Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Reframing the liberal arts argument: a response to critics

< weeks ago, I wrote an article about the practical utility of a liberal arts education in the marketplace. It concluded on what I think was a resoundingly gloomy note - with the assumption that our degrees were fundamentally impractical, and that the best that Carleton students realistically have to look forward to is careers as cogs in an uncaring machine.

Since then, I’ve been told to my face that my column is terrible and that I don’t understand the liberal arts philosophy, and I’ve made the eerie discovery that an English class is actually being graded in part on their arguments against what I wrote. I’m still waiting on a number of angry emails.

This is not to attract pity, or alternatively to pat myself on the back as some kind of firebrand. In fact, it’s occurred to me that if people have this a problem with what I wrote, then I need to at least explain it better. I’d like to go to greater lengths, then, to address the topic of a liberal arts degree as “practical.”

First, though, I should probably define “liberal arts.”   

My view of a school like Carleton is that, first and foremost, it provides a broad education. Carleton, obviously, is an extreme – it has more distribution requirements than you can shake a set of cryptic acronyms at – but even Smith, for example, which advertises an extremely free curriculum, requires its students to take about half their credits outside their major. A liberal education is interdisciplinary; students in acting, engineering, or business programs don’t have to take nearly as many classes outside their chosen fields compared to their liberal counterparts.

A liberal education is also theoretical, critical, and historical. While a student in a marketing program might learn the best way to sell a product, a liberal arts student studying marketing might learn about the ethics of advertising, the history of capitalism, and what the exchange of goods means across a variety of cultures. Liberal education teaches us to think and notice, not simply to do. It doesn’t structure our thinking for us; it invites us to arrive at our own mental structure. (Which is not to say that a certain amount of indoctrination doesn’t go on, but that’s more or less inevitable.)

What all this means is that any liberal arts graduate, regardless of major, has some experience in a lot of areas, and regardless of major, is simply extremely good at thinking about things. What admissions brochures tout as “versatility” and the ability to perform “across disciplines” is far from mythical or even difficult to achieve; in fact, I’d argue that it’s inevitable. The ultimate, general effect of Carleton is to make us well-rounded intellectuals.

So – is that a good thing to be?

The obvious answer is yes. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates is reported to have said. I don’t think it’s a debatable point that, old saws like “ignorance is bliss” aside, the ability to think adaptably and fluently is extremely beneficial in almost every area of a person’s life.

But that’s very abstract, and I think that when you actually look around the country today, you tend to see that a meaningful life is increasingly tied to a meaningful income. It’s hard to feel personally fulfilled without material stability.

So while I’d shy away from completely conflating a meaningful life with a successful career, it’s hard to deny that we require a certain amount of practical, quantifiable mileage from our degrees along with the intellectual reward. And this is my biggest problem, because I’m just not convinced that a B.A. from Carleton can provide the former.

I’m well aware of the blueprint of the New Polymath, the multidisciplinary, job-switching übermensch that Carleton’s administration tells us we can become. The idea is that the deep, broad kind of thinking that only liberal arts graduates can do will catapult us into the new information economy, because we’ll be able to communicate, write, and synthesize information in a way that people without our liberal arts training can only gawk at.

But I’m just not sure if I buy that. It seems like wishful thinking – some kind of science fiction future where the invisible hand of capitalism will finally lead us into a real meritocracy, where we’ll get to be both prosperous and personally fulfilled at the same time, all the time. Forgive me if that seems too good to be true.

Call me a pessimist, but this kind of whole-person, non-instrumental thought seems like a dying giant to me. I can’t bring myself to expect a world where an ad agency will hire an art history B.A. over somebody with a degree in marketing because the art history B.A. understands abstract principles about how images affect people. It seems sentimental and deluded, perhaps dangerously so.

I recognize, however, that my earlier statement that the liberal arts “just aren’t worth it” was an oversimplification. We aren’t throwing our lives away by going to Carleton. My worry is simply that many of us are willfully consigning ourselves to a vague sense of rootlessness and angst for years to come, and rather than embracing that, I think we need to start questioning the foundations of the liberal arts system.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *