11/16/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2015

The Intrinsic Value of Liberal Education

In my last post, I made the case that a liberal arts degree remains a great investment, in the most practical of terms: skills development, career opportunity, and lifetime earnings. The question I would like to pose today is this: Does pursuing a liberal education also have intrinsic worth? Would it be worth choosing for its own sake, aside from all of its considerable practical value?

The candidates for human endeavors worth pursuing for their own sake, even if nothing further came of them, are surprisingly few. They include endeavors or experiences like: loving another person; engaging in worship for those who practice a faith; having an aesthetically moving experience of art or music or nature; practicing benevolence, kindness, generosity, or compassion.

To this list I would add the endeavor of becoming liberally educated. The very project of seeking understanding, of considering deeply and rigorously what is currently known in one's own quest for understanding, and to advance the depth and completeness of human understanding overall, are among the most intrinsically worthy or valuable endeavors in the human scope.

A liberal education is an expansion of consciousness: with every book read, every natural or social system grasped, every theory put to the test and employed, we become persons with greater scope and agency. Every book or poem, film or equation, image or idea that we struggle to grasp expands and complicates our souls and enlarges our capacities to make meaning of the world and effect change.

Pursuing in earnest the personal and intellectual capacities that we say graduates should possess - independent thinking, integrative and collaborative inquiry, effective communication, global engagement and respect for diversity, civic and social responsibility, - amounts to a sort of soulcraft. In the very process of liberal inquiry in the arts and sciences, one creates an identity, not just with greater breadth and depth of understanding, but also with greater capacity for action, greater freedom and independence, not only to pursue one's own ends, but to influence positively the well-being of the world.

During their time on campus, no matter what their majors, students pursuing a liberal education are certain at some point, perhaps at many points, to change their minds. Reflect on that phrase: "I changed my mind." What a profound thing it is to change one's mind. And that is exactly why the living and learning community of a liberal arts college exists. For many, perhaps most, of our students, these changes are hard won. They are the product of toil and struggle, of progress punctuated by failure and anxiety. Because in changing their minds, in making up their minds, they are engaged in the process of becoming; they are creating an identity out of the raw materials of their studies and experiences. And that, I submit, is a profoundly valuable and worthy human endeavor.

It is also an enormous privilege, which carries with it the responsibility to deeply and seriously embrace the opportunity and then put it to work in the world to advance the opportunities of others.

This whole package - of pursuing and advancing understanding, of making up one's mind, of becoming oneself and equipping oneself to contribute to the well-being of the world - this is what we call liberal education.

And, yes, it has inestimable value.

[This essay is adapted from Grant Cornwell's 2014 Convocation Address at the college of Wooster, "Liberal Education and the Question of Value."]