Trashing the liberal arts seems to have become practically a sport among some politicians these days. Maybe they think that the “liberal” in “liberal arts” is a political reference, which it isn’t.
Kentucky Gov. Matthew Bevin (R) recently suggested that French literature majors should not get state funding for college tuition. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said that welders earn more money than philosophy majors — fact checkers found this not to be true — while saying the country needs fewer philosophers and more welders.
Meanwhile, former Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush said:
“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working [at] a Chick-fil-A.’ ”
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wanted to change the historic mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
There’s more but you get the idea. These politicians see the liberal arts as a wasteful pursuit for college students who would do better studying subjects that can guarantee decent-paying jobs. That line of thinking suggests, of course, that a college education is only worth the job that students get at the end and nothing else, and that a liberal arts degree is irrelevant and unwanted in the American business community. None of that is true.
Enough with the trashing of the liberal arts. It’s gotten really old — and really, well, stupid.
For years now, business leaders have been saying loudly that the skills learned in liberal arts education are exactly what they are looking for in employees. The ability to think through problems for innovative solutions, to work in groups, to exercise a broad intellect, etc. Edgar Bronfman wrote back in 2013 on InsideHighered.com:
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically — to understand what people mean rather than what they say — cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
So here’s a new post about the value of a liberal arts education, this by Keith Evans, president of The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. You can read his blog here.
By Keith A. Evans
We’ve all watched as the saga of the Affluenza Teen has unfolded in predictable and unpredictable ways in 2016. Eighteen-year-old Ethan Couch, who fled the country after being charged with intoxication manslaughter, was arrested in Mexico and is now being held in an isolation cell “for his own safety.” Given the overwhelming research into the toxic mental health effects of isolation, it is ironic that a form of imprisonment reserved for the most dangerous inmates would be understood as in his best interest. Perhaps “tough on crime” translates to “tough on affluenza” in this case.
Couch came to mind recently as I listened to a thoughtful and persuasive defense of a liberal arts education in the 21st century offered by John McCardell, the vice chancellor of The University of the South. He spoke to the way that a liberal arts education offers more than vocational training to get a good job. It builds inner resources of resilience and personal capacity to lead a purposeful life, come what may. I thought of Couch (and others) when McCardell noted, “Nothing indemnifies people from the things that make life hard.” Truer words were never spoken.
The presidential election cycle seems to have our country hyper-focused on the “things that make life hard.” Our most successful candidates on either side have channeled and cultivated the grievances of the electorate across the spectrum. Playing by the rules turned out to be a flimsy indemnification strategy. Our real and perceived trials — underemployment, stagnant wages, discrimination, immigration, diminished global leadership, changing social mores, you name it — quickly transmute disappointment into anger. Indeed, the mood of the country is most often described as angry, and that anger is a bludgeon wielded by both candidates against each other and by the electorate against the status quo.
Anger, and the breathless “top this” solutions it inspires — from carpet bombing ISIS to converting to a socialist or semi-socialist state — are more than political phenomena; they have many features of a social contagion as well. The idea that human behavior could be contagious dates back to the foundations of modern psychology in the late 1800s. The theory goes that individuals in a group fear rejection if they act outside the norms of the group. “Reduction of restraints” occurs when a norm is openly violated or modified and fear of rejection is thereby lessened. The open expression of anger, in some cases over previously taboo topics, reduces social restraints and can lead to generalizing emotion well beyond the original subjects at hand. So does the Affluenza Teen end up in isolation as a result of a not-going-to-take-it-anymore contagion? Maybe. Or do a group of men in Oregon enact an armed takeover of a remote fish and game building because the norms restraining this kind of behavior have been reduced? Possibly. Social contagions are known to exist, but identifying and proving them is neither simple nor easy.
We may not agree on what is or is not a social contagion, but we likely could agree that it’s hard to be happy and angry at the same time. McCardell put his finger on something important in his assertion that a complete education is aimed at something more than just the skills or knowledge to make a living. Our national impulse in challenging economic times has been to demand increasing return on investment out of schools, colleges, and universities. Over time, that ROI has been defined more and more narrowly. As a result, public K-12 education is driven by standardized testing that suffocates curiosity and creativity. Higher education, guilty as charged of ratcheting up tuition and saddling students with high debt, is increasingly evaluated in terms of the starting salaries and lifetime earnings of its graduates.
Not a single American student, however, will be indemnified from the things that make life hard by the mastery of facts on a test or a big salary. Difficulties come our way from both personal circumstances and the inevitable unfairness of an imperfect society. If contagious, radioactive anger is our best or only resource to tap in the face of adversity, what does that mean for the future not just of our democracy, but our institutions and quality of life?
By almost any definition, the United States has seen tougher circumstances than these, yet we seem a bit brittle. Our current national mood may be revealing something missing in our educational agenda — the cultivation of wisdom, judgment, grace once inspired by the liberal arts — and now replaced by things seemingly more serviceable but far less ambitious.