A Utilitarian's Indirect Plea for the Liberal Arts
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By John von Heyking, May 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of Encana Corporation, one of North America’s largest natural gas suppliers.  He has also established himself in the media as a gadfly critic of the inefficiencies of universities, especially their business of teaching the liberal arts.  His outstanding accomplishments in business and in public life make him well qualified to comment on the characteristics and skills necessary for people to succeed in the economy and as citizens.  His basic critique is that universities are producing too many liberal arts majors who end up under-employed, and producing too few engineering, information technology, and health care graduates which are fields in which employers have great difficulty finding employees.  Universities need to shift resources toward these vocational programs from the liberal arts, which don’t seem very useful.

Morgan’s evidence for the under-employment of liberal arts graduates is incomplete, as much evidence suggests that while these graduates have difficulty finding employment in their field immediately upon graduation, that within five years they match and even surpass those in vocations

The standard rebuttal to Morgan’s criticism is that liberal arts graduates are critical thinkers and that those in vocations are not.  Morgan’s response to these critics is this:  “Apparently the engineers responsible for designing the transportation systems, communication networks, medical imaging devices and other wonders of our age are ‘trained seals,’ while medical researchers, physicians, technologists and those who learn specific skills are ‘regurgitators.’” 

The criticism Morgan cites is of course weak.  As I have reminded my own colleagues, students enrolled at the community college across town are trained to think critically.  They think very critically about how to produce good agricultural products, how to build houses, how to fix cars, and more, recently, how to build windmills for the electrical company.  These are valuable skills, and my wife wishes I had some of them. 

But this gets us to the implicit gist of Morgan’s argument.  Those college students think critically about the arts, but not about what a liberal arts education is supposed to consist of, namely, education to political judgment and to justice.  The liberal arts are supposed to educate us as to what makes us a good human being, and not simply a good carpenter or auto mechanic, as worthy as these pursuits are.  Morgan appears to consider this kind of education frivolous or perhaps a luxury.  But he is inconsistent in thinking this.

Morgan argues that universities need to shift resources toward vocations.  This might be the case.  However, his argument is also a plea for justice.  It is unfair to society to our students if universities fail to prepare students for the modern economy.  He cites several examples of understandably disappointed liberal arts graduates who face challenges finding employment. Yet, in claiming that universities have treated these students unfairly, Morgan makes a claim for vocational education on behalf of justice, the subject of the liberal arts.  His critique of the liberal arts is, indirectly, made in the name of the liberal arts.

The role of the liberal arts needs debate in society. But let’s understand the terms of the debate for what they are – justice, the subject of the liberal arts.  And it’s up to society, whether through universities, families, public educators, or churches, to teach justice to the young.  The liberal arts is one of the most reflective ways of doing this.  And it is one of the most just ways too.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on May 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Although I disagree with Morgan's argument, I would concede that efficancies could be made in the university, particularly in the administrative aspect of it!

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.