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Why the Liberal Arts Matter

May 23, 2011

As commencement season nears its end, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth asks us to think again before we relegate the liberal arts to a dusty, pedagogical closet:

My parents were part of a wave of Americans after World War II whose confidence in the future and belief in education helped create the greatest university sector in the world. Students from all walks of life began to have the chance to acquire a well-rounded education, and it was on this basis that Americans created a vibrant culture, a dynamic economy and a political system that (after many struggles) strove to make equality before the law a fundamental feature of public life.

A well-rounded education gave graduates more tools with which to solve problems, broader perspectives through which to see opportunities, and a deeper capacity to build a more humane society.

In recent years university leaders in Asia, the Mideast, and even Europe have sought to organize curricula more like those of our liberal art schools. How, they want to know, can we combine rigorous expectations of learning with the development of critical thinking and creativity that are the hallmarks of the best American colleges?

But in our own land we are running away from the promise of liberal education. We are frightened by economic competition, and many seem to have lost confidence in our ability to draw from the resources of a broadly based education. Instead, they hope that technical training or professional expertise on their own will somehow invigorate our culture and society.

Many seem to think that by narrowing our focus to just science and engineering, we will become more competitive. This is a serious mistake.

***

We should look at education not as a specific training program for a limited range of mental muscles but as a process through which one will generate some of the most important features in one's life. It makes no sense to train people as narrowly as possible in a world going through cataclysmic changes, for you are building specific strengths that leave you merely muscle-bound, not stronger and more flexible.

We should think of education as a kind of intellectual cross-training that leads to many more things than at any one moment you could possibly know would be useful. The most powerful education generates further curiosity, new needs, experiences to meet those needs, more curiosity, and so on.

Education isn't just an object that you use to get started in a career; education is a catalytic resource that continues to energize and shape your life. Education enhances your ability to develop new skills and capacities for connectivity that allow you to solve problems and seize opportunities.

I hope that parents across the country can still believe in this form of education as they attend graduation ceremonies across the country. America should not retreat to a narrow, technical education in hopes that it will make us tougher in global competition.

We should have confidence, as my parents did, that a broadly based, liberal education will help our young people lead lives of creative productivity, lives in which they can make meaning from and contribute to the world around them.

Wesleyan is famous, of course, for putting the "liberal" in liberal arts. But in a global economy that increasingly rewards creativity, entrepreneurial drive, and the ability to process and synthesize enormous amounts of information, the future is likely to belong to those who use both sides of their brain.

What do you think? Is Roth right about the continuing value and relevance of a liberal arts education? And if he isn't, why are so many people willing to pay so much money for one?

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