The value (or lack thereof) of a liberal arts education

liberal artsDan Kaufman (see his webzine, the Electric Agora) and I had another of our conversations over at, this time centering on Dan’s recently articulated skepticism about ongoing defenses of the concept of a liberal arts education in college. Here is his original article, provocatively entitled “On Some Common Rationales for Liberal Education (and why they aren’t very good).”

The video begins with Dan properly summarizing his main points (remember, while listening to him, that he is not a scientistically inclined fellow, nor is he going after the liberal arts from a conservative political standpoint; indeed, he teaches philosophy in a liberal arts school).

Then it’s my turn to defend the concept of a liberal arts education, not just from a pragmatic perspective, but also from the point of view of a broader, and I think as meaningful as ever, take on why we bother educating people in a democracy in the first place.

Dan and I then get into a constructive discussion of the question of whether a liberal arts education makes students better citizens (yes, for me; no, for Dan). And that eventually got us into a delicate examination of the recent series of campus protests about equality, safe spaces, and microaggressions.

We end with a conversation about valuing the liberal arts for their own sake (which Dan thinks is the only way, while I suggest it is an additional one), and with my articulation of why I think the humanities are “dangerous” (and I mean this in the most positive way possible!).

19 thoughts on “The value (or lack thereof) of a liberal arts education

  1. brodix

    Listening to this as I’m about to head back to work, but to add a basic observation;

    Frankly, the term, “Liberal Arts” would seem to be a misnomer. Basically it seems to be indoctrination into western culture and as such is fundamentally conservative in nature.

    Liberalism in practice is largely about social expansion and western culture has been overwhelmingly successful in extending knowledge and prosperity to a broad section of the population, so it is a logical title, but as a consolidation and necessary editing of this process, is a conservative construct of this knowledge base.

    Consider where actual liberalism has been for the last century; From the twenties through the fifties, it would seem to have largely been an economic function, with the growth of the labor movement. Then civil rights rising from the late fifties through the seventies, along with feminism.
    With the economic slowdowns and complications, unionism fell apart by the eighties and the civil rights movement has fragmented into various minority rights issues.
    Yet what are the intellectual concepts driving these movements, beyond a sense of general fairness?
    Wouldn’t something which truly encompassed the concepts of “liberal” and “arts” be more about why society functions as it does and how these dynamics can be directed to truly help, not only humanity as a whole, but the environment on which it is based?
    Now much of what does seek to do this are in the science and technology fields, but they seem to lack a broad based view to tie them together into a larger effort. For instance, it would seem the Gaia hypothesis would be an expression of this effort, but it certainly wouldn’t be taught in any field described as liberal arts, even philosophy as it currently seems to function.
    Obviously I’ve tried putting forth a few ideas about how to look at the world differently, but they don’t seem well received. For instance, I tried arguing that reality is far more fundamentally thermodynamically cyclical, than temporally linear and it mostly elected groans of boredom, but our culture is based on a narrative view of reality, in which even the cosmos is considered to be traveling a timeline from beginning to end. Now we appear to be reaching a point where all the blowback from our pellmell rush into the future seems to be catching up to us. So, unfortunately, I suspect nature will prove my view correct.

    So yes, the liberal arts are stuck in a rut and there are reasons for it, but I’m not seeing any sufficient actions to get out of that rut.


  2. ejwinner

    Briefly (as I tried to articulate, not successfully, in comments to DanK’s original essay), I think a problem with such discussions is that we confuse issues concerning the political economy of universities, with issues of what might contribute to a society with democratic aspirations. The issues over-lap, but they are not the same. In the political economy debates, the issues may indeed have to do with success rates of graduates in chosen profession, or the empirical evidence for assuming portable skills for these. But the ‘democratic society’ debate is actually of a different nature. It’s not even clear what kind of evidence can be discovered to demonstrate that a better educated citizenry would prove a stronger electorate; yet the hope that this is true is embedded in the Constitution and the writings of the Founders; and it seems reasonable, given that a better, broader education inclines one toward gathering information before reaching a decision.

    Finally, one has to account for personal experience here, which can only be articulated anecdotally. Education in the humanities has given many of us a broader, deeper, knowledge of a whole host of issues we would be unfamiliar with otherwise. Again, the ’empirical’ (statistical) evidence of this would be difficult to marshal; yet the experience is undeniable.


    I also found the discussion interesting. But I think those readers of this site with ‘scientismist’ biases would probably find it difficult to respond to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Herbert

    My suggestion to ‘liberal arts’ majors: Don’t co-major your art, history, literature, philosophy, etc with computer science unless it actually interests you. The future does not belong to coders.

    Actually I once got a new assistant fresh from a computer science degree. Couldn’t code. Didn’t even know the basics. When I questioned him on this he said “that side of it never interested me”. One of my lecturers at Uni mentioned a survey of third year computer science students that most of them could not tell you the difference between a compiled and an interpreted language.

    So if you want to code, code. Get a good book that will allow you to avoid bad habits and start coding.


  4. brodix

    It surely must be difficult to decide what educational foundation to give the next generation, when there is neither cultural homogeneity, or collective economic momentum to give some sense of a larger direction to the society.
    As clinging to the old ways no longer seems a viable option, even if some sense of history is fundamentally necessary, rather than simply gird them for the various economic and cultural wars, possibly it will come time to step back examine the fact that reality is fundamentally bottom up, but that, collectively and individually, we can only view it/extract signal from the noise, through these top down frames we develop.
    Then there might be some better understanding of the dichotomous nature of reality. That good and bad are not only cultural framing devices and personal desires, but basic binary code, like yes and no, on and off. That what might be good to one frame, can be bad from another point of view.
    This certainly will not remove the tensions and conflicts in society, because they, like all things, are both good and bad. A happy medium is also a flatline.
    But would get people to better understand why they might have these conflicts and learn to both give and take as necessary functions of living in an organic reality.
    Look to nature and accept that we will not escape it, but will eventually have to come to terms with it. Either willingly, or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Massimo Post author


    “I think a problem with such discussions is that we confuse issues concerning the political economy of universities, with issues of what might contribute to a society with democratic aspirations”

    Indeed, though I think both Dan and I are well aware of that distinction. In my case for no other reason that I served as a department chair for five years…

    “the ’empirical’ (statistical) evidence of this would be difficult to marshal; yet the experience is undeniable”

    Right. I know that sounds like an excuse, my scientific training keeps whispering: “if you can’t marshal evidence, it ain’t true…” But the problem with statistics and quantification in general — and here I speak both as an experimental biologist and as a former department chair — is that people immediately tend to measure what is easier to measure, quickly substituting it for what is actually important.

    “I think those readers of this site with ‘scientismist’ biases would probably find it difficult to respond to”



    “The future does not belong to coders”

    Pace Philip, I sense that you are correct. Ironically, I think coding will soon be entirely automated, done by computers to which one says, in plain English (or Mandarin): “here is what I want done” and they’ll do it. And then the Apocalypse comes…


  6. brodix

    “is that people immediately tend to measure what is easier to measure, quickly substituting it for what is actually important.”

    Somehow this brings to mind a crack I used to make to another regular on another forum, about the difference between generalists and specialists, in that there is a reason the people running armies are called generals and specialist is one grade above private.


  7. Thomas Jones

    Re: MP’s, Philip’s, and Robin’s comments on becoming proficient software coders. I asked a particularly bright young man who had written a complete A/R system for bingo games over 30 years ago for us what he though about my going back to school to learn coding. He felt it was a bad move for the same reasons as MP. His response, “In the not distant future, hardware and firmware will learn to code themselves; so if you’re not the rare genius involved in these inventions, you’ll waste your time and money.” Ultimately, I did learn enough to modify a database program language to capture information required by the government due to the nature of our business. But eventually the database company was bought out by a larger company, and advances in the increasing speed of microprocessors rendered the database program obsolete.


  8. Massimo Post author


    that seems very different, the Digital Humanities are an attempt to bring quantitative methods to humanities studies. It has little to do with coding per se (though of course it relies on the appropriate software to carry out the analyses).


  9. Massimo Post author


    Regardless of who said what, I’m curious: do you disagree that pretty soon computers will be able to automate code to levels of complexity that individual programmers will not even be able to understand? If not, why not? If yes, why would learning how to code then be necessary?


  10. Philip Thrift

    Automatic programming (systems that generate programs from “high-level” specifications) has been a topic in AI for over 60 years. But would such systems automatically also generate their own new general-purpose (like Python, Racket, or Haskell) and domain-specific programming languages (like Stata I mentioned above, or GReg for synthetic biology)?

    New programming languages (high-level and low-level) as well as evolutions of existing languages are being developed all the time. To have robots also doing that in the near future that would be an advance in AI.


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