What is the value of liberal learning?

It seems like every few months there's an essay, somewhere, commenting on the decline or value of the liberal arts, ruing the demise of great books and the inability of students to think meaningfully and deeply about life's big questions. Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured the latest installment, this time from John Argresto, formerly president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.

Argresto writes, "Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today’s educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide."


What, for Argresto, is the liberal arts' value?

When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.
They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.

Argresto also offers this admonition for high school teachers:

Finally, a word to secondary schools and their teachers: You may be the last hope many of your students will have to think broadly and seriously about literature, science, math and history. If they don’t read Homer or Shakespeare, or marvel at the working of the universe, or read and understand the Constitution, they never will. The hope of liberal learning rests on your shoulders. Please don’t shrug.

He's probably right. I often express the same thing with my colleagues about theology studies. A Catholic high school might be the last time students ever read Scripture or wrestle with serious religious belief. That's why high school teachers indeed have a vital charge.

See the rest of Argresto's essay, "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts," here.

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Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 9 months ago
Did liberal arts help found a great nation? At the time of the American Revolution, college studies focused on ancient languages, ancient history, theology, and mathematics. Major colleges included Harvard, the College of William and Mary, Yale, the College of New Jersey (subsequently Princeton), King's College (subsequently Columbia), the College of Philadelphia (subsequently the University of Pennsylvania) and Queen's College in New Jersey (subsequently Rutgers). Liberal arts has fallen out of favor and democracy of a great nation has fallen to the tyranny of great wealth and power. Coincidence?
J Cosgrove
2 years 9 months ago
Liberal arts has fallen out of favor and democracy of a great nation has fallen to the tyranny of great wealth and power. Coincidence?
Nonsense. I suggest you read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. And then after that read about the Frankfurt School and how the ultra left took over the universities in America. It is anti-capitalism and neo-Marxism that has perverted the universities. Want to know more about the Frankfurt School and how they have subverted American culture, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhugUzUuPkE
J Cosgrove
2 years 9 months ago
Here is another youtube video on neo Marxism or what is known as Cultural Marxism and how it controls the thinking in today's universities, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjaBpVzOohs
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 9 months ago
How many corporations use bottled water in their bathrooms? Surely they don’t use cultural Marxism water?
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 9 months ago
Professional sports team owners, oftentimes billionaires and perhaps the elite of neo-Marxism, have used over $9 billion of taxpayer financing for their sports facilities since the 1980s.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 9 months ago
Matt Emerson captures two of John Agresto's main points, but I was drawn to a third: Agresto writes that students are searching for truth, and the problems they encounter at some schools: "What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we’d rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen." Reading the classics is important. But I learned to understand far more from these works under the questioning, Socratic guidance of my high school teachers than I did from college classes that seemed, in retrospect, a bit too structured toward a preferred interpretation. Apparently, that problem is far more pronounced now than when I was an undergrad. Bloomberg at Harvard 2014 https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=bloomberg+harvard+commencement+speech&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8. There is a tendency, also, for students to believe that the "liberal arts" can be pursued without rigorous math and science courses that include lab experiments. That is a mistake. Let us recall that Thomas Payne and Thomas Jefferson were both heavily influenced by their studies of Newtonian science. Benjamin Franklin's science exploits are more widely known. All the paths of exploration, of truth-seeking, should be part of the student's quest.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 9 months ago
I am pleasantly surprised that the WSJ opinion piece on liberal arts was noted by the author. It was one of the better short essays on the subject that I have read lately, yet it somehow falls short in ways that I do not find easy to explain. I reflect on this subject as a person who was educated in the honors reading curriculum of a Jesuit university in the late forties and early fifties and subsequently obtained an engineering degree and an MBA as well. I never regretted a moment devoted to any of the three programs, and, in fact, regarded them as necessary equipment for getting on with my life and dealing with the situations as I encountered them. But those academic experiences took a lot of time to accumulate, and, no doubt, stretched the patience of my family, which was large by the time I was working on the later programs. Some of the claimed benefits of a liberal education make me feel a little uncomfortable when I hear them expressed, even though I may privately agree with many of them! The same is true when I hear about the inadequacy of a liberal education as preparation for making a living! The benefits and the shortcomings are both mostly true. The issue at the moment, that many commentators as well as ordinary parents and grandparents are grappling with, is what advice and assistance to give to the kids right now, or next June, for example. Many people, I think, have come to the conclusion that while there are benefits to a liberal education, no kid can cram one into a four year college experience along with the education-derived credentials that qualify one for a professional career in business, science, engineering, medicine, nursing, agriculture, etc. These latter career fields, as well as the non-degreed programs preparatory for a career in any of the building trades, or technically-oriented maintenance and repair jobs, take time. And none of them is guaranteed to last for a full working lifetime. At the same time, nobody would say that a single one of them is unnecessary or even non-useful. How do you convince a young son, daughter, or grandson or granddaughter to accept the fact that he or she is going to have to keep seeking more and more education and training, and be prepared to seize opportunities to “reinvent” oneself every ten or fifteen years right up to age 70 or so?


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