07/20/2015 01:31 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2016

Just What Are the Liberal Arts Anyway?

It is summer. Across the country, high school seniors are preparing to leave their hometowns to begin their college careers. Some will go to two-year colleges. Some will go to technical colleges. And many will go on to pursue a classic liberal arts education, frequently at four-year residential colleges. These are often considered the most prestigious colleges and thus, by implication, the most valuable education. And yet, many students - and their parents - will resist the very mission of liberal education. "Parents who will mortgage their houses and their futures in order to send their kids to a liberal arts college" a colleague of mine at Yale once said to me, "will often refuse to allow them to actually get a liberal arts education." Given this truth, which we as faculty and academic advisors see all the time, it perhaps makes sense to try to describe what liberal education is.

Let us begin with what liberal education is not. It is not a technical training in a particular subject matter which leads to a particular job and career trajectory. It is not a nursing degree. Or an accounting degree. Or a degree in computer systems administration. That is, it is not pre-professional. This does not mean that it is does not prepare one for a career. It just doesn't prepare one for a single career. Indeed, what it does is prepare one for a multitude of careers. A liberal arts education should also not be confused with a degree in one of the humanities. A liberal arts degree encompasses all academic disciplines, including the sciences. It is a degree in thinking - in critical thinking. We say this all the time. But what, really, does this mean? And why is it valuable?

It means that liberal education, done right and undertaken with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion, makes you smarter. That's right. Smarter. That is, it hones your natural skills of discernment and intellect to productive thought and the creative application of knowledge. It exposes you to different types of thought (often through distribution and general education requirements) so that you can at once understand the power and the restrictions of different types of thought (that is, different disciplines). It teaches you how to use your thinking, and the skills acquired (reading, writing, numeracy, analysis, synthesis, the persuasive expression of conclusions, and the creative application of knowledge) in novel and creative ways. That is, it teaches you how to be nimble and creative. It teaches you to distinguish between fact and opinions, and to use facts to pursue informed agendas. These skills are honed first in the context of an area of major study, but the point is that they are basic transferrable skills, to be used in any - or many - context(s). This is why, when employers hire students from liberal arts colleges, they care less about the student's major than about the student's ability to talk about their major.

The liberal arts are under attack. And yet it would be silly to do away with the system of higher education that has served us so well for so many centuries. It has been the driver of knowledge production and intellectual inquiry since the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was the Middle Ages that invented both the institution of university education and our notion of critical thinking. Peter Abelard (d. 1142), perhaps the most profound intellectual of the 12th century and a central figure in the development of formal learning that became university education, explained simply that, "By doubting we examine, and by examining we come to the truth". The famous philosopher and theologian from the preceding generation, Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), exemplified the pervasive system of inquiry that Abelard was moving away from when he wrote, "I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand." For Anselm, knowledge and understanding were rooted in preexisting assumptions of truth (in this context, religious faith). For Abelard, this was missing the point. How do you advance understanding if your pre-existing assumptions shackle any potential discovery and any new conclusions? Abelard sought, through sustained, systematic, rigorous, and rational inquiry, to push knowledge forward. To discover new understandings of truth. To undertake what in the modern context we would call "knowledge production." And it is perhaps no coincidence that the development of this new method of intellectual inquiry coincided historically with the take-off of knowledge creation and economic productivity in the West. Make no mistake. There is no doubt that the latter rested in large, large part on the former.

For Abelard and his cohort, it was understood that one had to master the basic grammar of thought before tackling the more difficult and more important work of theology and philosophy. That is, one had to learn to think critically, rationally, logically, and creatively before one could undertake more ambitious intellectual work. To that end, the standard university curriculum was rooted in the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). The seven liberal arts - the precursor of our own conception of "the liberal arts education" - were the building blocks of the competent mind.

The same premise underlies our own system of liberal education. The standard liberal arts curriculum is designed to ensure that students, upon completing their course of study, will have mastered the basic grammars of critical thought in order to then tackle, with creativity, reason, and inspiration, the more specialized tasks of professional life. This is why, looking back, careers often have so little relationship to majors. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard and currently a candidate for the republican presidential nomination, majored in Philosophy and Medieval History at Stanford. James Baker, former Secretary of State, studied Classics at Princeton. John Dickerson, the political journalist succeeding Bob Schieffer as host of Face the Nation majored in English at UVA. Colin Powell majored in Geology at CUNY. It is also why so many career successes appear to have had such varied career paths. It is precisely because they are not pigeon-holed into a single vocation and thus a single career path that they have the enviable ability to make and take new professional opportunities. This is what I mean by the creative application of knowledge.

What then, in this context, is the function of the required major if not to learn a specific amount of disciplinarily-defined content? It is not - not! - to train in a field that is based on information learned in that major. It is to practice thinking, researching, interpreting, writing, learning, and synthesizing, with increasingly complex arenas of knowledge. The major is, in a sense, the "thought laboratory." Working within a defined discipline, with increasingly large and complex data (whether in chemical data, or historical data, or philological data), the liberal arts student is challenged to manage, assess, and apply increasingly complex ideas and information. Managing and interpreting increasingly complex concepts works the brain, like any muscle, to become stronger and more nimble - that is, smarter. And this is why, if a student in a liberal arts school wants to get the absolute most out of their experience, they are probably better off writing a senior thesis in a discipline rather than double majoring in two closely related disciplines. This is what will push their brains farther - make them smarter - and this is the best investment they can make.

So, as parents send their kids off to college this fall, and those same kids try to figure out what they want to study, and as those of us who teach in liberal arts institutions begin talking to those students about the purpose and meaning of the educations they are about to embark upon, we should all keep in mind what our ultimate aims are. It is not vocation training. It is brain-training. We are building the brain trust of the future.