Magazine article Liberal Education

On the Practicality of a Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

On the Practicality of a Liberal Education

Article excerpt

FOR CENTURIES, liberal education did not need to be justified. It was simply the way one came to be educated. The curriculum, of course, evolved with the growth of knowledge and changing intellectual fashions over the very long stretch of time from the late Middle Ages to the early twentieth century. However, it did not evolve as much as one might think: learning Latin and Greek and reading a selection of books written in those classical languages had remarkable staying power.

Moreover, for that long period, only a small upper-crust portion of the population was actually so educated. (Even budding lawyers and physicians bypassed what has since become required preparation and moved straight to their respective professional training.) But then two drawn-out developments in the American educational scene led to an increasing need to provide a justification for a liberal education. First, the college-bound population steadily grew and then exploded with the GI Bill of Rights; going to college became a rational ambition for a very substantial fraction of the population. But that expansion was followed by progressive increases in the cost of a college education, going from the virtually free GI Bill and years of modestly rising tuition to the point, as we came closer to the end of the last century, when a college education at a public university became pricey and at many private institutions truly expensive.

Is a liberal education, then, a luxury, not to be afforded by those who have to earn a living? While it is true that nowadays a large proportion of decent jobs call for knowledge and skills that are not acquired in secondary schools, especially not in those as inadequate as ours, is a liberal education not an extravagant detour to the kind of training that will get the graduate respectable employment?

It has to be conceded that a libera! education does not aim at preparing students for their first jobs. That doesn't mean they won't get one, the economy willing, only that it is not likely to be one of the many that call for some specific expertise. To be sure, today the competencies needed to be a lawyer or a physician, or to hold one of the diverse positions of the business world, can be acquired only after candidates have undertaken a liberal education or something resembling it. If your goal is to be that kind of professional, the short and unsatisfying answer is that those plus or minus four years are a stepping stone; that is the way the educational system is set up. It is an inadequate answer because it answers neither the question of what a liberal education does for a student nor why professional schools require it.

Some purposes of liberal education

I will assume that except for certain specific needs such as chemistry for medical students or statistics for would-be MBAs, the answer to both of these questions is essentially the same. A liberal education is preprofessional and it is pre-life. Its first ingredient is simply, but not trivially, literacy: the ability to express oneself clearly and forcefully, especially in writing, as well as the ability to comprehend, without confusion, the written and spoken language. These are among the proficiencies that must be developed in college. But there are also numerous conversancies* that make the liberally educated person at least familiar with our world: that of nature and that made by man, that of the past and that of the present, that which is close to home and that which is far away. …

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