WORLDPOST

What is the Earthly Use of a Liberal Arts Education?

05/23/2014 03:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2014
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These remarks are adapted from the commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College on May 23, 2014.

You are graduating at an interesting moment in history -- when the liberal arts are, honestly, not very cool. You all know what you're supposed to be doing these days -- study computer science, code at night, start a company, and take it public. Or, if you want to branch out, you could major in mechanical engineering. What you're not supposed to do is get a liberal arts education.

This is not really a joke anymore. The governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina have announced that they do not intend to spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts. Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so." Even President Obama recently urged students to keep in mind that a technical training could be more valuable than a degree in art history. Majors like English, once very popular and highly respected, are in steep decline.

THE VALUE OF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION

But it is important to have a healthy sense of the value of a liberal education. But first, a point of clarification. A liberal education has nothing to do with "liberal" in the left-right sense. Nor does it ignore the sciences. From the time of the Greeks, physics and biology and mathematics have been as integral to it as history and literature. For my own part, I have kept alive my interest in math and science to this day.

A liberal education -- as best defined by Cardinal Newman in 1854 -- is a "broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge" for its own sake, rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or do a job. There were critics even then, the 19th century, who asked, Newman tells us, "To what then does it lead? Where does it end? How does it profit?" Or as the president of Yale, the late Bart Giamatti asked in one of his beautiful lectures, "what is the earthly use of a liberal education?"

I could point out that a degree in art history or anthropology often requires the serious study of several languages and cultures, an ability to work in foreign countries, an eye for aesthetics, and a commitment to hard work -- all of which might be useful in any number of professions in today's globalized age. And I might point out to Governor Scott that it could be in the vital interests of his state in particular to have on hand some anthropologists to tell Floridians a few things about the other 99.5 percent of humanity.

But for me, the most important earthly use of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough. I realized that coming from India, I was pretty good at taking tests, at regurgitating stuff I had memorized, but not so good at expressing my own ideas. Over the course of that semester, I found myself beginning to make the connection between thought and word.

I know I'm supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think, but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. The columnist, Walter Lippmann, when asked his thoughts on a particular topic is said to have replied, "I don't know what I think on that one. I haven't written about it yet."

There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first -- thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my "thoughts" are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.

If you think this has no earthly use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos -- often as long as six printed pages -- and begins senior management meetings with a period of quiet time -- sometimes as long as 30 minutes -- while everyone reads the memos and makes notes on them. Whatever you will do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and -- I would add -- quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill. And it is, in many ways, the central teaching of a liberal education.

HOW TO SPEAK YOUR MIND

The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak and speak your mind. One of the other contrasts that struck me between school in India and college in America was that an important part of my grade was talking. My professors were going to judge me on the process of thinking through the subject matter and presenting my analysis and conclusions -- out loud. The seminar, which is in many ways at the heart of a liberal education - and at the heart of this college - teaches you to read, analyze, dissect, and above all to express yourself. And this emphasis on being articulate is reinforced in the many extra-curricular activities that surround every liberal arts college -- theater, debate, political unions, student government, protest groups. You have to get peoples' attention and convince them of your cause.

Speaking clearly and concisely is a big advantage in life. You have surely noticed that whenever someone from Britain talks in a class, he gets five extra points just for the accent. In fact, British education -- and British life -- has long emphasized and taught public speaking through a grand tradition of poetry recitation and elocution, debate and declamation. It makes a difference -- but the accent does help too.

The final strength of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to learn. I now realize that the most valuable thing I picked up in college and graduate school was not a specific set of facts or a piece of knowledge but rather how to acquire knowledge. I learned how to read an essay closely, find new sources, search for data so as to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and figure out whether an author was trustworthy. I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure, a great adventure of exploration.

Whatever job you take, I guarantee that the specific stuff you have learned at college -- whatever it is -- will prove mostly irrelevant or quickly irrelevant. Even if you learned to code but did it a few years ago, before the world of apps, you would have to learn anew. And given the pace of change that is transforming industries and professions these days, you will need that skill of learning and retooling all the time.

These are a liberal education's strengths and they will help you as you move through your working life. Of course, if you want professional success, you will have to put in the hours, be disciplined, work well with others, and get lucky. But that would be true for anyone, even engineers.

I kid, of course. Remember, I grew up in India. Some of my best friends are engineers. And honestly, I have enormous admiration for engineers and technologists and doctors and accountants. But what we must all recognize is that education is not a zero sum game. Technical skills don't have to be praised at the expense of humanities. Computer science is not better than art history. Society needs both -- often in combination. If you don't believe me, believe Steve Jobs who said, "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts -- married to the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."

That marriage -- between technology and the liberal arts -- is now visible everywhere. Twenty years ago, tech companies might have been industrial product manufacturers. Today they have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. Many other companies also focus much of their attention on these fields, since manufacturing is increasingly commoditized and the value-add is in the brand, how it is imagined, presented, sold and sustained. And then there is America's most influential industry, which exports its products around the world, entertainment, which is driven at its core by stories, pictures, and drawings.

A GOOD LIFE, NOT JUST A GOOD JOB

You will notice that so far I have spoken about ways that a liberal education can get you a job or be valuable in your career. That's important, but it is not its only virtue. You need not just a good job but also a good life.

Reading a great novel, exploring a country's history, looking at great art and architecture, making the connection between math and music -- all these are ways to enrich and ennoble your life. In the decades to come, when you become a partner and then a parent, make friends, read a book, listen to music, watch a movie, see a play, lead a conversation, those experiences will be shaped and deepened by your years here.

A liberal education makes you a good citizen. The word liberal comes from the Latin liber, which means "free." At its essence, a liberal education is an education to free the mind from dogma, from controls, from constraints. It is an exercise in freedom. That is why America's founding fathers believed so passionately in its importance. Benjamin Franklin -- the most practical of all the founders, and a great entrepreneur and inventor in his own right -- proposed a program of study for the University of Pennsylvania that is essentially a liberal arts education. Thomas Jefferson's epitaph does not mention that he was president of the United States. It proudly notes that he founded the University of Virginia, another quintessential liberal arts college.

But there is a calling even higher than citizenship. Ultimately, a liberal education is about being human. More than 2,000 years ago, the great Roman philosopher, lawyer, and politician, Cicero explained why it was important that we study for its own sake -- not to acquire a skill or trade -- but as an end unto itself. We do it, he said, because that is what makes us human: It is in our nature that "we are all drawn to the pursuit of knowledge." It is what separates us from animals. Ever since we rose out of the mud, we have been on a quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe and to search for truth and beauty.

So, as you go out into the world, don't let anyone make you feel stupid or indulgent in having pursued your passion and studied the liberal arts. You are heirs to one of the greatest traditions in human history, one that has uncovered the clockwork of the stars, created works of unimaginable beauty, and organized societies of amazing productivity. In continuing this tradition, you are strengthening the greatest experiment in social organization: democracy. And above all, you are feeding the most basic urge of the human spirit -- to know.