Education for Humans: The Lasting Value of the Liberal Arts

Featured

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

The Search for the Good Life

Featured

The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination

Carl Rogers

In our day to day lives, many of us are preoccupied with completing the tasks on our never-ending to-do lists. Life quickly passed us by but we rarely take the time to reflect and contemplate on the deeper questions of our existence. When asked what do we want to get out of our lives, many will respond with the vague answer “I just want to be happy.”

However, when pressed on what this exactly means, we give generic answers that lack any real substance. Happiness is often conflated with pleasure and feelings of contentment. What comes to mind is the smiling couple we see in Hollywood romances or the slick well dressed business man racing down the street in a flashy sports car.

We soon realize that the excitement and rush that we get from pleasure quickly fades.

 Trying to pursue a life dedicated to pleasure is like running on a treadmill. It always leaves us dissatisfied and desiring for more.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a different conception of the good life which he called eudaimonia. Although loosely translated as ‘happiness’, the term points to something akin to human flourishing. Eudaimonia, is not a temporary fleeting experience, rather it is a lifelong project. It is the result of working towards self-actualization and realizing your full potential.

Human wellbeing requires us to strive for excellence as well as pursue and cultivate virtue. Just as an athlete who wants to improve their performance needs to train, a person who wants to become virtuous must to perform virtuous acts. For instance, someone who is courageous is an individual who acts courageously whereas an individual who is humble is one who exercises restraint and avoids egotism.

It is through acts of goodness, virtue and excellence that we experience contentment and happiness.  

As ‘social animals’, Aristotle argued that we ought to utilize our distinctive talents and gifts to benefit our broader community – to enhance the common good. One’s role as a human is not only to act upon your gifts but to contribute to the flourishing as society as a whole. This view differs from individualistic versions of the good life which can often focus on satisfying a narrow set of materialist desires.

In the final analysis, Aristotle’s view of a life well lived requires active participation and the development of habits to be the best version of ourselves.

So, what is your idea of the good life?


This article has been adapted and was originally posted on the Pointless Overthinking blog: The Search for the Good Life – Pointless Overthinking

Image Source: Pexels Free Photos

The Empty Promises of Consumerism

With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.

Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.

It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.

Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.

Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?

Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?

According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season.  What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?

 What is actually being sold to us?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. 

The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs.  Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom

Alain De Botton, The Purpose of Advertising

Character Develops Through Repeated Action

Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.

It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

What are we really hinting at when we purchase a luxury sports car – perhaps it is our wish for status, admiration and recognition?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.

Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.

Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.  

So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.  

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Title Image Source