A Defense of the Liberal Arts

Nannerl Keohane
Nannerl O. Keohane - Duke University Library

Are the liberal arts (e.g., history) irrelevant or out of date? Not according to Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University and Wellesley College:

The very broad, capacious form of education that we call the liberal arts is rooted in a specific curriculum in classical and medieval times. But it would be wrong to assume that because it has such ancient roots, this kind of education is outdated, stale, fusty, or irrelevant. In fact, quite the contrary. A liberal-arts education, which Louis Menand defined in The Marketplace of Ideas as “a background mentality, a way of thinking, a kind of intellectual DNA that informs work in every specialized area of inquiry,” lends itself particularly well to contemporary high-tech methods of imparting knowledge.

And far from making the liberal arts less important, trends like technological development and globalization are enhancing their value. (She notes how professors are adapting to the “power of multimedia,” and points out the attractiveness of the liberal arts curriculum to Asian universities like those partnering with Yale.) Yet they seem to be increasingly under attack in this country, as academic disciplines become more and more specialized, the perception grows that professional programs offer greater economic advantage, and graduate education receives more focus.

In response, she claims five distinct advantages of a liberal arts education:

First, it teaches us how to learn — and in such a way that “that you look at the subject from many different dimensions and incorporate the material into your own thinking in ways that will be much more likely to stay with you, and help you later on.” In addition, this kind of learning is timeless; while

…if you only focus on learning specific materials that are pertinent in 2012, rather than learning about them in a broader context, you will soon find that your training will have become valueless. Most important, with a liberal education you will have learned how to learn, so that you will be able to do research to answer questions in your field that will come up years from now, questions that nobody could even have envisioned in 2012, much less taught you how to answer.

Second, whatever its benefits for preparing students for further education and training, a liberal arts education also has this monumental benefit (especially important at a Christian college like Bethel, I think):

…it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

Third, Keohane remains convinced that the liberal arts are best suited to educate people for “citizenship in a democracy like ours.” She quotes Martha Griswold’s Not For Profit, that a liberal arts education helps prepare the “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements” that a democracy requires, citizens who have the abilities “to think about the good of the nation as a whole, not just that of one’s local group” and “to see one’s own nation, in turn, as part of a complicated world order.”

Fourth, liberal arts cultivate people “who have rich and fascinating intellectual furniture in those spaces rather than a void between their ears”; they help us to prepare a “back room” in our minds, full of art, music, literature, etc. “Back rooms” that “[prepare] you for both society and solitude.”

And finally, such studies “admit you to a community of scholars, both professional and amateur, spanning the ages.”

Read Keohane’s whole essay (adapted from a speech to the Council of Independent Colleges’ Presidents Institute) here. (H/T David Williams)

– Chris Gehrz

Cross-posted at The Pietist Schoolman


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