What a liberal arts education should mean in the 21st century
Let's get back to the basics
One of the world's endlessly recurring debates is over the value of a liberal arts education. Recently, the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla weighed in with a post blasting the liberal arts, saying, "Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future."
Ths follows a familiar line of argument, one that usually results in shouts of "liberal arts provide critical thinking!" or "we need more science classes or we're going to be eaten by China and/or robots!"
But there's one thing that this debate consistently misses: What are we referring to, exactly, when we talk about "liberal arts"? Is there an agreed-upon definition? No, there isn't, actually. In fact, there is a huge, separate debate within the academy about what we mean by liberal arts, and how to teach them. This debate, to me, is the more interesting one, but I think there's an interesting convergence between the two that has not been properly explored, namely: what should a liberal arts education mean in the 21st century?
Here's a starting point: We call them the "liberal arts," because they are supposed to make us free. The idea of the liberal arts is that they represent what a man should know to have a truly free mind. So, then, how should we structure an education that liberates the mind?
1. Yes, teach the great tradition.
In the debate about what liberal arts means, there are two major schools: the traditionalists and the modernists. For the traditionalists, the liberal arts mean the great humanistic tradition of Western philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Locke, Kant, and so forth. To the modernists, this vision is too narrow, and it's exclusionary to only teach great white men. Don't other cultures have many things to teach us? Don't contemporary writers and perspectives?
The modernists have a point. It's obviously right that the choice of a curriculum based on the "Great Books" misses swathes of human creativity that are very worthwhile. And it's also true that it unfairly excludes perspectives from disadvantaged groups.
But they have only a point. The civilization we live in, as a historical matter, was built on the ideas of those Dead White Men, and to be a "free" person in our civilization requires an understanding of precisely those ideas. Yes, that means also understanding critiques of those ideas, but we've gone too far in the other direction. We've reached a point where our elites don't even understand the basic concepts that make our civilization run. A civilization is nothing but institutions, and institutions are nothing but ideas in motion — in our case, institutions such as human rights, liberal democracy, free market capitalism, the scientific method, and so on. These institutions only work insofar as their foundational ideas live on. So, yes, start with teaching the great tradition.
2. Add math.
Here is where the scientists have a point. A lot of people end up majoring in the humanities simply because they can't crack it in science. (It was certainly my case.) But can you be a "free" man in the liberal arts sense, if you are not numerate? A great number of our decisions, whether in business or the political realm, are based or will be based on data. Writers report on "studies" that they're not numerate enough to understand. And the ability to understand data, to query it, to manipulate it, can be taught. A specific science (computers!) should not be a basic part of the liberal arts curriculum, but a strong foundation in mathematics and statistics should definitely be.
3. Add history and social studies — and epistemology most of all.
It's always interesting to see which academic disciplines have the most prestige. Today, by far, it is economics, even though economics proves much, much less than it purports to. Economists are asked to weigh in on psychology, on how to organize schools, on how to fight drugs, and so on. In a different era, with equivalent legitimacy, we might have asked historians, or theologians.
We live in a world where science is very important, and "science" even more so — that is, all those things which purport to be scientific, but really aren't. Economics and sociology are valuable, as long as you understand the processes by which they arrive at their findings, and the limits of those processes. This is the hard work of epistemology, which is the study of how we decide which things are true and which aren't, and how we prove things, which might be the most important discipline today as well as the most understudied.
4. Finally, don't forget literature.
Philosophy is important. Math is important. History and social sciences are important. But there is one trove of insight about the world which is simply the most profound that there is, and that is literature. Psychology and neurology and even philosophy and theology simply cannot match the depth of understanding of the human person (and of the world) that the great writers have. The Divine Comedy and The Brothers Karamazov and Othello truly are among the things that one must have soaked in to be "free" in the liberal arts sense of "free." If I had to choose between all these things, I would choose literature without hesitation.
But thankfully, I don't have to. There's enough time in the first two years of college to give people a solid foundation in all those four areas, and build a liberal arts curriculum that doesn't just tell us how silly the phrase "win the future" is, but actually helps us win the future.