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

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Book Review of The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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Our lives are intertwined, entangled like waves merging in the ocean. We see ourselves in others, in the world around us. The physical appearance of our parents, the traditions of our culture and unique intricacies of our closest friends all leave their mark on who we are, and who we become.

 The ‘I’, our ego, is porous and unbound. It is elusive and cannot be contained, like grains of sand peering through your fingers on the beach. The self is dynamic and evolving as we both shape and are shaped by our environment. To be human is to be nested in a world of finitude and transience. Aware of the fleeting nature of our existence, we eagerly try to find order and balance in a world that is constantly changing.

These are some of the themes that Virginia Woolf beautifully explores in her book The Waves. The book details the coming of age of six characters looking at their lives as they transition from childhood friends to adults collectively experiencing love, loss and friendship.

Those looking for a straightforward narrative, with an event packed plot will be disappointed. The Waves reads more as interwoven soliloquies focusing on the characters internal dialogues. We get a glimpse into the nuances and complexities of the human psyche.

  • What events and life experiences shape who someone is, and what they become?
  • How do we make meaning in a seemingly vast and chaotic world?
  • How do our relationships with others shape our character?

Let’s look at some of the key themes of the book.

Human Subjectivity

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’ ‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’ ‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down. ’‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

In The Waves events are distilled through the thoughts and inner perceptions of each of the six characters. They each see and interpret the world through their own unique lenses. For instance, each of the characters responds to grief differently as we see in the aftermath of death of their friend Percival.

The reader is exposed to the constant tension between the differences between our perceptions and reality. We see the disconnect in how we want to be perceived in the world, and how we are actually viewed by others. In our day-to-day life we may be quick to judge others, but rarely have a window into the internal struggles each individual is facing.

 Through her breathtaking prose and poetic passages scattered throughout the book, Virginia Woolf provides us with a microscope into the mind of the other.  

The Self

And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome

Throughout the book we see several of the characters acknowledge the fluidity of the self. Each character leaves an imprint, a mark, on the other.

The individual doesn’t exist independently, but rather is the sum of their collective experiences with the other characters. Like branches stemming from a tree, each of the six friends exhibit their own unique personality types, but are joined by a common root. The shared events and circumstances which shape their lives determines who they are, and who they will become.

Time

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping

Each chapter begins with a poetic description of the sun as it shifts from sunrise to sunset throughout the course of the book. These interludes symbolize the passing of time and the degree of impermanence which we are bound to as human beings. The motif of the waves crashing against the seashore points to this tension of death and renewal, between permanence and impermanence. As each wave moves towards the shore it will reach its end of the cycle, whereas others will begin anew.

We know intuitively that we are finite beings whose days living on this planet are numbered, however we rarely confront this fact directly in our day to day lives. We see each of the characters deal with the fleeting nature of time in their own unique ways. Some characters embody the attitude of embracing each moment, while others try to achieve a degree of permanence and legacy through the creation of art.

All of these life projects are an attempt to forge order out of chaos, to find meaning in an indifferent universe.

Final Thoughts

Although it did take me some time to get used to Woolf’s style of writing, I was taken in by the beauty and elegance of her prose. The Waves reads almost like an extended poem rather than a novel. Woolf gives us a preview of something we are not exposed to in our day to day lives. That is, the inner dialogues, perceptions and internal thoughts that run through our minds.

Exposing the reader to the dynamics of human subjectivity, The Waves compels us towards greater empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. If only we knew what others were feeling and thinking, perhaps we would treat them differently, with more kindness and with less judgement.

The Waves is one of those books that you can turn to at different stages in life and each time you pick it up will evoke a different emotional response.

Its presence in my room reminds me of the transitory nature of my life calling me to cherish each and every moment as I briefly remember the ephemerality of my time here on earth.


All quotes are taken from The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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The Wisdom of Being Wrong — Pointless Overthinking

Hello Friends,

You can check out a new article I published on the Pointless Overthinking blog by clicking on the link below.

Hope you all enjoy your weekend:)

If only things were that simple. If only events could be packaged into neat containers of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Despite our proclivities towards binary and dualistic thinking, life is a whole lot messier. Many circumstances are morally ambiguous and uncertain. Being in this metaphorical ‘grey’ area of not knowing can be…

The Wisdom of Being Wrong — Pointless Overthinking