American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Does a Liberal Education Still Have Value?
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By David Kidd, April 9, 2012 in What is Education?

John Von Heyking responds to complaints of Canadian employers that too many students are studying the liberal arts rather than vocational skills.

As pressing as these concerns are to us now, the debate between the liberal arts and the "worker bees" has been around since the days of Socrates. The exemplar of the liberal arts, Socrates, was viewed by the Athenians as a parasitic lay-about that is, when he was not undermining the allegiance of Athenian youths to the laws of Athens. He embodied the liberal arts by not getting paid for his work not because he was lazy, but because knowledge is first and foremost for its own sake, not for its utility. To reverse these is to forget that the liberal arts enable one to be free (liber).

Read the rest at Cardus.

Image credit: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

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5 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Apr 9, 2012 at 7:23 am

Although I am sympathetic to the idea and ideals of liberal education, I wondered whether it ever truly existed in practice in the United States. I would be curious what others think.

Anonymous on Apr 9, 2012 at 8:31 am

John Von Heyking claims that "...Canada is not exactly known as a world-leader in either the liberal arts or in economic research and development, whereas the United States is...." This may be true. But let's not lose sight of the fact that much of what passes for liberal arts in _both_ countries is merely ideology.

As for economic R&D, the U.S. is fantastically creative by comparison with most of the West. What an irony that its economy is now being mismanaged into the ground by the government, while Canada prospers! While I'm on the subject of the economy: I would not draw too bright a line between a liberal education and a technical one. In the modern age, confronted with foreign adversaries and enemies such as Russia, China, and al Qaeda, we need military strength to remain free. That military strength must be build on a solid, modern economic foundation. To be sure, what we pursue in the liberal arts is what finally makes life worth living. But in our day, there is no life for us at all if we don't stay a step ahead economically and militarily. In short, I might say that our modern economy secures our lower freedoms; liberal education aims us at higher freedoms; and in our day our higher freedoms must rest on a foundation of lower freedoms.

In answer to Lee's concern: My quick reply is that liberal education has certainly existed in the United States in particular circumstances, involving particular professors and students. There have been attempts to make liberal education systematic (i.e. to institutionalize it). But my sense is that without the constant care of men and women who have actually been liberally educated, any program of liberal education is bound to slip back into dogma or ideology.

John on Apr 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Lee: Your comment almost answers itself. Whether liberal education ever existed in "practice," suggests that liberal education necessarily must accommodate itself to its surrounding culture, regime, etc. Posed this way, then yes, most definitely, a liberal education suited for the American regime has indeed existed in the US. Eva Brann's book on the Liberal Education for a Republic is all about this.

Anon: My dissertation prof was a former naval officer. He told me one time that the navy made a lot more room for R&D along the lines of liberal education, than the army. The navy encouraged the sorts of research and was less worried about "outputs," to use the latest jargon, than the army, because the navy higher-ups realized that R&D won't be effective unless your researchers have significant freedom to play around and experiment.

Lee Trepanier on Apr 10, 2012 at 3:56 pm

An interesting point about the navy being more open to the ideas of liberal education than the army. This might explain the U.S. Navy's recent success over the Army in thier football games (Navy has been undefeated against Army since 2002).

Last updated on Apr 10, 2012 at 3:56 pm.
John on Apr 10, 2012 at 11:44 pm

That's right. As we know, LSU, Bama, and Oklahoma State are the top liberal arts institutions in the US!

about the author

David Kidd
David Kidd

I am ISI's Director of Internet Technology and chief designer/developer of ISI's websites. I graduated with a B.A. from Baylor University's University Scholars program and earned an M.A. in philosophy from Villanova University. My wife, a philosophy doctoral candidate at Villanova University, and I live in Wilmington, Delaware.