Do the Liberal Arts Teach Us How to Live?

A common criticism of liberal arts colleges is that they do not teach practical skills. The implicit contrast in this criticism is with vocational schools, which teach technical skills in preparation for a particular job. The corresponding defense is that these schools aren’t meant to teach technical skills. Rather, they teach one how to live. While I do believe that the liberal arts ought to be more highly valued than they are, this defense is not well-founded. Any defense of liberal arts schools must acknowledge both the fact that many students of the liberal arts never learn “how to live,” as well as the historically contingent nature of the subjects that liberal arts colleges teach.

The details of what it means to know “how to live” vary based on the specific defense and what it is responding to. Sometimes, the argument is that a liberal arts curriculum educates its students morally. For example, studying literature is often said to give one more empathy. Unfortunately, this view is undermined by reality – one can only meet so many highly educated yet morally bankrupt people before the idea that education fosters moral behavior loses plausibility. A more sophisticated version of the view that the liberal arts teaches one how to live is that education allows one to reach some type of happiness or spiritual fulfillment through the contemplation of beautiful things. Again, however, this view is not consistent with the world we observe around us. One simply needs to contemplate the fact that many highly intelligent and educated people suffered from deeply rooted personal problems to make this view far less attractive.

If a liberal arts education won’t help you to become a good person or to live a fulfilling life, then its defenders are forced to argue that it allows one to succeed in a more superficial way. Many have made the seemingly paradoxical argument that the self-consciously non-vocational skills that are taught in liberal arts schools give their bearers greater success in the job market. The common defense of liberal arts colleges is that they teach general skills, which allow them to learn specific skills more easily. And it does seem true that those who can solve abstract problems and write well tend to succeed at pretty much anything they try.

More concisely, this is the argument that the form of the liberal arts education matters more than the content. Both students in the political science and the English department must learn to write well. And many students also learn abstract problem-solving skills, whether the problems they solve are philosophical or mathematical.

Yet one might object that a traditional liberal arts education is not the only way to acquire these mental skills. Consider computer science; many students at the Claremont Colleges and elsewhere study computer science because it is vocational. It gives you a specific set of skills that are necessary to engage in a particular vocation. However, it also gives many general skills that are valued as well. Pondering the lambda calculus is probably as good for the mind as pondering Plato or cognitive psychology. This type of subject, which endows its students with skills both general and technical, seems to be what many students at the Claremont Colleges want to study, as evidenced by the recent dramatic increase in computer science majors. So, why doesn’t everybody just study computer science? Why learn history, philosophy, or anthropology when those disciplines give you only general skills and not specific ones?

The closest thing to a satisfying answer to this question that I have come up with is that studying literature, history, anthropology, and the like places one in the tradition of thinkers who used the conceptual vocabulary of those disciplines to understand the world around them. Limiting undergraduates to studying only those disciplines with some vocational application would greatly restrict the conceptual vocabulary that they have access to.

That is, a liberal arts education is a kind of enculturation. Those from the same country are often more able to communicate with each other than with foreigners because they have access to the same concepts and often share assumptions about how the world works. Those who receive a liberal arts education also have a shared reservoir of knowledge to tap into which aids them in communication.

This is not to say that the specific content of a liberal arts education does not matter as long as it is standardized. Different cultures shape the thoughts of those who subscribe to them differently. The content of a liberal arts education influences the actions of those who receive it; that is to say, whether you study Plato or computer science matters, just as it matters where you grew up. In order to properly critique or argue for the liberal arts, one needs to understand that aspect of it. The virtue or vice of the liberal arts comes from the virtue or vice of the community that it creates, not the individuals it affects.

William Schumacher PO '18 is a philosophy major from San Jose, CA.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply