TAN: The place of a liberal arts education

When my father found out I was taking “Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War” this semester, he threw a fit.

How do I explain my education to my parents? Should I need to? Amidst high costs and even higher expectations, is majoring in the humanities still justified? Indeed, on the national scale, is a liberal arts education still justified?

I use the term ‘liberal arts’ in the international sense, by which I mean the system of education where students don’t apply for a specific discipline but instead study a broad curriculum. This system is unique to America and is distinctly non-vocational.

Recent years have brought this system into question. With a stagnant economy and a nine percent unemployment rate, our generation faces bleak job prospects. We are bombarded with reports of graduates of prestigious universities who can’t find employment or are forced to accept menial jobs.

Meanwhile China continues to grow in power, its economy bolstered by a slew of science, business and economics graduates. Bill Gates calls for shifting America’s education priorities to “areas that actually create jobs and drive the economy” – areas like accounting, business, computer science, engineering and social sciences – and universities are under increasing pressure to produce employable graduates.

But many people, especially at Yale, caution against this. Former English Professor William Deresiewicz criticizes this shift towards “a glorified form of vocational training.”

Should the vocationalization of education be resisted? Should we defend the liberal arts, with their breadth and focus on big abstract ideas? At the micro level – at Yale, for example – they should. A liberal arts education is valuable because its generality helps you see beyond the limitations of each discipline and gives you the confidence to take risks. The humanities, which are arguably its core, are valuable because they transcend the prejudices and limitations of time and location.

A variety of perspectives encourages creative leaders. The late Steve Jobs challenged Bill Gates’ call for vocationalization, saying that “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” A specialized curriculum often becomes preoccupied with niggling details. After four years of law school, I know that an education built of details is unsatisfying; you forget most of the details a month after the exam anyway, and the only things that remain are the big abstract ideas. Despite recent shifts, a general education is something Yale still does well, and that shouldn’t be lost.

At the national level though, things get more complicated. The U.S. economy is extremely weak, and it’s being outstripped by an Asia buoyed by a generation of technocrats and entrepreneurs.

Although America’s Cold War victory seemed to demonstrate the superiority of a country with a broad liberal education over one with a strictly vocational approach, today the U.S. faces rivals far subtler than the Soviet Union. Our generation also faces unprecedented economic burdens: We have to pick up the tab for the federal deficit, pensions and health care, and while America’s education system has produced visionary leaders and creative geniuses like Steve Jobs, we might have reached the point where vision and genius aren’t enough.

While the liberal arts system produces graduates capable of taking on a variety of jobs, many of them end up competing for the same kinds of jobs, and too few of them are qualified to take on specific jobs in accounting, business, computer science and engineering – sectors that require specific training and that are vital for kick-starting the economy. While the number of science, math and engineering majors is significant, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

When I asked Donald Kagan if he thought a country with a population educated in liberal arts schools would, ceteris paribus, do better than one with a vocationally educated population, he was skeptical. “I’m not convinced of that,” he replied.

The purest incarnation of a liberal arts society was ancient Athens. This city-state produced the greatest thinkers in Western thought and was the most enlightened civilization that ever existed. But this society of thinkers rested on a population of slaves, on multitudes of people who cooked for them, made things for them, toiled in the fields for them and worked the mines and quarries for them.

Just as every society needs its share of rebels and conformists, maybe America has too many wannabe leaders and thinkers and too few workers. Perhaps we need an approach that preserves the liberal arts system but develops a parallel vocational education system to fill the vital sectors in the economy. Perhaps we need a polarization of education, an approach that recognizes the value of catering to two different but complementary dispositions. Perhaps we need one type of university for thinkers and another for workers. If this sounds repulsive, if it sounds elitist, condescending and downright insulting, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, however, it might also be true.

Shaun Tan is a second-year graduate student in International Relations. Contact him at shaunzhiming.tan@yale.edu

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