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


  • The Anti-Yale

    *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.*

    We at the Bill and Melinda Gradgrind Foundation want our hearts to hum, or chortle. To hell with “singing”. That'[link text][1]s for limp-wristed fops.

    [1]: http://gradgrindfoundation.blogspot.com

  • sbcunning

    Is one’s ability to find a job most often primarily a consequence of the content of one’s education. (And how often is the first job a direct consequence of one’s undergraduate course of study? Sometimes it is. Many times, personal connections, being in the right place at the right time and other serendipitous factors cause one to get a job.) I’m not sure. Is it the content of the liberal arts degree that exclude one from scarce job opportunities? WIth a liberal arts degree, one is initiated into a culture of discourse, argument, appreciation, empathy and familiarity with concepts of justice. So, it’s not so much that you study Thucydides, but that you understand how to argue, think, reach across the centuries to grasp ideas far different from one’s own. As a result, liberal arts grads often can see layers, references, allusions, constructions, subtleties inherent in efforts of politicians, artists and scientists. One could meet, for example, the Ambassador of a foreign country and strike up a conversation about Aristotle, as I have done. In these cases, it is insight into the vast wellsprings of human knowledge that allows one to bridge obvious differences and sometimes resolve conflicts.

    The current existential crisis appears to be the *appearance* that education (of any kind) is not as directly tied to one’s job prospects. This is disturbing in a country where we believe the ability of education (and American ingenuity) allow us to transcend class. However, at the same time, Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce demonstrates that the college degree itself will be a benchmark to success, especially with projected increase in demand for B.A. and M.A workers, and the decrease in jobs available for those without college degrees. If we don’t get more citizens educated with a college degree, we certainly will begin to see a widening economic divide between American citizens.

    Many countries embrace liberal arts including Russia and China, as a valuable curricular approach. (See Dr. Yong Zhao for de-mystifying the China-US polarization). More and more, countries look to arts and liberal arts for the ingenuity and creativity to respond to critical challenges. If, as the UN State of the Future suggests, long-term thinking and judgment will be crisis issues going forward, the liberal arts certainly cultivate the skills to manage vast data available to us, with good judgment and long-term sensibilities thereby speaking directly to these crisis issues. In this country, see the explosion of design thinking (from IDEO’s point of view and extremely liberal arts approach to problems) as well as national and world creativity networks. You will still find, more often than not, that leaders in many sectors began their careers with a liberal arts degree, with high standards for rigorous argument, a sense of ethical layering, and a striving for the cosmopolitan point of view addressed in the liberal arts.

  • RexMottram08

    Education at Yale is NOT in the liberal arts. The small Great Books colleges do a far superior job at actually educating students. Yale pumps out well-credentialed and under-educated children.

  • oklohomosapien

    yeah okay but it would take, like, a f—ton of slavey-workers to make you a great thinker of a times