The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges and Programs

Barry Schwartz offers his view on why liberal arts colleges are important.

“In my view, higher education should be equipping students to answer these four questions:

  • What is worth knowing?
  • What is worth doing?
  • What makes for a good human life?
  • What are my responsibilities to other people?”

If this were happening, than the value to a liberal arts education would be undisputed. What is actually happening on liberal arts campuses is far more directive than inquisitive.

  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth knowing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth doing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what makes for a good human life.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here are your responsibilities to other people.

Of course, the delivery isn’t quite so blunt. The selective presentation of information, leading lectures, grades, and in some cases outright bullying serve to shape the narrative. What Schwartz is lamenting in his column, with an awkwardly applied analogy from the 1960’s, is the approaching demise of a “broader” knowledge foundation about things not STEM.

“It was an axiom of the upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s that ‘you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s tools.’ What this means to me in the context of higher education is that you can’t discover the deep limitations of economics by only studying economics. You can’t uncover the deep limitations of genetics or evolutionary biology by only studying genetics and evolutionary biology.”

Not surprisingly, we’re to take what the analogy means to Schwartz, not what it actually means. So, setting aside the destructive reference, it’s far more likely today’s students have better intel on what various college programs are offering. In the case of liberal arts colleges and programs, not only are they no longer offering any useful tools for thinking, those that are offered have vanishingly little applicability toward furthering personal or professional success. Graduates that do think such an education has somehow endowed them with special status as “important thinker” end up – surprise! – with Ph.D’s doing research that has Schwartz asking “why would anyone care about this?” Everyone else has been roughed up sufficiently by the post-academic world to realize they’ve been mostly unprepared for an unforgiving and uncaring world of adult expectations, a world not particularly interested in providing what the new graduates were taught was their “right” or “entitlement.”

The challenge for Schwartz is to look inward and notice how the very system in which he actively participates produces individuals bent on “running around in circles, and swallowing their own tails.”

The demise to liberal arts programs as Schwartz knows them may be due more to the increased awareness among young people that the product offers a false truth. At least with STEM and similar programs, two plus two equal four. A person can build a great deal of confidence and success – personal and professional – on a foundation like that.

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