What Good is a Liberal Arts Education?

I had a conversation recently about the practical value and applicability of a liberal arts education. At the time I was at a best friend’s wedding and riding too high on the feel good vibes and beers with names like ‘Jonathan Bitterman Sweetwater’s Summer Session Apricot Infused Ale’ to let it bring me down but the next day when I revisited the convo I felt morose.  I know it’s a tired old cliché but a liberal arts education is more about learning how to learn than a specific set of skills used to land a job in a given profession. In the best case scenario it opens up the world, sheds some light on how and why we are where we are, both as a society and individuals, and opens a course for a future career and a life of continued learning.

In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome liberal arts were simply the base level of knowledge a free person had to have in order to participate in public society, things such as history, grammar, rhetoric and logic. These studies were supposed to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate populace. Slaves were given a technical or manual education in order to perform a task. I recently watched a documentary called the Queen of Versailles about a billionaire family and their trials during the economic crisis of 2008. At the time they were building the largest house in America, ninety thousand square feet under one roof, when they had to halt construction and put it up for sale on the market due to the crash. Two things struck me while watching. The most glaring and apparent was the vapidity and moral turpitude of some of the characters, primarily the billionaire wife Jackie Siegel. In one Segment she is tearfully lamenting the layoff of a thousand employees at her husband’s company choking back sobs as she frets over her family’s future. In the next scene she’s loading her SUV with literally dozens of shopping carts full of toys. Later back at her mansion, the ‘small’ mansion not the one under construction, she laments not having money to hire a Christmas party manager when she has to tell the head nanny it’s time to put on the Rudolf costume and flail around for the children.

The second shock, which was less apparent but maybe more profound, comes when she tells her children they may have to go to university if their father’s business fails. Jackie Siegel holds a degree in computer engineering and it made me wonder if she would behave in the same manner had she a classical liberal arts education? If she were more aware of her surroundings and the world at large would she still be as vapid and morally reprehensible or at least morally clueless? The more frightening thing is the fact that these are the people in control of our economy and government and their children are going to be in control after them. Don’t believe people like the Siegels are in power? David Siegel claims direct responsibility for getting George W. elected. When asked to expound upon his claim he said he couldn’t as it ‘wasn’t exactly legal’. If the parents are vapid individuals what can we expect from their spoiled children who have no more than a high school education?

Two passions that my liberal arts education instilled in me were a love for history and international relations. Without my liberal arts education and the love of learning it instilled in me my life would be much different as would my understanding of the world and my interactions with others. Everything has a story and a long history of how it came into being and all of these stories have some kind of relationship to one another. The Holy Roman Empire, iron clad warships, and the USSR have as much, if not more, to do with where and who you are right now than your own choices. I picked those three at random but here is another example. I’m sitting on a couch looking out the window at a development that not too long ago was a corn field. The word couch originated in Middle English from the Old French noun couche, which derived from the verb meaning 'to lie down'.. As far  the word 'sofa' it can be traced back to Arabic. It also is used to describe a piece of furniture in the Arab regions that is very similar to what eventually became our own version of a sofa. The Arab word is 'suffah’.

The actual concept of the couch comes from Greek and Roman cultures. Men would recline on couch like benches and eat their dinners. The corn field was replaced with McMansion style houses for a number of reasons too various and complicated to list but without the invention of balloon framing such wide scale and relatively cheap construction would not be available. Most construction we see today is platform framing, a descendant of balloon framing, which is simply building houses with dimensional lumber,  ie 2 by 4’s, and manufactured nails. Before dimensional lumber and balloon framing there was timber framing. Not only was it far more expensive and dangerous it also required master craftsman for its construction. Look around you; everything has a story and a history and the more we understand those histories the more insight we’ll have into not only the world but ourselves as well.

The numbers of those matriculating with liberal arts degrees is steadily decreasing as students opt for more technical, career specific majors such as medicine, science, and law enforcement. This may not be a bad thing but I fear that the line between university and trade school is becoming blurred. A trade school isn’t a bad thing but it’s no replacement for university. While a trade school trains one to perform a specific job, such as fixing a transmission or fixing a heart, a university education, like in Ancient Greece, should prepare one to participate in public society, to make one a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate citizen. In my mind it’s the only way to make a democracy functional. If you’d like a glimpse of what the alternative might be like watch The Queen of Versailles. It isn’t pretty. 

Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.

Graduation image courtesy of Shutterstock

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