Monday, April 30, 2012

A Plea For the Liberal Arts

The role of a college education in American life has become a topic of national conversation. Unfortunately, this important issue has not risen to a vigorous debate regarding how we, as a nation, can make college more affordable, more accessible for more people. Instead what we have is a rather silly tit-for-tat between firmly secure (read elite) individuals who feign indifference over their academic pedigree. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have degrees from Harvard University. In fact, every President since Harry Truman has had a college degree, and all but two of them (LBJ and Reagan) have degrees from either Ivy League institutions, Duke, or national military academies. And yet, the national discourse, especially when elites want to appeal to "normal folks" is to play down these academic credentials. National leaders then either argue for continuation of the status quo (the Democrats anemic attempt to prevent Stafford loan interest rates from doubling), or call into question the need for all Americans, from all classes, to pursue college educations (the Republicans silly attempt to paint their rivals as aloof intellectuals with claims that not all Americans need college, nor college debt, to advance economically and socially). We certainly have real, important issues concerning higher education to discuss and defend. Crippling student loan debt, dismal job prospects, and rising costs of higher education all deserve national attention. Rather than address these serious issues our leaders disparage the very academic degrees, the very education that has paved their path to political power. As time passes, more and more Americans find it harder to attain advanced education, either technical or in the humanities. The nation as a whole suffers these fools and their selfishness, and not gladly.

Everyone can benefit from a well-rounded liberal arts education, not because it will enable an individual to manipulate widgets, but because studying the sciences, mathematics, the humanities, and social sciences helps individuals appreciate the process of thinking, listening, and debate. No matter what our station in life, whether we are car mechanics, sanitation workers, administrative clerics, physicians, assembly line workers, janitors, writers, artists, wouldn't we be able to function better as thinking citizens in a free society if we were skilled at deciphering arguments and asking questions? Why should that skill be relegated to a small, lucky elite that can access college education, and capitalize on the social networks and skills acquired in a college or university, using them to eventually enter the workforce or become entrepreneurs?

The statistics certainly are grim for recent college graduates. Some economists point out that graduates who enter a recession economy never make up the depressed wages. Over fifty percent of graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they work in areas where their degree supposedly does not matter. The economy is grim - very grim - but it can never get better if we dumb down the work force, or consider the liberal arts and advanced education an elite privilege. Gone from debates about education costs and student loan debts are the bipartisan policies that over the past thirty years have eroded citizens' access to affordable state colleges and universities. Pell grants have lost funding. State universities and colleges have lost funding. Predatory lending to students has become a billion dollar business. And on top of all this, public education and public school teachers are under fierce attack. Public school teachers, forced by increasingly well-funded state assessment policies, are losing autonomy to teach with creativity and spontaneity. Students who are not taught to think and debate and question in the early years cannot learn to do so when, or if, they enter college and the work force. We need a society of educated critical thinkers, and that comes from developing an appreciation of reading history, science, sociology, anthropology, literature, politics, and philosophy and theology. It also comes from quantitative reasoning and appreciation of the arts. It comes, in short, from a foundation in the liberal arts, which is something that every person in a free society not only deserves, but requires in order for that society to be, and become, free.  

Elites poke fun at the supposed irony of the philosopher major turned barista, but what is so wrong with more philosophically-minded people in every sector of public life? Maybe we'd be better off if more people read and debated ideas. Maybe if more people had access to liberal arts education we'd be less susceptible to manipulation by corrupt elites who've spent quite a bit of time in college lecture halls and seminar rooms learning and debating the big ideas they seem to conveniently forget when they attain power.           

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing that article and also most interestingly mentioning Father Moga. He was my Professor at Fordham!! very enlightening indeed. Great memories.