What’s the Value of Liberal Arts?

There was an NPR article today about how the pressures of the economy are casting some doubt on the value of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education.

I have a bit of an opinion on this, since I went to the best liberal arts college in the nation and I found gainful employment in my field immediately after I finished with graduate school.

To me, the argument about the value of a liberal arts college seems a bit silly. After all, a huge percentage – if not the majority – of the members of my Williams class majored in physics, biology, chemistry, math, psychology, computer science, or economics – all very practical things that translate directly to various industries and enterprises. A liberal arts college is a tremendous place to study those disciplines: science is a collaborative and inquisitive endeavor, and learning to work with an expert to thoroughly understand scientific principles gave me a much better experience than I think I would have received in the back of a hundreds-seat auditorium getting lectured by a TA.

But Williams did more than give me an incredibly solid grounding in physics, which I could then take towards a doctorate and career in spacecraft engineering. While I studied physics, in very demanding and rigorous classes, I also studied linguistics. And studio art. And history. And even political science. All these things did more than make me a “more well-rounded person.” Study of these subjects gave me exposure to ideas, concepts, and frameworks to help me put all sorts of things in context. So now, when I hear political candidates talk about America’s founders, or invading Iran, or health policy, I have a relevant understanding to evaluate their statements against. When I read about the economy, I have a basic understanding of the principles that govern the situation we face. When I read a good book, or see an engaging film, or view a piece of artwork, I can appreciate the efforts the artists put into those things and understand how they have the effects they do on me. In short: I have gained more than a narrow, vocational perspective on the world – I can approach many subjects from many angles. This is not merely a good thing for its own sake, but it also helps me in my chosen vocation. I’ve used my rudimentary skills as an artist and my experience with writing (Williams grads know what I’m talking about!) quite frequently as an engineer. If this also means that I have a few still lives and unfinished manuscripts in my apartment, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

For the same reasons that I appreciate having a liberal arts background in my academic training, I also appreciate that we have “pure” liberal arts majors in our society. We need historians, writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians in our society. We need them to remember, curate, create, and teach their liberal arts so that we can keep churning out well-rounded, multi-talented workers instead of narrowly focused drones.

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2 Responses to What’s the Value of Liberal Arts?

  1. Will says:

    It’s a complicated argument because I want to say what you’ve said above: that studying history, racism, the US after 9/11, plants, chemistry, and so on gives us a strong basis as workers, as citizens, in a way that is “objectively” useful. But that seems to cheapen the other argument – that experiencing the liberal arts is, in itself, the good – the endpoint.

    That we might have a collegiate experience that embraces the earth, sky, and the vast ranges of humanity between.

  2. Joseph says:

    Sure, Will. I agree that study of and contribution to art, literature, history, and other such subjects is worthwhile for its own sake. I wanted to contend the point that a liberal arts education has little practical value but pointing out that the liberal-arts aspects of my own background have been quite valuable in my technical and professional careers – and that I see the liberal-arts college approach as therefore more valuable than a purely technical or vocational one.

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