Lawrence Uebel

My friend Jess recently gave me an article assigned in her sociology class. Written in 1988 by English professor Albert Wachtel, it attempts to establish the value of liberal arts education. Though a bit eclectic, his essay establishes two main arguments: liberal arts “produce humanized days, enhanced human lives” and they employ the “magic of crossed boundaries.” Though both sound vague on the first reading and the first is admittedly hard to make much clearer, the idea that liberal arts programs are useful for their ability to integrate disparate subjects is well-established – and seems almost completely outdated today.

One area where grasping liberal arts’ subjects matters is politics, though it’s also probably the most predictable and limited in scope. The general argument goes that single-focus education leaves most people too poorly-informed to form opinions about the variety of topics necessary to make them valid and contributing citizens of a democracy or republic .They end up either not voting or voting poorly and the same goes for the rest of their public-sphere participation. Though maybe a reasonable concern, this argument focuses more on subjects like history and world politics and provides little defense for studying art or English.

More interesting, though, is the influence of liberal arts in the professional world. Wachtel notes, “it took a physicist, Franz Boas, to bring scientific rigor to anthropology … (and) it took giants of drama and art to give direction to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in their explorations of the psyche.” Whereas in the political sphere, liberal arts are usually considered useful insofar as they cover a range of topics, in the professional world it’s understanding the interconnectedness of fields that matters, as well as applying insights from one to another.

In a 2001 USA Today article titled “Offbeat majors help CEOs think outside the box,” author Del Jones quoted the executive search firm Spencer Stuart as determining that “just one-third of CEOs running the USA’s largest 1,000 companies have a master’s of business administration degree.” The article went on to quote a number of CEOs with seemingly “useless” degrees such as former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who double majored in English and theater, which he said helped him learn about interpersonal relationships, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who said her study of the transition from the Middle Ages to Renaissance helped her evaluate the current revolution in information technology.

Liberal arts education, then, is important for some immediately practical concerns, but its greatest value lies foremost in its ability to instill a certain type of mindset. It encourages an awareness of varied knowledge; but, more importantly, it instills a perception of an interconnected world.

These aims probably seem idealistic to many current college and high school students, and with good reason. Liberal arts today bear little resemblance to what Wachtel pictured. Liberal arts programs, including some of the classes here at Miami, are infected by “textbook syndrome,” in which one is exposed to the basic framework of a subject – it’s most basic facts and theories – without ever discussing or implying its actual use to non-professionals or its tie-ins to the rest of the world. The goal seems instead to be to throw so many interests at a student that hopefully one or two stick. While not having bad aims, that approach severely undercuts liberal arts’ potential.

Wachtel writes, “Essentially, education is a question of purposes: Why learn? Why teach?” What’s the point?

When I was in high school, the math department hung a poster that rhetorically asked, “What will I use this for?” It then graphed a list of mathematical formulas and topics and a list of professions in which they were used, but the implication was still one should only learn math because it will directly apply to certain type of professions one might take up in the future.

One message liberal arts educators need to send (and first, to understand) is studying liberal arts is neither solely a useless exercise of purely academic interest (as critics would have it), nor does it provide a directly applicable skill (as some defenders would like to portray it). Rather, it provides a broad and interconnected worldview along with a variety of experiences that, far from being useful in one particular profession, can be employed in a number of situations, work-related and not, throughout one’s life.