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George Soros, Carly Fiorina, Albert Schweitzer: Liberal Arts Slackers

10/17/2013 05:52 pm 17:52:31 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I was recently invited to Washington DC to give a talk at the 36th Annual Fulbright Association Conference about the relevance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century economy. As the president of Pitzer College and an avid proponent of the liberal arts, this was not the first time I have received such an invitation.

I'm always pleased to have a chance to talk about the way we learn and teach, but I have to say, it's getting increasingly difficult for me to gin up another bully pulpit defense of a well-rounded education. I mean, really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowledge? Of complexity? Of depth? Of communication? And frankly it strikes me as odd to be asked to defend the liberal arts in a town where the government is shut down. There are some politicians who need to do some defending, not me.

I feel a particular kinship now to those physicians who have to keep explaining that Raisinets aren't really a fruit or that Cheetos have no nutritional value. I sympathize with financial analysts who have to make clear that there are consequences to spending more than you earn, and with elementary school teachers who have suggested that too much television inhibits the reading habits of children.

We seem to be living in a moment when self-evident truths need to be defended. One of those truths is that a liberal arts education not only creates "skill sets"; it creates wisdom and insight, spurs creativity and innovation, and inspires students to think in ways that transform the world. Imagine the iPad without that calligraphy course Steve Jobs snuck into at Reed or Disney Hall if Frank Gehry's mother had never taken him to a concert (he had already struck out as a radio announcer, chemical engineer and truck driver); or Elon Musk's Tesla if he hadn't earned his degree in physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The liberal arts are healthy for a democratic society and absolutely necessary if we want our society to flourish. The body politic, the communities in which we live and work, are not so very different from the human body: in order to survive we need to be fed by variety, by what's organic and pure -- fruits and vegetables, perhaps a nice glass of pinot -- not by what's fast and easy.

But aren't the liberal arts a luxury, pundits ask. Do we really want our young people studying philosophy, or Latin, or literature? I always want to direct those queries to George Soros, Carl Icahn, Carly Fiorina, Studs Terkel, Angela Davis, Stephen Breyer, Pope John Paul II, Albert Schweitzer and the 14th Dalai Lama -- philosophy students all. If only they had done a pre-vocational major, maybe they could have made something of themselves.

The current wave of hostility to a liberal arts education has surfaced at the same moment when states are being asked to adopt the Common Core State Standards for K-through-12 students. The Common Core is, in part, a reaction against education that's simplistic, rote, or one-dimensional. Students are asked to analyze data that appears inconsistent, to read for irony, to explore the unknown. Whether or not these standards are a good or bad idea remains to be seen, but they implicitly acknowledge the value of the liberal arts.

As a college president who double majored in English and humanities and never took the SAT, I obviously come to this debate with a bias. But I am carrying on the credo of generations of educators who came before me. Pitzer College's first president was an English professor and poet--yes, doubly cursed. When he was hired in 1963, the College was just an idea with no buildings, no teachers and no students. But he was unafraid of the unfinished; the College had no walls but it had a president with a concrete concept about the mission of his college: "What can we say about Pitzer's goal? Just as we have begun with the strength of community effort, we shall constantly strive toward the ideal of an academic community. But let me stress here the significance of the word toward. In that word lies much of the essence of liberal education. It suggests movement with a purpose, and that finality and completion may be ever-receding goals."

Today, we want finality fast and questions resolved at 4G speed. Yet the benefits of a liberal arts education play out over a lifetime. The liberal arts shouldn't need a college president flying around the country defending their honor; they do need all of us to come together to develop a chorus of voices to talk, paint, sing, build, heal and invest in the liberal arts because to continue to devalue and question their relevancy is to question the relevancy and value of knowledge itself.

This post is based on a speech presented by President Laura Skandera Trombley at a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board event on October 4, 2013 -- "A Liberal Arts Education in a 21st Century Economy" -- in Washington, DC.