In defense of a liberal arts education

One of my earliest memories of career counseling is from Groucho Marx, who quipped: “You don’t see many want ads for philosophers.” If he were around today, he’d probably modify his observation slightly to, “You don’t see many want ads for liberal arts majors.”

True enough, I suppose, but I think we’re starting to see evidence of why some grounding in liberal arts disciplines – literature, languages, philosophy, history, math and science – is essential for living intelligently in the 21st century. Particularly in the United States, if we’re going to continue to have a viable participatory democracy, we need people with some idea of where we came from, how we arrived here, and where we can go.

For example, most Americans believe we hold a special place in the world. People can better understand how we came to that notion if they know we’ve been talking about being “a city on a hill” since our earliest days. Puritan John Winthrop used the phrase in his sermon in 1630 called “A Model of Christian Charity.”

In my lifetime, President Kennedy returned to the idea, emphasizing that to be a city on a hill, America must accept the responsibilities inherent in its great blessings. President Reagan also talked about our being a “shining city on a hill.” Here’s what he had to say:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”

So, say what you will about Reagan, but he espoused a vision of an America “teeming with people of all kinds” and “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” It’s a sentiment far different from what we hear in many quarters today.

And just for the record, the notion of the city on the hill originally comes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” He was urging people to let their light shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

I cite examples like this with some caution, knowing that there are many out there who would say, “See, we were meant to be a Christian nation, and we’ve gone astray because we’ve fallen away from Christianity.” I’m a committed Christian myself, but I also know that the greatness of our nation is that it doesn’t establish one religion as the state religion but instead allows all to be practiced. We don’t find our way but lose it when we ignore the rights of other religions, just as they lose their way when they ignore their responsibilities to the greater world. Again, some grounding in history and the liberal arts is needed to have a context in which to evaluate such issues.

People who study them will come to all kinds of views on the great issues of our time – big versus small government, freedom of religion, gay marriage, science versus faith, and on and on. What’s most important, however, is that people study and come to their views by themselves. Otherwise, they can be pulled around from year to year, election to election, and fear or convention rather than reason becomes their guide.

To make a living, people need to develop skills and expertise, and it’s highly important as a society that we have competent plumbers, computer technicians and every other skill imaginable at our disposal. But to make a rich life, and to participate responsibly in government and society, people also need some grounding in the liberal arts. We do ourselves a disservice when we discount their importance.

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