The Corner


What Is the Value in a Liberal-Arts Education?

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Is there any point in spending a load of money to send your son or daughter to college for anything other than a straight path to a job?

That is the question Patrick Gray of Rhodes College tackles in today’s Martin Center article.

He thinks there is value in a liberal-arts education: “Its true value resides not in what it delivers, in terms of knowledge or skills, but in what it reveals: namely, our ignorance.” Liberal-arts students may learn a lot of things, but arguably the most important is intellectual humility. In other words, they acquire the wisdom of knowing what they do not know.

At Rhodes, students read and discuss some of the Great Books. Where does that leave them? Gray writes, “When it goes well, the student cultivates a posture of intellectual humility. Are they better educated than they were at the start of the year? I hope so, but now they should know more fully what there is to know, how little of it they have mastered, and how complex are those relatively few texts they have studied.”

Gray knows that college degrees are largely about signaling and says that a liberal-arts degree signals that the student is “thoughtful, literate, and adaptable.” That’s pretty good.

He concludes,

Parents will not be happy to pay $50,000 a year and be told that our mission is to convince their children of their ignorance. It will be an even harder sell if they sense that faculty in the liberal arts are unable or unwilling to admit what we don’t know.

Whatever one thinks of the charge that we are, like Socrates, corrupting the youth, the bottom line—professionally, institutionally—may be the same.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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