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The Role of the Liberal Arts & Humanities in a Free and Educated Society

EssayChat / Jan 7, 2017

Liberal Education

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the importance of the role of the liberal arts and humanities in the twenty-first century global society in which we live. The liberal arts are generally considered to be areas of study and inquiry that relates to the arts (music, dance, painting, sculpture, writing) as well as those areas of the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Studies in the liberal arts have marked society since the Renaissance, and have been the mark of educated persons throughout history. For many centuries, the liberal arts were the mainstay of the curriculum in colleges and universities, and it was only later that studies in the physical sciences and technical education ascended to an equal rank with the arts.

Liberal Arts RoleAndrew Chrucky discusses what, in his estimation, a liberal education is. He begins by stating that he believes that liberal education encompasses more than cognitive awareness of knowledge. Liberal education also includes moral and emotional education as well. It is not, as he says, about mere survival in the competitive world where knowledge is a tool for advancing or getting power, and is "not about making explosives -- it is about such matters as agreeing as to when -- if ever -- explosives should be used and for what purposes." In his view, liberal education is necessary for reaching agreements, and the only way to do that in a reasonable and meaningful and thoughtful way is to do so while controlling the emotions and behaviors in accordance with the agreements.

Chrucky invokes Socrates to make his point. Socrates believed that the ultimate human good was rational discussion. Those who are not trained to discuss matters intelligently and rationally are less capable of making decisions without emotion. When deprived of rational thought, one is deprived of something that is good in itself above and beyond being practically useful. For Chrucky, "[r]ational discussion for the sake of trying to reach agreement has, thus, both an instrumental and an intrinsic value." Given a social context, then, Chrucky defines a liberal education as one in which "the aim...is to create persons who have the ability and the disposition to try to reach agreements on matters of fact, theory, and actions through rational discussions." (ibid). This sentiment has important ramifications for our current political climate and the irrationality that dominates world politics and religion at the beginning of this millennium.

Martha Nussbaum speaks about liberal education and global responsibility. For the past decade or so, the media has focused on and expounded upon the concept of globalization. This concept has become significant to all of us in some ways. The goods we buy are made halfway around the world. The problems in the Middle East are not just "over there somewhere" but are in our living rooms on a daily basis. We see the heart break of Rwanda, and we live vicariously the horrors of war that now is all too real and no longer at a remove from us, insulating us against its atrocities. Our neighborhood isn't just down the street or across the border any more; we live in a much larger world that by comparison has become much smaller.

Liberal education, for Nussbaum, is a necessity in this larger smaller world. She first makes an analogy to the loss of a billion Chinese lives and its impact on one human being in Europe who previously had no connection with the Chinese and thought of them as being "over there somewhere." Nussbaum describes it this way:"He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment....And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the more profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own." For that is the precise problem we face when we have no liberal arts education; we contract and become patriotic in lieu of understanding the rest of the world, and we fail to extend our compassion beyond our own borders. We think that the rest of the world is like we are, or we think them savages. In either event, we do not see the truth, nor do we care, and have a criminal ignorance with which we then flout the world, asserting our superiority like a waving flag. The only recourse, according to Nussbaum, is a true liberal education that teaches us the truth and teaches us to respond to others in the world with respect and dignity and as citizens of the world, just as we are.

Nussbaum takes the work of Rousseau as an example of what liberal education ought to do. She says that "an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all children. Young people, especially when they are at the crucial time when they are on the verge of adulthood, should learn to be tragic spectators, and to understand with increasing subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, history, film, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far." This is an extension of what Chrucky was saying. Discourse and meaningful interaction depend on the ability to reason and understand others, not as an "us" vs "them" paradigm which is full of defensiveness and usually out-of-proportion defense spending as well.

Nussbaum concludes with an admonishment that courses in the liberal arts and humanities are crucial if we are to engage our "blind spots" and leave the perception of ignorance and obtuseness with which we have blinded ourselves, and with which those who engage us have blinded themselves as well. As she says finally, "[t]his ability is cultivated, above all, by courses in the arts and humanities. And I think it is in some ways the most essential of all, if we are to work toward a world in which we see distant lives as spacious and deep, rather than simply as occasions for enrichment. "

When there is an economic downturn, and schools are affected by budget cuts, the first thing to go is usually the liberal arts curriculum. What the English call "boom or bust" politics, generally referring to Tory economic policies, is the cyclical nature of economics on a large scale. Such economic "busts" happened in the twenties and thirties in the US, again in the sixties and seventies with gas rationing and the gasoline crisis, and again in the present decade. One often hears of "back to the basics," a kind of conservative mantra that believes anything not related to reading, writing and arithmetic is an expensive "frill" we can ill afford.

Melanie Ho addresses this history when she refers to a novel by Peter Drucker written in the eighties. Drucker's story was about a Catholic liberal arts university consumed by bureaucracy. Ho contends that Drucker was deeply concerned with the liberal arts, and is credited by William Whyte as having said that the most vocational course for future business people is a course in poetry and short stories. Whyte himself is a champion of the liberal arts, and makes no claim that institutions of higher learning should be in the business of diploma-milling students with some expertise in technical writing or appreciating the basics of a composition course. Whyte, Drucker and others make the forceful case that the liberal arts are necessary if students are to perceive narrative complexity and storytelling as valuable in themselves, aside from their more practical functions. Though reading and appreciating a novel may not have a direct impact on the bottom line, such an activity, along with the writing skills one might gain in an English seminar, it still has an impact-one gains a sense of narrative analysis and empathic skills in the practical world of business, and this has an impact on the abilities of those who read and think when they are in negotiations or when they are trying to understand markets that are very different from our own.

The Future of Education

Martha Nussbaum sounds a warning about the future of education if the liberal arts are not an integral part of the academic curriculum. She begins by talking about the grave global crisis in education as it relates to democracy. In the last two decades, the schools have changed radically. Comprehensive testing, the panacea of conservatism, has all but crowded out any kind of liberal arts learning. The emphasis is all on skills development and readiness to take one's place in the world of business upon graduation from college. Competition among schools and among states for financial resources given as a result of superior performance on state-mandated tests has driven teachers and school administrators to 'teach the test' rather than teach the curriculum. But the tests only measure a narrowly defined set of skills. The tragedy is that whatever isn't tested isn't taught, or is taught only in a cursory fashion with little emphasis.

Nussbaum believes that the culprit is the drive for economic superiority. She states pointedly that "[g]iven that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, especially at this time of crisis, too few questions have been posed about the direction of education, and, with it, of the world's democratic societies. With the rush to profitability in the global market, values precious for the future of democracy are in danger of getting lost." Democracies, of course, depend on an informed citizenry to make collective decisions. When the people are unable to think beyond themselves or their vested national interests, democracy fails because it does not take into account all of the variables of informed global citizenship. The rise of jihadists is an example. Clinging to a strict interpretation of the Qu'ran, jihadists selfishly consider only themselves and what they have been told about the West; few have any direct experience of the West or know anyone who is not Muslim like themselves. The result is misinformed mayhem and murder instead of cooperation to help solve the world's problems.

But the lack of informed citizenship is not limited to tribal jihadists. In the US, there are so-called Tea Partiers who scream obscenities and epithets at those they don't understand. Sound bites replace meaningful thought, and these people rant on, demanding that they "get their country back," though none can say which country that might be, though the implication is that they prefer the conservative one of trickle-down economics and limits on expressions of freedom and the right to strut around in public with their guns showing, menacing anyone who disagrees with them. Educational accountability at the expense of true teaching has led to this most undemocratic show of ignorance. Nussbaum states, "[t]he argument about the economic worth of education...ought to be subservient to that concerning the stability of democratic institutions...it is clear that a strong business culture requires some people who are imaginative and critical thinkers [but] it is not clear that it requires all people in a nation to gain those skills. Democratic participation makes wider demands." (ibid).

Given all of this, what of the future? Aside from what has been mentioned above, one's personal experience in the present is enough to make one realize the value of a liberal arts education. Democracy insists on people being informed so that the best and most humane solutions are found for society's problems. And despite some sentiment to the contrary, being rich is not a prerequisite for participation in a democratic society. All are members by virtue of their birth or naturalization; all have a place, a rightful place, in the discussion about who we are and where we are going. Having a business degree doesn't tell us anything about that.

It seems that there are five areas of concern about the future. A grounding in the liberal arts is essential to each one, though the future does not bode well for several of them. Even with the knowledge that there ought to be change, change is always slow in coming, especially where tradition informs rather than reason. The five areas of concern are politics, religion, education, democracy and global cooperation.

Politics has been reduced to shouting matches and pandering to wildly misinformed bases. Statesmanship, the epitome of political leadership, is nowhere in evidence. Statesmanship appears to be a thing of the liberally educated past, when great politicians were thoughtful and mindful of the state of the nation and the world instead of their own careers. In the US, Barack Obama is poised to be a statesman, and perhaps a great one. The opposition to his plans and agenda, however, are so great that success in stabilizing the American democracy is not certain. In the next several years, it will be more evident whether the direction the country takes is a fruitful one or not; sadly, the opposition, once resuming power, is likely to undo any progress made. It may be decades before we understand what we have done.

Religion is, and has been, the bane of humanitarian progress. In most of its forms, it is regressive, punitive, and exclusive. One educated in the liberal arts reaches out to those whose lives are different, knowing the difference and celebrating the diversity of ideas. Religionists fear such engagement; for millennia, each has claimed superiority and sees other as other and not others to embrace. Tradition informs its practices, and it has always been so. Even with a need to change, change is millennially slow. In the next 20-50 years, there will be little change still, and a fight against liberal education will still follow as it has always done.

As Nussbaum mentioned so eloquently, education is in crisis. As long as we insist on accountability measures that only show what skills one has developed in a narrow range of choices, liberal arts and humanities will suffer and be excluded from the formula for a well-rounded and informed education. As long as business interests dictate the direction of the global economy and the direction of democracy itself, there will be no change except in the direction of the downward spiral already killing the democracy we have.

Democracy is imperiled by ignorance and patriotic fervor. Wearing a gun in public and threatening to water the tree of liberty is not democratic, it is ugly stupidity. As long as ignorance fuels the fires of hatred and colloquialism and jingoism, no progress will come, and democracy will die for want of an idea and a reasonable conversation. There is hope, however, that the tide will turn-already it is becoming apparent, through the excesses of those who would imperil cogent discourse, that such ignorance and hatred have no place in an informed democracy.

Globalization, for good or ill, is a part of the way business is done. There is no point in the future in which globalization will not exist and contract again to the pre-information age. At the present time, however, globalization is mainly competitive for finite resources, and the idea that cooperation and collaboration ameliorates the need for competition has not yet dawned. It requires reasoned and innovative thinking of the kind that liberal arts education produces. In the next 20-50 years, the prognosis may change, if even for selfish reasons-there may be a profit to be realized in cooperation. Though it isn't liberal, it is and will be a step in the right direction.


Chrucky, A. The aim of liberal education. Paper presented at the University of Chicago.

Free English Help. How to Master Academic English Language. Online: https://freeenglishhelp.com/mastering-academic-english

Ho, M. Business and the relevance of liberal arts. Inside Higher Ed.

Nussbaum, M. Liberal education and global responsibility. A talk for a Symposium at Carleton College, in honor of the Inauguration of Robert A. Oden, Jr. as President.

Nussbaum, M. The liberal arts are not elitist. The Chronicles of Higher Education.

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