"A liberal-arts education is supposed to provide you with a value system, a standard, a set of ideas, not a job."...  ...Caroline Bird.

Commentary of the Day - March 6, 2009: We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever.   Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

More years ago than I care to say, my parents were alarmed when I decided to major in English rather than become a pre-med student. "How will you earn a living?" they worried out loud, and then answered their own question by insisting that I "wouldn't."  My aunt's reaction  was even worse.  As she liked to put it, "I have a nephew in business and another in law, and one that fell into stories and never came out."  Not surprisingly, I was the last nephew, the one prepared to throw his life away on what my collective family regarded as "foolishness."

The liberal arts have always been a tough sell, and this was true long before people thought of "liberal" as a political temperament rather than its much older definition as the subjects available for study by free men and women.  "What good," Sam's  mom once asked me during a particularly awful parents' weekend, "can a course [offered by the philosophy department] on 'death and dying' do?"  I was caught between a sip of coffee and a bite of doughnut, between the proverbial rock and the proverbial hard place "You'll have to ask Professor Binkley about that one.  I can only tell you that I've glanced at the syllabus and the readings he assigns are first rate."  That was not good enough for Sam's mom, who continued to think (out loud) that there wasn't a whiff of the "practical" in any of this: "We're all going to die -- right?  So, what good does reading what a lot of old fogies have to say about it?

That was then, a time when most undergraduates had their collective eyes on the main chance.  Granted, there were a few hard core Romantics who thought about heading West and becoming beatniks, but even those folks knew that sandals and bongo drums really weren't in the picture.  What most of my fellow students wanted to know had to do with final exams and what material was likely to be on them.

In this regard my favorite memory is of a fellow student in an introduction to philosophy class who didn't say a word for the first six weeks.  But one morning, to our amazement and that of our teacher, he began waving his hands with some urgency. "Yes, Mr. Jacobs, do you have a question?

"I do," he replied.

"What is it?"  Dr. Whiting asked.

"It's this: On p. 57 -- and I have it highlighted -- Socrates unequivocally declares that knowledge is virtue."

"You are correct."

"But then, on p. 62 -- and I have it highlighted -- Socrates seems to imply that knowledge might not be virtue.  And to make matters even more complicated, on p. 83 -- and I have it highlighted -- Socrates appears to be returning to his original position about knowledge and virtue."

"Yes, Mr. Jacobs.  You have clearly stated the situation.  What, then, is your question?"

"Well, Dr, Whiting, my question is this: For purposes of the exam, is knowledge virtue?"

Mr. Jacobs, alas, never understood why he was such a dolt in that class as well as in many that followed.  The liberal arts washed over him without soaking a pore.  I insist, nonetheless, that he was the exception rather than the rule, and that students who learned how to ask real questions were much better off than those who simply memorized, and regurgitated, "answers."

Again, that was then.  As for now, wrinkle lines have largely  replaced the innocent look that my college classmates sported.  There have been too many solemn talks around the kitchen table for students to regard high-end or even low-end colleges as a given.  Tuitions continue to soar at precisely the moment when dad's portfolio is heading ever southward.  My morning newspaper featured a quotation from Arthur Keiser, founder of Fort Lauderdale's Keiser  University: "Career colleges are really benefitting from the downturn in the economy."

I hope my last paragraph makes it clear that I don't live on a cloud (or under a rock) and have somehow missed the global economic crisis.  I know, I know -- and that's why I want to argue that a liberal arts education is more essential than ever.  Students will not only have to learn how to recognize when somebody is speaking rot (the last election should have provided plenty of practice) but also how to have nimble, adaptable minds.  At its best, a liberal education prepares a student to be a lifetime learner.  An exposure to, say, a Socratic dialogue or a James Joyce short story can, in future decades, become an extended study of The Republic or Ulysses -- read with others or alone.  As recent events have dramatically shown, those who put their stock in big apartments, fancy cars, and shiny diamonds have had many moments to ruminate about what is permanent and what can be passing.  Unfortunately, most of these people don't have the intellectual scaffolding necessary to prop them up in bad times.

We badly need people with cutting edge ideas, but I would argue that thinking "outside the box" can only occur when people know what a box is, and what was originally in it.  The liberal arts provides both a history and a context for contemporary assessments.  Given the world most undergraduates will inherit, they will need liberal arts study more than ever.  A trained mind and a willingness to pursue ideas wherever they might lead us is essential to a democracy.  I have no doubt that cheaper models of undergraduate education will expand in the next few years (online sites are but the beginning), but I have my doubts about how much real education they can deliver.  As with most things of importance, the bottom line is the wrong place to look for the things that truly matter, and this is doubly so when assessing the lifetime worth of a genuine liberal arts education.

2009, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.

The IP comments: Oh if those "geniuses" who brought us derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps had taken a few more liberal arts courses!  If perhaps they had taken a philosophy course that discussed ethics, and perhaps had read a bit more of the history of the first half of the twentieth century, they might have had a better understanding of the risks involved in opaque financial instruments.  They might have remembered that markets go down as well as up, and that downside risks have to be considered as well as upside potential.


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