…don’t leave it to me.
I am the wrong person. I have a short temper and loud voice lacking gentleness, gentility, and any sense of gravitas. When someone questions the need for the liberal arts and their value, I have moved away from thinking about a defense to questioning their intelligence. After all, it is kind of like asking why we need the world to walk on.
Forget all the nonsense about life of the mind, and the exploration of life and history through the arts. It is all pointless. There is nothing more rewarding than working hard all day, with little reward, returning home to do chores, raise children, and collapse into bed. You just don’t need more than that. No song, let alone an entire musical or opera, will ever fix your broken heart. You just need to buy something. Chocolate. Beer. Something.
Buying heals all wounds.
Forget the fact that the act of barter, the most basic of “business” activities requires communication. As communication improves and barter becomes established trade, valuation becomes necessary. And then keeping track. So not only do we need math, we need writing.
But those are bad things. They are. Because writing and communication winds up leading to writing for the sake of writing, to record the stories, to create new stories. Workers don’t need that distraction. Workers need to focus. Workers need to work. Math for math’s sake leads to worse things. Digital things. Sudoku. HD TV, which then needs content and content providers.
The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, “worthy of a free person”) to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts, whilearithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.
And so here we have it.
The liberal arts, a liberal education, is for FREE people.
Freedom is more than nothing left to lose. Freedom is being able to recognize and know that not all chains are of iron. Indeed, not all chains are even made of metal. The heaviest chains are those forged of ignorance.
To know enough to be able to keep learning is powerful.
To those who argue that a “liberal arts degree” is not enough to be employable, well, yes, for many people that is true. It is just as true that being an expert in computer programming does not mean one will necessarily do something of value for society, economic or otherwise. Or even useful. Just because one path is valuable, it does mean that is valuable for all. It does not need to be the degree that is problem, at some point, the degree-holder has to take responsibility for recognizing the needs and desires of those doing the hiring.
But that doesn’t mean they should not be free.
Certainly the liberal arts should be part of the curriculum. That should never be a question. General education is founded in the liberal arts and sciences. For those that wish to explore writing more deeply, or theater, art, philosophy, or any other topic, there is no harm. Higher education is as much about creating, expanding, maintaining, and sharing knowledge as it is about producing graduates. That role is critical and it is through undergraduate education that individuals with an interest in greater depth of study are found to continue that development of knowledge.
As I have said before, outside the technical and professional fields, major is irrelevant. A college major is an artifact on which the skills of critical inquiry, analysis, problem-solving, and communication are brought to bear to exercise and further develop those skills. This is powerful stuff. It simply may not be what the market needs (or thinks it needs). Individuals, students, graduates, must move past the idea that degree completion is a laying on of hands certifying their wonderfulness as a ready-to-hire contributor. The world has become more complex, more demanding. And thus more will be required.
The liberal arts don’t need defending.
A society/nation/world that does not value the liberal arts is what needs defending. And there is no defense.