Liberal Arts Education and Hope

In the midst of the vitriolic political discourse the United States is currently facing, there rages a debate as to the purpose of education generally and higher education specifically. Many seem to think that higher education should be an avenue to teach skills for jobs and careers while others see higher education as a means to teach mores, critical thinking, and the assist in students’ meaning making capacity. While the debate has not centered on a ‘winner’ the skill based education side seems to have the edge.

A recent study seems to indicate that a liberal arts education – the idea that higher education can teach mores, critical thinking, and assist with meaning making capacity – may yield positive results for liberal arts graduates (outside of just salary). This could be a huge victory for the liberal arts side of the debate, yet the article (and study) seem to miss the major point of one side of the debate. While the study focuses on graduates leadership capacity, orientation towards lifelong learning, and the like, proponents of skill based education do not even value those things that a liberal arts education hopes to instill in students.

The idea that an education should lead to better people is opposed to the idea that education should lead to high paying jobs (though they don’t have to be opposed). The debate will rage on and this study will embolden supporters of a liberal education but fail to impact those that believe a liberal education is not necessary in today’s global society.

Education, though, has to be about making individuals better versions of themselves. Education needs to teach individuals to think critically, the ability to sift through facts and figures, and the idea that two opposed views could be correct is incredibly valuable in today’s hyper-polarized society. The United States election of 2016 saw this debate play out on a national scale as Democrats and Republicans were yelling at one another, assuming the worst of the other. While this is not all explained by the philosophy of education, it certainly is embedded in it. A liberal education is ever more important in this complex 21st century. We cannot simply hope that graduates learn skills to do a job (though that is important – I want my doctor and electrician to know exactly what they are doing) we need to also hope that our graduates can think critically and hold opposing viewpoints. Education – a liberal arts education at that – is the only hope we have to begin to break down the divisiveness that our country currently is faced with.