Can the liberal arts save your life? Part I

Under normal circumstances, perhaps not, but if you think hard enough (or extrapolate enough, with the inclusion of multiple assumptions), anything is possible. However, I am not here to discuss that, but this.

In this New Yorker article, Louis Menand discusses American higher education as an institution, it’s modern history, the different processes and where it is now. The central thesis was the value of American higher education. This could be summed up with the difference between liberal arts colleges and large universities. Students from the different institutions think differently and have different priorities.

It was his central thesis that caught me eye. Being enrolled in a liberal arts college myself, it was easy to get lost in the learning, the reading and the understanding that all that I was learning was valuable*. However, being a product of my culture (and this would require a discussion about Malaysian culture and education to understand), I have had the opportunity to encounter students who do not think that way. For them, all that matters is that – Menand’s words – higher education provides a ride to success in life. Such an argument is not easy to rebuke, especially if one quotes the need for engineers, doctors, farmers and other specialists to keep our world running (i.e. Nuclear engineers needed to work nuclear reactors – pre-Fukushima scare). Compare this to the general liberal arts education: Students are enrolled with the condition that they ‘broaden’ their horizons by taking classes in different fields, at different levels. This is based on the understanding that such an education produces a more rounded human being, that will be able to deal with life’s challenges. It’s based – loosely** – upon the principle of the Renaissance Man.

The difference in emphasis often presents itself in the type of student the institution attracts. Liberal arts colleges have more reading/writing focused students and in Menand’s opinion, more academically motivated students. These students have career ideas and motivations, but their primary educational focus is based upon ideas. Universities attract students who are more focused upon careers and industries, thus they are based primarily upon the application of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Discussions about the effect of both education systems have gone on for years, with no end in sight. It’s a bit like watching a really long sumo match.

Being a liberal arts student, I will admit that I have many interests. They range from 18th Century French Literature to Soil Chemistry. Thus I am thankful for my education thus far. However, I am also expecting to be a specialist in Agroecology (or Agricultural Science/Agronomy whatever it is people want to call it). To that end, it is more useful for me to be enrolled in a large universities with scientists and engineers.

So what exactly is the value of higher education? Is it supposed to prepare you for all the perils of life? Or is it supposed to provide you with a steady income and a good pension? Should education be based upon learning ideas and expanding the mind? Or should it be about understanding the mechanisms of the world and being able to deal with them effectively? What are the mechanisms that allow us to value the different educational pathways? Why does society value ideas? So many questions!

So can the liberal arts save your life?

Next post!

*This has often been debated amongst different circles of academia and policy makers. Defining what constitutes information worth learning has been an arduous process (to include or not to include The Great Gatsby, that is the question).

**I have heard several arguments against the idea that the liberal arts education was based upon the Renaissance Man. Although I think in principle it is, since there was dissent, it was better to err on the side of diversity of opinions rather than homogeneity.

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