PORTLAND — Imagine a world with college graduates all trained for entry-level jobs in business and technology, forgetting that studies show those jobs are less likely to lead to the top careers.
Now, imagine those graduates coming from institutions that no longer require students to study poetry, art, music, sociology, philosophy, political science, languages, history or the classical heritage of drama and film.
Imagine this world without Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. No Botticelli’s “Venus” or Picasso’s “Guernica,” no films or books about Abraham Lincoln or “The Great Gatsby” would be studied.
This world would be without the depth of understanding about immigration, welfare, marriage laws – or any fundamental issue of our time. We would be without the ability to translate needed texts in either war or peace.
This scenario may seem an exaggeration, but as more and more academic resources are shifted to science and technology and fewer to the arts and humanities – as if the latter were mere frills and not absolutely essential foundations for understanding our world – we may find ourselves without the inheritance of what makes us human.
British chemist and novelist C.P. Snow lectured on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” saying that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups … Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists.” Later, in “The Two Cultures: A Second Look,” he said, “… we have lost even the pretence of a common culture.”
Currently, we hear the study of liberal arts is worthless because it does not lead to successful careers. Some say the liberal arts are valuable only because they offer skills needed in all careers for success. Are the liberal arts intrinsically valuable?
I say they are not simply valuable; they are absolutely necessary, and increasingly so in a global world. If we are to have a society worthy of human life, we must understand and join the different meanings of success, and give up the false dichotomy between the sciences and humanities. We must embrace the whole of human experience as the meaning of education – not for some but for all.
We are creatures who need one another, who sing, who tell ourselves stories to know ourselves. These stories can be told through music, poetry, painting or even the technology that created our laptops and smartphones.
Am I overly idealistic, not understanding that our college graduates need jobs? Not at all. But our economic life is not our whole life: It is essential, but there are other essential needs that Snow called intellectual and moral.
Since the challenges to liberal arts now come from within our universities, we need to be reminded that the deepest ethical responsibility for academics is to hand on and add to our human heritage. Our job is not simply to train; it is to educate, and those words are not synonymous.
This is why: Guns gave us a nation separate from Britain; engineers, scientists and builders gave us an infrastructure; words gave us democracy.
Do employers share policymakers’ disdain for the liberal arts? Are they calling on higher education to focus more narrowly on workforce development and eliminate the liberal arts dimension of college learning?
Last year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released the findings of a study that provided detailed analysis of employers’ priorities. Chief among the findings is that employers recognize the continued importance of a liberal education and the liberal arts.
Eighty percent agreed that every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. The majority of employers agreed that having both field-specific, and a broad range of knowledge and skills are important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success; few thought that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is preferable. Twenty-nine percent prefer broad learning only!
Nearly all, 93 percent, also said that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s college major.
In sum, employers seek to hire liberally educated college graduates.
Recognizing what employers seek is perhaps the most important step we can now take to educate those who make education policy. Liberal arts are not “soft skills.” I have never had a student who thought my advanced course in rhetoric, syntax and style was easy. Some call it the hardest course they ever took, and they love it. Anyone who thinks that reading philosophy or T.S. Eliot is easy has not tried it.
What, then, do we mean by “worth” and “success”? Well, let me answer by noting what they apparently are not:
The most worthless and unsuccessful life in Western human history must have been Jesus. He never built a business or became wealthy. He spent his time wandering about the desert in sandals, healing people and teaching them to love one another. And, of course, he was executed as a criminal. Beethoven worried constantly about money and ill health. Socrates, Mother Teresa, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson – financial successes or lives of worth?
Here is the fundamental question that we must address: How do we re-engage in the teaching what a majority of employers acknowledge as “most important” while convincing policymakers and students of its worth?
— Special to the Press Herald