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
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.
Source Image: Pexels Free Photos