The Liberal Arts Education

Does college teach us the difference between working to live and having a life?


During the winter holiday, my wife and I watched Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It’s a quirky look at the apocalypse, with great performances from Steve Carell (who always plays the same character anyway) and Keira Knightley. It’s a touching love story that asks, like most (all?) stories of apocalypse, can we find meaning in death? Or maybe, for those of us not yet facing an ostensible end: what does it mean to live? It’s getting to be a bit clichéd, but if today were your last day on earth, how would you like to spend it? The answer to this question seems to hold some significance for our society today. Maybe it’s because we survived the Mayan doomsday. Whew.

In Seeking, Carell’s character Dodge tries to continue his life-as-usual even when a rogue asteroid promises certain extinction within days. Via a flashback, he hears the news report in his car with his wife. She quickly decides that the now inevitable end means she can’t waste any more of her life with the milquetoast insurance salesman and flees the scene. Instead of finding a similar urgency, Dodge – perhaps in a state of shock — tries to deflect the inevitable by continuing to go to his mind-numbing job; the only character that seems more clueless is his maid. It’s not until a man lands on the hood of his car that Dodge reluctantly begins to face the end.

UK Poster

I don’t want to give anything away, but this film makes us look at the choices we make in life vis-a-vis the chances that life throws at us. In a time when, arguably, we have evolved to a point when our technology and science can stave off that ultimate of life’s chances — death — better than ever in our history, what do we do with the extra life it grants us? In many of these apocalyptic films, we seem to squander it by making priorities out of things that ironically suck the very life out of us: the pursuit of money, the paying of bills, the devotion to work, the dead-end relationships, stupid television, material desires, etc. etc. Perhaps when it comes down to it our contemporary priorities are all askew because we have forgotten what gives life meaning and joy and wonder.

I posit that part of the problem is that higher education no longer emphasizes the liberal arts. We are becoming trade schools, and this fact is robbing life of its joy.

Why Are We Here?

Have you ever asked yourself this important question? Yes, it’s meant in a general way: why are we humans on this planet, or what is the meaning of life? Philosophers have been trying to come to terms with this question for centuries, and ultimately it’s a question that each individual must answer.

We also must answer this question in a specific context: why are you in college? We can certainly answer based on the reasons given to us by our society — it’s expected; college-educated people earn more money; it’s what you’re supposed to do after high school; I need it to get a good job; etc. Yet, have you answered this question for yourself? What are you doing here?

Granted, in this increasingly technical global economy, a college education does equip graduates to prosper as career professionals. In fact, more often than not, students answer this question with “I’m in college to get a good job.” This answer seems common in the United States today, yet surely there must be more to college than job training? Aren’t we more than our jobs? When our final hour comes, what will we be thankful we accomplished in our lives? What will we be sorry we didn’t?

Perhaps a better question would be: is higher education primarily for job training or life training? The answer, of course, is both. Yet how we answer says much about what’s important to us.

If “job training” dominates, then money might be an important goal — maybe the important goal in our lives. Money is an abstract symbol of something we seem to crave: liberty and happiness. Americans have often equated financial security with increased freedom and personal happiness. This might be the ideal, but in reality, increased financial freedom seems to only lead to more anxiety and insecurity. No one will deny that a certain amount of money is a necessity in the US, but should it be the ultimate goal of higher education? Put another way: once money is achieved, what then?

Is higher education primarily for job training or life training?
Marten de Vos | Allegory of The Seven Liberal Arts (1590)

The Liberal Arts

When the ancient Athenians conceived of the liberal arts education it was about building an informed and engaged demos, or populace. The liberal arts emphasize breadth as well as depth in education with a goal of producing citizens — the foundation of democracy. The Athenians who began this grand experiment almost 2500 years ago understood that in order for a people to govern themselves, they must be informed and engaged with each other and their environment. This included public debate, serving on juries, and participating in national defense. The core of study to produce this citizenry became grammar, rhetoric, and logic — the original liberal arts. These skills would make neighbors into citizens, and a people into a democracy. During the Renaissance, an emphasis on humanism added moral philosophy and poetry to the classical liberal arts.

Consider the contemporary liberal arts as the core of the university curriculum, usually housed within a college of Arts and Sciences: English, math, science, history, physical education, humanities, political science, psychology, philosophy. The liberal arts, then, provide the foundation for our later professional pursuits. In the eighteenth century, a student’s education was considered incomplete until he travelled on his own for at least a year. Travel — or getting out of one’s comfort zone — became an integral part of one’s formal study. Courses in the arts and sciences coupled with travel provide the student of the world with crucial experiences.

The liberal arts emphasize variety and skepticism, and they promote the skills necessary to develop and defend one’s ideas in a thoughtful and critical way. Together, they teach an appreciation for the subtlety and nuance of life. Through the study of who we are and where we came from, both technologically and artistically, we learn a crucial skill for being human: empathy. By considering many points of view, we learn to see the world through others’ eyes, and through this process, our own vision widens and sharpens.

The liberal arts teach us not to take anything for granted — that if something is worth our time and devotion, it must endure continuous scrutiny in order to remain valid. In his novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie puts it like this: “What kind of idea are you?” This theme runs throughout the novel, continuously questioning convictions, traditions, and beliefs. To ask this question takes courage to face the answer, something humanity does with every generation in order to continue to grow.

Paul Steck, “Ophelia Drowning” (1895)

Similarly, the American novelist Norman Mailer once wrote “there was that law of life so cruel and yet so just that one must grow or else pay more to remain the same.” The idea here seems to be that not engaging in meaningful dialog meant to help us grow, something within us ossifies; without challenges to our convictions, we grow hard, narrow, cold. No matter how good an idea is at one time, it must constantly be reassessed, or it can begin to trap us in prisons of our own making. The study of the liberal arts helps us to remain open to new ideas, skeptical of knee-jerk reactions, and critical of ideologies that attempt to control us.

Standing in front of a college class, I often remark that the classroom itself is an exemplar of these ideas. Our classes here in central Georgia are heterogeneous mixes of gender, race, age, and experience. In my experience, I am unaware of any other place that has such a wonderful mixture of people and ideas. We all bring something unique to the university, and the classroom allows us the joy of encountering these perspectives in a safe way. Perhaps we can think of the classroom as a rehearsal for life.

Yet, while the classroom is safe, it should also exemplify the challenge that the liberal arts have always offered: we must reasonably and logically defend our positions with provable facts if they are to remain valid. Belief takes a back seat to facts and the argument that wields them. Through language — grammar, rhetoric, logic, ethics — we make our points and defend them. This is what the liberal arts offers, and why it remains an important foundation for university studies and the world outside of the academy.

Use the time you have in college to broaden your scope. I understand that we are all programmed to want to finish; we all seem to have this urgency to enter the workforce to earn our gold. Yet, I propose that college should be a time of discovery. It’s a place to slow down and take advantage of the unique environment. Take a course in astronomy and one in African-American literature; perhaps one in mythology, or anthropology. You might find that you have an interest and a talent you never knew. Immediately training for a career might not be the best approach to your college years.

One final point: check our pride at the door. Over the last ten years, I have seen more eighteen-year-old students enter college with everything already figured out. They just know, and questions I ask only seem to annoy them. If you already have it figured out, going to a vocational school will save you a lot of time and money. College might not be the right place for you.

Be open to the new — even the strange. I know this is a frightening proposition for many of us, but I promise that you will be the better for it. Life is not black and white; it is much more subtle and wonderful than that. Be open to new ideas: listen to your professors and the peers that you’ll meet. You might not always agree, but we should always take the time to consider. Education affords us this opportunity. The ideas you hear — or don’t hear — in college will set the foundation for the rest of your life.

Never stop learning, even at the end of the world.