The Corner

Politics & Policy

Exactly What Should a Liberal Arts Education Do?


Many educators say that a liberal arts education is good — at least for some students — but exactly what is it good for? How does it make an individual better?

In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins dives into that question. Her point of departure is a talk given recently at Duke by English professor William Deresiewicz. He’s an outspoken liberal who nevertheless believes in liberal arts education and decries the way higher eduction is being turned in mostly vocational training.

“He believes,” Watkins writes, “that the study of the liberal arts ought to be a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—not simply a set of hoops to usher students through on their way to a future career. And that students should be taught not what to think, but rather how to think critically and independently.”

Nothing to disagree with there.

But then we find out why Deresiewicz likes liberal arts education. Watkins continues, “In his analysis, studying the liberal arts isn’t about the search for the truth, but is rather a project of self-creation. It doesn’t matter what students study as long as they discover who they are through the process:

The crucial thing is to study, not the Great Books, but simply, great books…It doesn’t matter who created it or when…The canon is irrelevant in this respect. A real reader creates her own canon, for it consists precisely of those books that she has used to create herself.”

Good grief — self-creation. There’s no objective truth, so just create your own identity. Many bad ideas have their roots in that sort of thinking.

Watkins contrasts Deresiewicz’s view with that of Princeton professor Robert George. She quotes him: “Our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths—truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base. These are soul-shaping, humanizing truths—truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevates reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possessors of a profound and inherent dignity.”

That sounds like a much better grounding for liberal arts education.

As for Deresiezicz’s doubt that there are any real truths to be found through a liberal education, Watkins responds, “A measured sense of skepticism is good, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked, ‘merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.'”

Just so.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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