Education for Humans: The Lasting Value of the Liberal Arts

I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement on the day I graduated from university. I completed my studies in philosophy, and unlike other graduates, I had no clear path forward. My friends who completed degrees in business or engineering had jobs lined up in their respective fields. For them, their career paths were well defined. The programs they completed had clear ties to the job market.

But for someone with a philosophy degree, how exactly is one supposed to make themselves marketable to potential employers?

Well, after stumbling for a while in search of direction, pursuing a graduate degree in public policy, I finally found my bearings.

Do I have any regrets you may ask? Well, it’s complicated.

In this article, I want to argue that subjects in the liberal arts still have lasting value. However, their importance should not be confined to academic institutions or be framed in a way to make someone more employable. Rather, I will argue that the liberal arts provide the tools for ordinary citizens to identify patterns and to make sense of the world around them. These subjects help us identify the stories that shape our societies, and give us the creativity and freedom to create new ones.

The liberal arts are concerned with at least two goals:

  • How one could live a ‘good life’; and
  • How to establish and participate in well functioning societies

Useless?

I’ve read many articles on the worth and value of liberal arts degrees and there are generally two opposing views on the subject.

The first is that pursuing higher education in these subjects is foolish. Proponents of this view argue that these degrees have no tangible linkages to the job market. In difficult economic times, they claim that students should focus on subjects that will guarantee a return on investment. They point towards subjects in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as in-demand subjects which are closely tied to the modern economy.

The opposing view is that the liberal arts teach foundational skills which can be applied to a variety of different fields. For instance, every company needs clear writers and thinkers who are able to get their ideas across in a succinct way. These subjects may not be related to a particular industry, but they teach skills that are both transferable and flexible. The knowledge of technical experts needs to be translated in a manner that is digestible to the general public.

What this debate misses however is the broader question of what education is for. In our modern society which prizes materialistic notions of success, and which views those the ‘top of the corporate ladder’ as the ultimate prize, it is difficult to look at education beyond this reductive utilitarian calculus.

To explore education through a different lens we need to first look at the ideals of the past.

The Ideals of Education: Lessons from the Past  

The mission of the educational institutions of the past was to focus on developing and cultivating one’s character and disposition. Society’s political and cultural elites were trained in the humanities with subjects ranging from philosophy, languages and literature. The goal was not to train society’s future leaders not with merely practical skills, but with a focus on cultivating wisdom and virtue.

The type of education focused on nurturing one’s character has its roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that in order to achieve a life of contentment and human flourishing (what he called eudaimonia), one must cultivate virtue through practice and habit. One becomes courageous through performing acts of courage just as one becomes disciplined through exercising self-restraint.

When exercising judgement and determining how to act in unique situations, Aristotle argues that we should aim towards the mean between excess and deficiency. For instance, when looking at the virtue of courage, it would be foolish to be fearful of trivial concerns. On the contrary, one would put themselves in danger if they were overly confident in dangerous situations. To be courageous then would be to exercise discretion and right action through a proper assessment of the danger or risk a situation poses.

Good character then is developed when one has the capacity and wisdom to determine what virtues and ethical principles to apply in different circumstances. A person who has learned and practiced a moral education will be free from their immediate passions and desires. They will be able to use reason and right judgement to navigate through the intricacies of life.  

Navigating an Uncertain and Complex World

It is no secret that we live in a world with many complex, messy and daunting problems. These need no further description of these issue as we are reminded of the political, economic and environmental issues every time we turn on the news.

Of course, we need individuals with the technical skills to be able to innovate and devise new technologies to solve these crises. We need those who are specialized in the STEM fields to meet the demands of the modern economy.

However, we can’t ignore the necessity for high level thinkers who are able to see the big picture and patterns shaping the world we live in. Perhaps one doesn’t need to study the liberal arts in a formal institution, but nonetheless the studying these subjects in some capacity provide an individual with phycological and spiritual autonomy. Through reading the classics and getting acquainted to the wisdom of the past, we develop the ability to think more freely.  Moreover, we can refrain from the pressure and temptations from mindlessly following the opinions of the masses.

Our opinions would be original and authentic rather than reactionary.

In a world that is in constant change, merely training students for the job market, runs the risk of producing homogenous thinkers who will sustain society’s declining institutions instead of trying to change them to adapt to our present circumstances. We need new ideas of success which align with the pressing demands of our current situation. Instead of chasing after the sports car and large salary, perhaps education should aim to allow us to be better more informed citizens or to contribute to the well being of others.  As Richard Louv notes in his book Last Child in the Woods, educators should ask,

Does four years here make your graduates better planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell Berry’s words, “itinerant professional vandals”?

Our ancestors have dealt with many of the same challenges and social upheaval that we are currently facing. The liberal arts provide us with their insights and wisdom. It can help us cultivate wisdom and build more beautiful and sustainable futures.

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another

Gilbert K. Chesterton

Source Image: Pexels Free Photos

19 thoughts on “Education for Humans: The Lasting Value of the Liberal Arts

  1. Here, here! As one with a science/maths education I now understand well the value of a much broader education. We are educating children to live in a rapidly changing world, not to do tomorrow’s jobs that may not exist the day after…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would also add, I was trying to get across that education should be about much more than ‘merely job training’. The ancients viewed it as a means to develop virtue and character, and one’s whole being. I think if we took this type of education seriously perhaps we would focus on building more beautiful and sustainable societies rather than chasing the “Almighty dollar”

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      1. Thank you for your comments. Yes, I wanted to stray away from the economic value of an arts degree, and try to argue that whatever you study or whatever profession you land in, there is value in learning from the liberal art subjects as it enables you too look at things from unique and broader perspectives.

        For instance, I participate in book clubs\reading groups, and write this blog as a hobby as something that brings joy to my life

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Sadly my father derailed my academic career with this back hander “An arts degree is not worth the paper its printed on.” He forced me into secretarial.. While I admire those who can build with their hands a good mind that can embrace a wide number of understandings is a very important tool. Maybe that does not always come through study but I do not see how it has no value at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good for you Andrew. I have always felt that a degree in Liberal Arts provides a strong foundation. Your 20’s are about figuring out what you want to do in the world. I know and have met so many people who took the traditional path and then 20 years later figure out they hate it. You can pivot easily from a LA degree. If you listen to yourself, you can hear what resonates. Thank you for helping articulate a way forward for those who read your articles. You are illuminating a path with such elegance and articulation. It’s not easy to take a path that is non traditional and bucks what the norms tell you to do. Well done.

    >

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As someone who ultimately graduated with a degree in Liberal Arts I can assure you the job market has no use for such. A person with excellent social skills or family connections can surely make an excellent life out of it but as one who is a social dweeb from a poor family, it is about as useless as a degree gets.

    The one benefit is that there are some jobs that require a degree and it doesn’t matter what the degree is in. That isn’t from a sense that a well educated person is more useful in the job. Rather it is some bean counter’s method to exclude undesirables from their work force. It shows that you are capable of pursuing a goal for 4 years and mastering a minimal level of intellectual understanding of a topic. What it was you learned wasn’t important.

    Today the 4 year degree in a little bit of everything is the equivalent of a high school diploma when I was young. Most employers do not care if their employees are well rounded and virtuous and most employment takes no advantage of such a degree. It is the age of specialization.

    Most workers are stuck in the bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy and never plan on leaving.

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    1. Thank you for the comment Fred, I guess I would make the point and ask, what is education for? I agree ultimately, we need to secure work etc. and given our limited resources it is more prudent to pursue a degree in a marketable field.

      However, I think education is something that exists as well outside of formal academic institutions (i.e. as something with intrinsic rather than instrumental value). For me, education reflects what we value as a society. If that is the case, how do we go beyond materialistic consumerism ? Who do we turn to when looking for examples of how to live good lives?

      The classics provide road maps to navigate these times of crisis, in my humble opinion.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I am inclined to agree with your opinion on this. However I think it is not a universal truth. By that, I mean a majority of people climbing up Malsow’s hierarchy hit a level where they are satisfied and will never try to climb above it.

        For most people, thinking is hard to do. It is distressingly easy and common to subcontract out one’s critical thinking to someone else who is on a higher level on the hierarchy. I don’t think education – or at least college education as it is currently structured – has much effect on this.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Andrew, for this beautiful article. It was a pleasure to read. I fully agree with you on the point that our view of education as an instrument for getting a well paid job is a rather narrow approach to assessing what education as such is about. I think it is helpful to differentiate between learning a trade or a profession and becoming (more) educated as a person. One does not exclude the other, but a human life is definitely not just about material or instrumental values. Otherwise we wouldn’t even have this blog and this discussion 🙂 It is interesting that in German they use the word Bildung for education, which literally translates as formation, creation, generation. This aligns better with the idea of education as building a more rounded character and a richer personality.

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    1. Thank you so much for introducing me to this concept of Bildung, this is what exactly I what I was trying to get across in this article. I will definitely research it more, and perhaps write my next post on it.

      Have a good one:)!

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  6. I also graduated with a degree in philosophy, and the job placement office didn’t have much to offer except that “a lot of CEO’s are philosophers”…well great, guess I’ll just wait for an opening and apply!
    The larger point you are trying to make is so incredibly important, however, and I want to help underline it: that there is more to life than how we make money and what we spend it on, and that a LA degree can be a useful tool in helping us develop the necessary skills of critical thinking and reasoning that allow us to figure out where our values are. I recently shifted jobs from a high-paying career that offered many benefits, to a low paying career that offers far fewer. My new job allows me to use my skills and my creativity in ways that I never understood, and makes actually working at the job a fulfilling pleasure. It also keeps me close to home and allows me to spend more time with my family, and to be back in the education system taking further classes to expand my perspective. All of these things are key aspects of my value system that I struggled to come to terms with over the last decade. My degree has given me perspective and ability to continually look outside of my current place and time to think about what might be, and to question what is.
    It isn’t the case that everyone with a LA degree is going to make use of those skills, or even learn them well. It certainly isn’t a requirement to have that piece of paper for someone to know themselves and develop their values.
    What I think is true, is that our current society doesn’t really offer any other spaces to focus on these skills. Perhaps the liberal arts aren’t the best avenue towards a wider perspective on what our human condition could be, but they are probably the best and most focused one we have right now. I’d love to see this integrated into earlier education so that everyone could partake as a normalized and well rounded education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Andy for your thoughtful comments. Yes, I think I am going to try to clarify my thinking in another article. I didn’t mean to place focus on the ‘degree’ per say but rather the type of thinking and perspective I believe these subjects encourage. Of course, it is possible that graduates in LA degrees may not acquire these skills even after they graduate, whereas others gain them strictly through life experience without any formal education.

      What I think is important rather is means to cultivate wisdom, to think critically about what a good life is, and who we are as human beings – what is our place in the world.

      To use professor John Vervaeke’s terminology, I think we are in the midst of a ‘meaning crisis’, which I believe is a result of modern humans being alienated from others, and the world around us. LA degrees alone won’t solve this.

      Moreover, shifts in culture and value systems that move beyond merely ‘living to be consumers’, offer us new ways of being in the world. To get there a revival of the ancient ideals of education, in the broader sense of the word, can help us get there

      Just like the Renaissance was a recovery of the wisdom of Ancient Greece\Rome, maybe modernity needs its own renaissance ?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hey Tony, great read! I particularly enjoyed your in-depth discussion of homogenous thinkers, since it was something I hadn’t really thought of before. Being a fellow blogger myself, I also really appreciate how organized and well-formatted everything was – it definitely made the content much more digestible overall. Keep up the awesome work!

    Liked by 1 person

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