The value of a traditional liberal arts education

liberal arts education college
UW Madison – Bascom Hall

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Conservatives, Please Stop Trashing the Liberal Arts, caught my attention. I have long felt I missed learning something important in college. Those gaps left me ill prepared in important ways for work and life. I worked in my field after getting a Masters’ Degree from a top university. I have a successful career and a happy life. So I’m not complaining. But college could have been much more and might have saved me from some mistakes in life.  I fear college education has not improved and may be worse. A couple areas stand out.  My critical thinking skills proved to be undeveloped.  I found I had simply accepted way too much as fact.  I had a lopsided view of the world and had not been forced to critically examine basic assumptions.  The historical, cultural, and political context I had for understanding the world was so full of holes I shudder now in retrospect. I could write a whole article on my efforts after college to learn to write. I blame myself in large part.  I studied hard and got good grades but I didn’t seek out the hardest courses. I wanted courses to be interesting and exciting. I steered clear of philosophy and history. Too hard, too dull. I wanted courses that seemed relevant and current — ecology, urban planning, history of film. Those were my mistakes. But there was a notable lack of guidance about what I should have studied and, importantly, why.  It took years to realize what I missed and its impact on how I lived my life.  As noted in the article there is real value in a traditional liberal arts education. Job specific skills are important and one should leave college with a good shot at getting a job. But there is a basic foundation of knowledge and thinking skills that would us be better citizens and live more meaningful lives. I inherited a love of learning from both my parents and that has driven me to make up for what I missed in school. Here is what I have focused on.

  • History.  I left college with the basics of western civilization history.  I learned one needs more than the basics to put current events into a meaningful context. Understanding the basic forces driving civilization is necessary to make sense of what we see on the front pages.  We need to understand how and why we got to where we are today.
  • Philosophy.  I could name the most famous philosophers and say a few words about some of them. I read Plato’s Republic in high school. Some had an effect on me. But I have realized since how superficial my understanding was. Most of the truly important decisions we make are moral.  Many of the front page problems facing the world have their roots in political and moral philosophical differences. How does one vote intelligently without understanding the explicit or implicit philosophical framework a candidate is working from? (Perhaps I am giving them too much credit in thinking they actually have one.) How does one make the big moral decisions in life without a grounding in the thinking of the great moral philosophers? Do we just rely on gut feeling?
  • Critical thinking. We talk about critical thinking all the time but often what passes for critical thinking is rote criticism, not the in-depth analysis and questioning of assumptions and premises.  Parts of philosophy address this.  But this should be part of most college courses.
  • Economics. I studied Thurlow, Veblin and E. F. Schumacher in school. But I never heard of Hayek or von Mises. It has taken decades for me to get the economic background necessary to be thoughtfully critical of the many economic perspectives presented daily by politicians and economists.

So my advice to students in college is to take the tough courses in these topics, read widely, and be fearlessly critical of everything you hear and read. For those no longer in school, our learning should never end. It is an exciting time to learn because there are many resources available for lifelong learners.