Making the Case for Studying the Liberal ArtsIn an earlier post, I mentioned in passing my disagreement with Marc Andreessen's view that studying the liberal arts is a poor choice of how to spend one's time in college.
Earlier this month, Wellesley College, my alma mater, inaugurated Kim Bottomly as its thirteenth president. In her inauguration speech, Bottomly made the case for the liberal arts. In a central passage, she says:
What does Wellesley College have to do to continue its mission and to successfully educate these women of the 21st century? I believe that we must continue to offer the best possible liberal arts education, and we must figure out what it means to do this in the 21st century. The historian W.R. Connor has pointed out that the etymology of the word “liberal” in “liberal education” derives from a Greek word for free a word the Athenians used specifically to distinguish free citizens from slaves. ...Though the overall tone of Bottomly's speech is a tad pedantic (she's a scientist, not a belle lettrist), her rationale for study of the liberal arts is presented well. Her argument is one that I wish everyone would at least consider when the question of what type of program most benefits college students is under discussion.
Free citizens ... needed skills that enabled them to participate fully in society. Athens was an emergent democracy, and as such, needed citizens who could research a topic, develop a reasoned argument, analyze counter-arguments, assess the merits of specific proposals, and clearly articulate their views. Connor noted that, “These are not skills that emerge spontaneously or that can be taken for granted.” Liberal education was thus designed to impart the knowledge necesary to be effective in mass meetings deciding important issues. Liberal education was not private license; not the freedom to study whatever interested one, not an indulgent absence of pragmatic focus. It was instead constructed as a public good, and was designed to be the education truly necessary to ensure wise decisions and thus a good society.
Conner proposes we define liberal arts as “the skills of freedom.” I like this translation because it emphasizes that a liberal arts education began as a public good, and remains one today. It also points to the fact that a liberal education prepares students to manage their world and their lives, and not just their careers. I also like the fact that defining liberal education as “the skills of freedom” makes it clearer that the goal of liberal education is not the acquisition of content but the development of particular broad skills.