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Commentary

On the offense for the liberal arts

I am as tired of reading “defenses” of the liberal arts as I am of reading assaults upon them. To me, a liberal arts education needs no defending since the benefits are self-evident. So the following assertion of the importance of the liberal arts is not a defense.

Perhaps in pedagogy the best defense is a good offense.

Let’s begin with the powerful case of James Madison. Long before he became a president, secretary of state, or member of Congress – and took the lead in writing our Constitution – James Madison was a boomerang kid. He received a traditional liberal arts education at Princeton, studying history and literature and philosophy, with an emphasis on the ancient Greeks and Romans, and learning how to debate and “declaim.” He also mastered the rudiments of what today we call “science.” When Madison graduated, he had no idea what to do with himself. So he asked Princeton’s president John Witherspoon if he could stay on an extra year to pursue Hebrew and theology with him (thus becoming Princeton’s first “graduate student”). That year of study completed, Madison still did not know what to do, so he went back home to Virginia to live with his parents.

In our hyper-utilitarian view of the purpose of college today, Madison would be considered a failure at this point in life, and his education would be considered a waste (and Princeton would lose points in someone’s rating system). As we know, Madison never did find a job—instead, a cause found him. When the Revolution began, Madison used his liberal arts education to become the recognized expert on self-government, republicanism, federalism, and freedom of conscience. All these ideas were based on what he had learned at Princeton. But equally important, he had learned how to analyze problems and conduct research, and how to argue in public, both verbally and in writing. This was a liberal arts education that benefited an entire nation.

We live in a far different world from that of our nation’s founders, but the benefits of a 21st century liberal arts education are remarkably similar, and for all kinds of students, not just ones from privilege like James Madison.

Subra Suresh, an engineer who serves as president of Carnegie Mellon University and is the former director of the National Science Foundation, pointed out recently that innovation must be accompanied by an understanding of how people will use (and abuse) new technologies. “There is increasing recognition,” he wrote in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “that the planet’s most severe problems cannot be treated as if they are solvable only by great engineering and scientific solutions…the social sciences and humanities hold a key to our innovation ecosystem that will enable us to make more rapid progress in addressing major challenges.”

And Deborah Fitzgerald, Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, wrote in the Boston Globe that MIT views “the humanities, arts, and social sciences as essential, both for educating great engineers and scientists, and for sustaining our capacity for innovation.” The world’s problems, she noted, “are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet…engineering and sciences issues are always embedded in broader human realities.”

These leaders capture a key point: just as the humanities complement and are critical to a fuller understanding of science and engineering, science must be part of a strong liberal arts education. At AAU, we are engaged in a major initiative to reform teaching in science and engineering – the STEM disciplines – at our 62 leading research universities. Our goal is not only to increase the number of graduates in the STEM disciplines, but also to ensure that students in other majors receive a grounding in science that helps them understand the complex issues our society confronts.

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More broadly, for all we hear of colleges not preparing students for the workplace, a national survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities makes clear that the vast majority of leaders of businesses and nonprofits want their new workers to have a strong liberal arts education because it helps develop the ability to think analytically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems through interdisciplinary teamwork.

These are all excellent and useful reasons for students to seek a liberal arts education. But we also need to appreciate the liberal arts for what I refer to as their uselessness – the sheer pleasure they bring. The satisfaction that comes from reading a good novel and seeing its connection to the literature that came before it, or from the ability to read or hear a foreign phrase and not need a translation; or the fun of learning about a remarkable new scientific discovery and understanding that it might utterly change our thinking about the universe.

The liberal arts enrich our quality of life beyond measure. They don’t need defending — it is we who need to continue to support and appreciate them.


Hunter R. Rawlings III is president of the Association of American Universities


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