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Coming to the Defense of Liberal Education

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It's a curious week when the New York Times runs two stories that defend traditional liberal arts education. And it's only Wednesday! First there is David Brooks writing to "stand up for the history, English and art classes, even in the face of today's economic realities." Then there is Stanley Fish arguing that we should "forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences." Fish weaves together Diane Ravitch, Martha Nussbaum, Leigh A. Bortins and his own rigorous high school education in Providence, Rhode Island. Brooks underscores the "rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities." Both commentators, like Peter Berkowitz, who recently published the op-ed "Why Liberal Education Matters" in the Wall Street Journal, insist that liberal education was never more relevant. As Berkowitz put it: liberal education "represents the culmination of a citizen's preparation for freedom."

I am cheered by this chorus of praise for a form of education in which I deeply believe (see "What is a Liberal Arts Education Good For"). We should all recognize that a broadly based education helps people develop capacities that will serve them well for decades after their formal schooling ends. For Brooks this means becoming conversant while in college with a wide range of examples that will serve as compelling analogies for any number of issues that will come up in one's personal, professional or civic life. For Fish it means becoming fluent in the fundamentals even before moving on to post-secondary education: understanding the grammar of intellectual, artistic and social practices so that one can participate in them, or at least understand them from the inside. Both commentators, like many others writing today, worry that in our results oriented regime, the study of history, literature and the arts is being compromised or eliminated in favor of narrow skills that fit into so-called objective tests. Instead of giving students the opportunity to have strong emotional and cognitive encounters with well-told stories, instead of helping them find their way to becoming absorbed in great works of art, we have drilled young people into thinking that effective reading and writing are techniques with measurable outcomes to be evaluated on standardized tests. A liberal education produces results, too, but they are less reducible to questions that can be answered by coloring in a bubble with a number 2 pencil.

There has been great disappointment that the Obama administration has continued the Bush era emphasis on accountability through narrow test taking. This emphasis is a diversion from the one thing shown to make a big difference at the secondary level -- outstanding teachers who can provide students with the kind of education that will make them ready for and desirous of a challenging and broadly based education at the post-secondary level. Despite the fact that the president and almost all the senior members of his administration have had the benefit of a broad, liberal education, their Race to the Top initiatives continue to emphasize technocratic accountability rather than the learning of basic content in the humanities and sciences that will translate from one grade to another, and from one field to another. As Diane Ravitch has recently noted:

Much of what policymakers now demand will very likely make the schools less effective and may further degrade the intellectual capacity of the citizenry. The schools will surely be failures if students graduate knowing how to choose the right option from four bubbles on a multiple-choice test, but unprepared to lead fulfilling lives, to be responsible citizens, and to make good choices for themselves, their families, and our society.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan underscore "that education is the key to our long-term prosperity in a global economy," but if they continue to operate with a narrow vision of an educated work force as a bunch of effective test takers, they will squander our long-term economic capital as well as the moral and political potential of the country.

It is certainly understandable that in these uncertain economic times families are more concerned than ever with the kind of education their students will receive. That's why it's so important to understand the deep, contemporary practicality of a liberal education. Patient and persistent critical inquiry has never been more crucial, and the development of this capacity is one of the defining features of a liberal education. One learns that successful inquiry is rigorous and innovative, and that one must be able to re-evaluate one's own practices and prejudices. Real inquiry is pragmatic, and it is also reflexive -- it includes rigorous self-examination. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. By learning how to learn, one makes one's education last a lifetime. What could be more practical? Post secondary education, I am fond of telling the undergrads at Wesleyan, should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. They should develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change -- not victims of it.

One of the strong features of the university and college sector in this country is the variety of paths for achieving a broadly based education. Learning through the liberal arts energizes capacities for innovation and for judgment. Those who can imagine how best to reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture. Let's hope their education includes the ability to think reflexively so as to reexamine continually the direction they've chosen and the assumptions they've used. Students today must learn how to make sense of extraordinary amounts of information, and they must recognize that they will have to make responsible decisions before they have "finished" their research. Inquiry is never finished. Educators in the liberal arts aim to develop habits of mind that thrive on ambiguity and that foster combinations of focus and flexibility, criticism and courage.

Brooks and Fish, and the authors they cite, are defending the core values of a humanistic education because this form of learning is under intense economic and political pressure. We need to articulate a pragmatic approach to the liberal arts that helps us to create what a friend of mine here at Wesleyan calls "intellectual cross-training." We must educate individuals broadly so that they are capable of moving from one problem to another with confidence, capable of moving from one opportunity to another with courage. We must educate citizens broadly so that they understand the value of freedom and the virtue of compassion. When we do so, we will have plenty of defenders of the liberal arts.