to both colleges and the employers who are going to get a lemming cut from a mold rather than a person they can turn into their own worker.

I believe that being able to hold a conversation and talk about a wide variety of conversations transcends the category of job skills and into the category of life skills. This is the great benefit of the liberal arts, particularly in that it encourages people to research, write, and produce “culture.” Most people won’t have time to write history, but they may well have that interest and want to read about it. These skills and ambitions should be encouraged.

I leave you with three quotes attributed to Mark Twain on the topic:

“The man who does not read books has no advantage over the man that can not read them.”

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”


1 I like Orwell’s formulation about history in 1984, but he spoke about control of the past, particularly in the use and abuse of history to make a point (something that I often see in political debates), not the study of it per se. You could make the case that the study of it will prevent this abuse, however.
2 On this point, what are the essential skills they would learn? How quickly are those essential skills changing? I am highly skeptical of the belief that schooling should teach job skills that are going to be highly diverse and changing based on the industry. Moreover, this educational model is highly reactionary.

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