Why a Liberal Arts Education

Ask the president of your college what their job was 20 years ago.

Or talk with yourself. Look at your own professional future. What about the job you have right now – will you be at that same job in another 20 years? At the same level? With the same knowledge base? With the same skills? With the same dreams?

Studying in college, group projects, clubs and organizations, internships, and final exams prepare you for more than a job. Hopefully they promote skills that will help you build future communities and not just foster factions.

The liberal arts tradition emphasizes community. Ancient Romans brought together a word-based sequence of knowledge (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) with a numbers-based sequence (mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy). Together with an eighth area – the love of knowledge (philosophy) – these formed the artes liberales, the art of free people, the art of a citizen in public life.

So why is a 2000-year old tradition for free people relevant to you now?

Because working with those eight areas and their contemporary descendants (the humanities and sciences) stresses looking at issues, and considering opportunities, and thinking about solutions from multiple perspectives. Working with multiple perspectives asks you, and asks the college where you study, to be supple. Be flexible. Be agile. Studying multiple areas of knowledge, rather than centering on just one area, invites you to be deeply curious. It invites you to be more, not less. It invites you to slow down, listen to different voices, and have the courage to make connections. A nineteenth-century educator, John Henry Newman, said that the purpose of education was to make you “ever ready, but never in the way.” Like a farmer who wisely avoids growing only one crop, the liberal arts cultivate many types of knowledge in you so that you are ever ready when situations change. You are ever ready in your career, ever ready in your community, ever ready in your life. You are never in the way because you centered your knowledge on one and only one thing.  

Will you hear people say studying the humanities and sciences in the twenty-first century is a waste of time or money? Sure. The same people will probably encourage you to study only one topic because it will guarantee a job.  

But remember those questions above – ask your college president what their job was 20 years ago or ask your future self what your job will be in 20 years. Will centering your knowledge on only one topic make you ever ready as job markets change? As your career journey advances will knowing one and only one topic get in the way of being flexible, and growing, and being different?

Studying the liberal arts is a foundation to Democracy.

You are studying the arts of a free citizen. You are studying how to be a contributing member of a larger community. The liberal arts ask community members to hear voices different from their own. They invite you to collaborate with others, rather than to exclude. They invite you to partner and be curious instead of fearing alternatives. They ask you to be empathetic and see from other perspectives. They remind us there are more than one way of knowing.

To the Romans, the art of being free relied on loving knowledge. In the twentieth century, the liberal arts prompt us not to shrink into one area, but to live big in multiple ways of knowing as we move through multiple professional and personal transitions.

The liberal arts make people ever ready. They are never in the way.