SAS Dean’s Blog

Value and the Liberal Arts

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

As the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of English, it is likely to surprise no one that I’m a believer in the power of the liberal arts. In a world that seems to be increasingly focused on a utilitarian view of education, I remain committed to the proposition that a liberal arts education will set you free.

If you look up the term “liberal” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it leads to right to the liberal arts, defined there as the areas of learning that are “worthy of a free man” (since “liberal” comes from the Latin word liber, meaning “free”). In medieval times, those liberal arts were grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. 

I must interject here that there is an uncomfortable history associated with the concept. What was originally meant by a “free man” is a gentleman whose freedom lies in not having to work. Mechanical or servile training, as opposed to liberal arts, was in order for people who must work.  But today I believe that the liberal arts mean something different, while preserving that connection to freedom.

The new liberal arts are the arts of communication, quantitative and historical analysis, design, scientific inquiry and innovation, to name just a few. People with this kind of expertise are desperately needed to lead our complex and diverse world, which is torn apart by misunderstanding, incompetence and ignorance. It is a world where you need “cross-training” and the agility to adapt to changing circumstances. A narrow professional training constrains you on a one-way track. A liberal arts education, in short, I believe, will set you free.

This profession of faith is becoming all the more urgent at a time when the value of a liberal arts education is increasingly in doubt, at least in the United States.  A difficult job market that has not improved greatly from the economic downturn of 2008 has focused much attention on the problems that college graduates have in getting jobs. Last April the Associated Press released an analysis of job data in the U.S. that showed more than 50% of bachelor’s degree holders under the age of 25 were jobless or underemployed.

This report garnered a great deal of attention in the popular media, fueling stereotypes about the uselessness of the traditional college education. In an editorial entitled “The Imperiled Promise of College” in the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni colorfully illustrated the image of the unemployed and underemployed college graduate: “Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.” Bruni’s message, in short, is that those who major in the humanities are fools. For me, as a humanities professor, it naturally hurts to be thus told that what I do is irrelevant in a world where young people are striving for all-too-scarce jobs.

Bruni’s critique reflects a movement away from viewing college as an education in the broader sense and seeing it instead as career training. He is questioning the fundamental principles that underlie the notion of a college education founded in the liberal arts as an essential preparation for a civilized life.

It’s a critique that would deny that skills in communication, quantitative analysis and critical thinking, as well as a broad exposure to the fields of knowledge, are necessary not only for a life of employment, but also of citizenship and contribution to the culture and life of our communities.  Instead, education is reduced to, “What job is this going to get me, now, right now, after I graduate?”

My faith remains unshaken in the belief that a liberal arts education is one of the most important means of shaping the citizens, workers, and the leaders of the future.  But I also recognize that we need to adapt that education to where that future demands. The liberal arts have defined American elite education for a century or more, but it is clear that that educational program must meet the challenges of a changed environment, where the old ways of doing business will not suffice. This is a topic that I will say more about in future installments on this blog.