05/18/2012 09:44 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Is There Any Value to a Liberal Arts Education?

With the arrival of May, commencement season begins. This is the time of year when students close the book on their college education and hurl themselves into the fearsome void of questionable job prospects, student loan payments, and plenty of self-doubt. Post-grad life is a daunting transition, and while a college education purportedly prepares one for success, that success is by no means secured or measured in terms of financial wealth. Recently in the New Yorker, Ken Auletta examines this dilemma by profiling Stanford University in his article "Get Rich U.," where students are not only interested but encouraged to become Silicon Valley success stories and, of course, millionaires. But in the pursuit of this goal, the humanities and the liberal arts have been pushed into the background.

At Stanford, a self-study acknowledged that there is little integration amongst disciplines and students are fairly compartmentalized in their narrow pursuit of a specialized degree. In other words, there is little time to read Homer or search for "truth" when one is preparing (quickly) for a career. And the issue of student debt, profiled this week in the New York Times, makes the issue of "value" in higher education even more complicated. Such an atmosphere forces the question: Is there any value to a liberal arts education in our current climate of higher education?

By just glancing at my author's bio, one can probably make an educated guess where I stand on this issue. However, I was thinking about this question recently while reading an address made by the late author David Foster Wallace. Wallace provided the commencement address in 2005 to Kenyon College, and unsurprisingly, was quite the provocateur in his talk. He challenged his listeners on the value of a liberal arts education, bringing up certain rote clichés, for example:

"So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about 'teaching you how to think'."

On this point, Wallace's acerbic insight is quite right. Loads of admissions material in higher education promotes the aspect of critical thinking without necessarily explaining its importance or even defining the term at all. Though I would challenge the maxim's status as a cliché: it is not untrue in the least, and if it does bear the stain of cliché-dom the fault lies in the particular institution's lack of defining what critical thinking entails.

Wallace concludes his address to the students by commenting on what the true value of a "real education" is: "it has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness." So for Wallace a liberal arts education at least allows one to consider stimulating topics while meandering through the bourgeois exercises of life, such as waiting in the carpool pickup line, picking up a Starbucks drink, or negotiating rush hour traffic.

It is worth debating whether Wallace's cynicism is deserved or not. The climate of higher education has certainly changed, even since 2005 when this address was given. The current buzzwords of "distance learning" and "on-line education" are on the tips of administrators' tongues at colleges and universities at every level. With the higher cost of education, a market has naturally been created that allows students to move through some sort of curriculum to achieve a terminal degree. Many community colleges and on-line institutions advertise the speed of achieving a degree rather than the quality of the instruction. And other well-known and high-caliber institutions of higher education are dipping their toe in the burgeoning market of on-line education. Stanford University recently drew a record 20,000 users (or "students" in a sense) for an on-line offering on artificial intelligence. Harvard and MIT are also all delving into the new frontier of "distance learning" where the classroom is virtual, the pedagogy is on-demand, and the potential for growth (and profit) is limitless. Any institution of higher learning is responsibly exploring this new trend, but questions remain whether this new trend is really beneficial or not.

Thus we return to the question at hand: is there any value to a liberal arts education in this climate? I would answer emphatically "Yes". A liberal arts education is unique in its methodological approach to higher education. As a student I took courses across the arts and science curriculum, classes in religion, history, and English, as well as geology, mathematics, and art. In each course, the classroom was the defining pedagogical instrument. Classes were limited in size to promote the interaction between professor and student, and professors would push the students on their work, directly challenging them to explore different possibilities. This is what makes a liberal arts education unique, and arguably one that is difficult to transpose to an on-line platform. But the crucial engagement between professor and student is face-to-face, not through computer cameras or avatars. There is value to a bricks and mortar classroom, a room where discourse takes place amongst colleagues, fostering an attitude of shared learning. Perhaps that is why many of my colleagues are committed to exploring this new arena in the hopes of preserving what makes liberal arts teaching unique, and not sacrificing the direct engagement between teacher and student.

I graduated with a liberal arts degree into a different economy than the one we are currently enjoying. Granted, it was frustrating to explain to employers where I actually went to school and what my degree was in, but I certainly felt that I was very well-rounded due to my experience in a liberal arts background. As Wallace provoked in his speech at Kenyon, maybe education really is about awareness, even awareness of staving off the monotony of daily life. But my experience in college helped me immediately with the challenges of the "real world." I read great books, observed momentous works of art, but it was the training in critically assessing literature, art, or faith that was truly valuable; asking not only what makes a book "great," but what makes a "great" life, and more importantly what do I want to make my life "great" and how do I get there? My education was not just about simple awareness; it was about awareness of what I wanted to devote my energies to in this life.

I acknowledge my answer reflects an intrinsically broad definition of the word "value" rather than focusing on economics, although recent data suggests that employers are realizing the benefits of recruiting graduates from liberal arts colleges. Still, many students feel completely unprepared once they graduate from either a bricks and mortar institution, or an online one. So many students enter the first week of college convinced they will graduate with a degree preparing them to be a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson, since those are easily visible and definable markers of post-graduate success. And they feel tremendous heartbreak and depression if they do not meet those goals, and consequently struggle to find their life's work. If graduates are not on a career path or in graduate school but working in retail to make ends meet, they feel overwhelmed with a foreboding sense of failure. They often blame their institution for not preparing them to meet such dire challenges in the "real world," or for being dishonest in communicating the actual cost of their degree. Too often, however, they blame themselves.

Many liberal arts colleges bill themselves as preparing students for success, but in reality we should be preparing them for failure. For it is how graduates, especially in this economy, meet the challenges they will inevitably face, that their future success will be measured by. If we, as educators, can accomplish that, then we will really be giving students something valuable. Not just the simple awareness of thinking skills that Wallace mentions, but the ability and confidence that will allow them to pick themselves up out of failure to ultimately meet their goals.

A career-focused or targeted education model cannot accomplish this since it is predicated on a singular "plan" of vocational training within a certain field. We can all agree that nothing ever goes according to a "plan." And when a student who has been narrowly preparing for a specific field sees their plan radically altered, they have little to cushion their fall. At least a liberal arts model hones a student's thinking skills and intellectual development to be prepared for a change in plan. "Preparation for failure" may be a depressing tagline and it surely does not look good in press materials, but at least it is honest in its importance. And eventually students with a liberal arts background will realize how reading Homer made them discover their eventual career path, and the challenge to create a great life. If we can prepare our students to fail, it certainly would be a success.