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Commentary

Why we need the liberal arts

JOSEPH R. URGO The Baltimore Sun
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:18 PM

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Aspects of recent debates about the value of a liberal arts education, its usefulness and its appropriateness strike a familiar and disturbing historical chord. Our nation's brightest students, contemplating the dedication of four years to the highest level of cognitive challenge, are discouraged by a contingent of their elders and asked to consider something more practical.

"A liberal education won't prepare you for a job," the student is told. "What can you do with a degree in philosophy? English?" — and so forth. The implication is that the desire possessed by the mind for abstract challenge is inappropriate, or more specifically a waste of time and money.

The logic has echoes in 19th century arguments against teaching American slaves to read. A literate slave, it was argued by slave owners, would not be content with manual labor and would likely, as well, come to question the status of a slave (or worse, attempt to run away).

The logic echoes as well 18th century arguments brought by men against advanced education for women. An educated woman may not be content as a wife and a mother; she may question her husband's authority, challenge her status as wife and helper.

In short, there have always been strong authoritarian prohibitions on abstract, open-ended education, arguments grounded in the fear that such education would disrupt the social order and should be replaced by more practical, measurable training.

Historically, restrictions on intellectual development are entwined with political control and are rooted in power relations. The disruptive potential of a liberal education is not so much that it has no practical use but that the end result for those who engage in its rigor is unpredictable. Liberal education is rooted in critical thinking.

The term is overworked, but the techniques of questioning assumptions, testing hypotheses and applying scientific methods of research and analysis — these are established practices that continue to affect and shape young minds, often overturning the attitudes and assumptions they carried into their college residence halls as first-year students.

It's common for liberal education institutions to claim to "change lives," to provide "transformational learning," and the like. What we cannot predict is what, exactly, our students will change or transform into — and the more we are surprised or startled by what they become, the more successful we are at our mission.

Today, right at the moment when college decisions are being made by the probable leaders of tomorrow, a vocal segment of our society attempts to lead them away from academic and intellectual rigor toward something more practical, and more immediately profitable. Yes, practical matters are pressing, and they need to get done, and the work they entail is honorable, necessary, and contributes to our collective purpose.

At the same time, we need to staff our collective brain trust, to encourage young people with both the capacity and the will to delay immediate material reward so that we may direct them through an arduous and extended period of intellectual training and preparation. We do this because the nation needs the most capable minds in its think tanks and policy bureaus, its research laboratories, its judgeships. It needs to cultivate its creators and inventors, if we are to progress as a civilization.

The way that liberal arts colleges accomplish this national mission is by suspending practical application for a period of time, and by engaging young minds with the history of human thought, research and creative endeavor.

Instead of learning how to sell something, the student studies psychoanalytic theory; instead of learning how to write office memoranda, the student studies the complexities of language in the world's most challenging literary texts; instead of learning the basic counterarguments in foreign policy debates, the student studies political philosophy, the long human engagement with thinking about thinking, about how arguments are structured, sustained, and overturned — not to mention the extensive and varied record of worldwide military and diplomatic history.

Nonetheless, we hear a cacophony of voices questioning with emphatic redundancy the utility of intellectual phenomena that have no stated utility, by definition. But these arguments are irresponsible and run contrary to the national interest. Why is it that some would want to discourage our highest academic achievers from devoting more time to intellectual endeavor? Why would anyone, particularly educators, want to discourage intellectual advancement or to prevent it from emerging?

Human history advances by exploring and creating unknown territory, by the ability and the willingness of a segment of the population to speculate, to endeavor intellectually, when they could be doing something more practical (and likely more productive and more profitable). It is despair, I think, that drives the admonition against liberal learning, keeping the upcoming generation from entering the gateway of a liberal arts education in favor of endeavors with quicker payoffs or more immediate rewards.

The despair may well be anchored in fear. We live in a data-driven era, where increasingly we do not want to make a move without a clear plan — a plan in advance that outlines goals, execution and results. True, almost all we do on a mundane, daily basis is done better by such systematic approaches.

On the other hand, nothing stifles creativity and originality more effectively than such rational demands. The urge to control abstract, cognitive pursuits represents a cynicism about our existence, a loss of hope, an abandoning of the human spirit. The only antidote to despair is creation and intellectual revival, and this is the business of an unfettered liberal education.

It is in the national interest to cultivate and encourage those students with the will and the capacity for abstract intellectual work, to support their willingness to step outside the desperate profit-race for a time and explore the unimpeded and undirected path of their best thinking.

We handicap our future when we dissuade them or berate them by the logic of authoritarian control. The genealogy of such dissuasion is traceable to the historical suggestion that for some, abstract thinking is not appropriate or, in a word, useless. Such dissuasion may help us understand what is at stake in the passion held by a select portion of young people to pursue a calling toward abstract thought. Such passions should be nurtured, not suppressed, as if — or rather, because — our survival as a civilization depends on it. And once encouraged and supported, we must get out of the way and let the future unfold in the hands of the precocious thinkers of the up-and-coming generation.


Joseph R. Urgo is president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. His email is jurgo@smcm.edu.

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