why the liberal arts? the value of general education

This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee. 

Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.

However, that claim has remained mostly implicit. As such, we ask students to complete a liberal arts program without explaining why. There is a certain irony in that; reason-giving, self-reflection and critique, and interpretation of evidence are at the center of the liberal arts. Across the disciplines that make up the liberal arts, we emphasize asking “why” — in the many senses of that question (Tilly 2006), and with the many forms of evidence and argumentation we can bring to it. Yet we have largely avoided explicitly asking why students should experience the liberal-arts-based curriculum we feature.

Why, then, should the brightest young people of North Carolina and beyond engage in a broad, serious education in the liberal arts? As it turns out, there is quite a bit of recent writing on just that question, and much of it examines the capacities, ideas, and dispositions that emerge from liberal arts studies and that students need for professional, citizenship, and intellectual success. For example, Martha Nussbaum (2002) argues for cultivating specific citizenship capacities (the ability to criticize one’s own traditions, to think beyond one’s own region or group, and to imagine being in the position of someone very different from oneself) through liberal arts education. Amy Gutmann proposes “that we proudly defend… liberal arts education as broadly pre-professional and optimally instrumental in the pursuit of real-world goals” (2015, 21).

In Education and Equality, Danielle Allen proposes that “participatory readiness”–readiness to participate fully in public life—be a core element of higher education. That requires, in turn, specific capacities to be cultivated, including verbal empowerment; strategic and tactical understanding; ethical use of this understanding; and democratic, associational know-how (43). Robert J. Sternberg emphasizes the intellectual work of citizenship: “promoting leadership skills in the absence of critical thinking produces graduates who are self-serving, if often charismatic, charlatans posing as servant leaders” (2). That means teaching analytical, practical, and creative capacities through intellectually-rigorous content (163).

Over the past few decades, Carolina has also increased its commitment to, and success in, broadening access to education for low-income and first-generation college students. Between 2001 and 2015, we saw a 51% increase in the rate of first-generation students as a proportion of the incoming student body, and a 79% increase in the rate of Pell-eligible students. We therefore have a different student population arriving at Carolina—a population no less deserving of, nor less able to benefit from, an excellent liberal arts education, but one to whom explaining the opportunities in, and value of, that foundation may be all the more urgent. (In my own experience, many wealthier and non-first-generation students also need such explanations.)

Two important reports from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences highlight the urgency not just of defending the liberal arts but of promoting the value of the liberal arts in the contemporary world. The first of these is “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation,” released in 2013. It emphasizes the specific roles of the humanities and social sciences in preparing students for “a satisfying and productive adult life”:

  1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.
  2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
  3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

The best way to strive for these goals is to understand what students gain from humanities and social science study: “the ‘qualities of mind’–problem-solving, critical, analysis, and communication skills—that are embedded in all disciplines.” The report recommends “a fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences–[which] provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship.”

Following “The Heart of the Matter,” last year AAAS published “The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America.” That report, too, sets up three related challenges higher education can best address:

  1. The public face of America has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and every American can now expect to come into contact with histories and worldviews quite different from their own, on a more regular basis. The development of an increasingly interconnected global economy will only reinforce this sense of profound ethnic, cultural, and linguistic change.
  2. Workers of the future can also expect to change occupations and careers several times and may even end up in jobs and industries that do not now exist.
  3. Democratic governance will become much more complicated as a result of these demographic and technological changes. Engaged citizens already require real scientific and technological understanding—as well as a working knowledge of history, economics, civics, and the arts—in order to make informed policy decisions. They also need a set of sophisticated critical thinking skills in order to navigate a media landscape that includes the rapid exchange of information, often at the expense of careful analysis and reasoned debate, and in which fact and fiction are not easily distinguishable.

Students, the report holds, must gain “a combination of scholarly knowledge, practical skills, and personal dispositions that empowers them to live productive and meaningful lives and to participate effectively in the American economy and democracy…. Students need to be equipped with the skills, flexibility, and attitudes required to navigate amid uncertainty, to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Capacities: Liberal Arts’ Contribution to Students

These reports, articles, and books agree on a key point: that a great liberal arts education is useful beyond the academy. Such an education is good not just because of the tradition it holds or the intrinsic importance of the content, though these do remain important (see Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities). A great liberal arts education is the best way to afford students the skills, flexibility, attitudes, and dispositions they will need to succeed in an uncertain, dynamic, and diverse world. As scholars and educators in the liberal arts, we should not shy away from explaining, promoting, and yes, even measuring that usefulness.

There is reason for hope. A recent article in the Washington Post documents an internal Google study showing that seven of the eight most important skills for success at Google are so-called “soft skills.” These are traits like flexibility, sociability, critical thinking, and self-reflection: traits best cultivated through their repeated use in different intellectual contexts—in other words, the liberal arts.  A report from the Pew Research Center last year shows much the same thing: that traits like creativity, resilience, and social and emotional intelligence are “unique human skills that artificial intelligence and machines seem unable to replicate” (Rainie and Anderson 2017). Thus some of the answers to “why the liberal arts” are: because they teach and reinforce skills and capacities in great demand in the current economy.

But as we have emphatically shown, preparation for the workplace is not enough justification for an emphasis on the liberal arts, particularly in the context of a public university committed to public service. Happily, the same broad idea applies to students’ other post-college roles: as citizens, leaders, family members, and lifelong learners. In each of these domains, similar capacities—such as identifying and understanding thorny problems; submitting these problems to evidence, critique, and dialogue; forming good judgments, even in the context of uncertainty; and acting upon those judgments—form the basis for success. As the AAAS “Future of Higher Education” report details, it is precisely these intellectual styles of thought that the liberal arts can teach and exemplify. The challenge is to fulfill that potential.

Several theoretical strains use the concept of “capacities.” In her work on one of these strains, Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum (2016) uses the language of capacities to refer to human abilities cultivated through education and useful in many domains beyond the academy. As I see it, there are two dimensions to each of these capacities: the capacity’s importance and its portability. The importance (or value) of a given capacity—say, assessing evidence, or communicating across difference—is best demonstrated through sustained attention to that capacity in a given field. To continue the example of assessing evidence, hands-on evaluation and assessment of evidence in a particular field (American history, organic chemistry, macroeconomics) allows students to develop the capacity as it is used instead of only in the abstract. Again, a win for the liberal arts.

Meanwhile, the portability (or transfer, as the education scholarship calls it) is about students developing similar capacities in different fields. Having developed the capacity for communicating across difference in a course focusing on gender, for example, students learn to transfer that learning into other domains by having it recur in different contexts—say, in a focus on scientific debates or public health, where similar capacities for communication across difference are used in very different ways.

These capacities are not foreign to the liberal arts; rather, they are the core practices that define our scholarship in the liberal arts. Specifying the capacities students will develop through liberal arts study, therefore, is the best way to emphasize the public value of liberal arts study.

Works Cited

Allen, Danielle. Education and Equality. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Behling, Laura L. “Helping Students See the Connections.” Inside Higher Ed January 30, 2018. Available: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/01/30/helping-students-identify-connections-their-college-education-opinion

Gutmann, Amy. “What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?” Chapter two in The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice, ed. Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Education for Citizenship in an Era of Global Connection.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 21 (2002), 289-303.

Nussbaum, Martha. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Rainie, Lee, and Janna Anderson. “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training.” Pew Research Center, May 3, 2017. Available: http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/03/the-future-of-jobs-and-jobs-training/

Small, Helen. The Value of the Humanities. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sternberg, Robert J. What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership. Cornell University Press, 2016.

Strauss, Valerie. “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students.” Washington Post December 20, 2017. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/12/20/the-surprising-thing-google-learned-about-its-employees-and-what-it-means-for-todays-students

Tilly, Charles. Why?: What Happens When People Give Reasons… and Why. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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