CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria recently has argued in favor of a traditional liberal arts education as useful for life in the contemporary US economy. In fact, he thinks the country’s success stems from and its future may rest on Americans’ being educated in this way. He champions “skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight.”
We’ve been hearing this line of argument for decades from both educational pundits and, not least, liberal arts colleges themselves. “Creativity”; “Critical thinking skills”; “Independent thought”; “Communication skills”; “Learning how to learn” — these are what we’ve been assured a liberal arts degree stimulates. And we’ve also been assured that once we possess these things, we are equipped to navigate and even thrive in the rest of our lives and careers.
But, Zakaria caused me to ask, is it true? Does a liberal education really cultivate these abilities, and, if so, do they really help us economically? I thought about the commercial activity I see every day around me, and reviewed some of my own work experiences. I concluded that Zakaria doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I think the US economy is designed to thrive when people just shut up and do the work in front of them. GDP rises when people simply earn and consume, not when they have an epiphany about Joseph Conrad.
Here in Washington, DC, where I’ve lived for over ten years, if you do try to do anything creative, if you do in fact possess aesthetic (or, even worse, moral) sensibility, if you deal in any truly original or profound social, political or psychological insight, you will be shunted aside, ridiculed and/or crushed. Here you’re rewarded for showing up and following the many rules. I expect it’s that way in the most of the rest of the USA, too.
For awhile I worked for a Republican member of Congress. It became clear that that person had to do more or less exactly what the party mandated. Any creativity or special insight marshaled on behalf of constituents was not what was called for. There was a certain game that had to be played, and a liberal arts education was poor preparation for it. I can imagine, too, that the political donors necessary to wage campaigns and win elections were not in the mood for much creativity or independent thought, either. Much to my chagrin, TV news stations played all over the offices of Congress, telling everybody what the commercial news outlets were saying about anything and everything; we listened to them, not vice versa. The place was a kind of kakistocracy.
As a staff person, of course, I had much less use for a background in the liberal arts than even a representative. If I had ideas about how to make Congress more efficient, nimble and responsive, in many cases by simply using more available technology and implementing modern management techniques; if I thought that for fiscal, legal and moral reasons the invasion and occupation of Iraq should end immediately; if I had a policy idea that I thought was great, well, it just didn’t matter, really. Zakaria notwithstanding, in a best case situation nobody with real authority would truly listen, and in a worst case, I’d be fired. I had to keep my critical thinking skills almost entirely under my hat.
Later, I worked for a non-profit professional association. Of about a hundred employees, ninety-five run-of-the-mill staffers seemed to be content to show up in the morning, shut their brains off, log their hours, and go home; and five top “executives” seemed to be exploiting the institute as a personal feather-bedding operation prior to retirement. What people there wanted least was creativity. What was cherished was utter predictability. Fresh connections? Better communication? New insights? All these were anathema. What people wanted was a paycheck and to go home in the afternoon.
That seemed to be the case with other military-industrial and federal agencies we had intensive contact with, as well. Unique approaches and real energy were rare. (Unfortunately, this applied to humor also. In Washington, “jokes” hew to safe, tired out rules; you’ll never hear anything that leads people to emit a big, spontaneous belly laugh, but instead only a mild chortle.) What was common was a deadening conformity with what, institutionally, had come before.
And that’s what I see during a typical rush hour, as well. Drones who have timidly accepted their lot. People for whom a major choice in life, some of their only leeway, is what type of car they want to sit in in traffic. Or what sports team to cheer for. I’m sure, moreover, that many of these people I see next to me on the road have received fine and expensive liberal arts degrees.
No, I think Zakaria is wrong. I think the need for liberal arts degrees in America is minimal. What you need to know you learn on the job, and it’s questionable whether what you learned in college is at all connected to this process. And if this is true in the white collar realms I’ve seen, I imagine it’s even more applicable in other places. Down the street from me is my community’s sewage treatment plant. Across the road from that is a parking station for DC public buses. Up the way from that is a restaurant and bar district. Further north is the Pentagon. Do the workers in these places need to know French? Do they need to have studied differential calculus? Do they need to be able to quote Shakespeare or Mark Twain? Are their bosses eager to hear the great thoughts and insights they’ve come up with? No. They just need to take orders and do the job.
In fact, I think it might be argued that a really great liberal education makes one useless for life in corporate, professional America. The desire to learn ever more about a subject. The impulse to question. The admiration of beauty. The love of words used well and uniquely. The thirst for justice. None of these is going to get you very far in most realms of the American economy. Infinitely more than the dogged pursuit of new knowledge, our economy runs on conformity, fear and greed. If tomorrow, 310 million Americans started to think critically, GDP would drop to almost zero.
What Zakaria and so many others want to be true just isn’t. A liberal arts education is not necessary to nor does it fuel economic growth. As for what it is for, Stanley Fish has put it well, addressing more specifically the humanities:
“To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said diminishes the object of its supposed praise.”
It is just possible that many of us who have pursued a liberal education have found that it has helped awaken our minds and provided us with the fellowship of others who also like to think, and that these things are a great boon and a great pleasure in and of themselves.
Christopher C. Schons holds an A.B. degree, received magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. He can be reached at email@example.com.