No, Dullards, The Liberal Arts Are Not Worthless

Nick Kristof had this particularly insightful passage in his Sunday column in the NY Times:

I’ve often written about education as an antidote to extremism. But in Pakistan, it was high school that radicalized Rafi. “Education can be a problem,” Rafi says dryly.

He’s right. It’s possible to be too glib about the impact of education: Osama bin Laden was an engineer. Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, is a trilingual surgeon. Rafi notes that Pakistani doctors or engineers are sometimes extremists because in that country’s specialized education system they gain the confidence of a university degree without the critical thinking that (ideally) comes from an acquaintance with the liberal arts.

I’m familiar with that path. I was pre-med in college, but left medical school after two weeks. So, I loaded up on math, chemistry, physics, and biology coursework, but completely avoided history, literature, and philosophy.

If only I could have a do over.

If only I could reach all those STEM (you know, science, technology, engineering and math) students and give them some perspective.

John Ralston Saul writes about the age of technocrats in which we live. An example he uses is Bob McNamara, whose technocratic approach to the Vietnam War led us to one of the worst genocides in human history.

I marvel at how Saul, Chris Hedges, Cornel West and others are able to bring such perspective to bear from their vast liberal arts knowledge bases, and how their ability to reason is so superior to that of the average doctor, lawyer or engineer.

All as we hurdle down the wrong path. Today’s emphasis is entirely on function. Thinking just isn’t a priority. Liberal arts majors are mocked for their impracticality. Course offerings in literature and philosophy are narrowing. Entire departments are being eliminated.

Yes, those STEM degrees lead to decent paying jobs. But what sort of society will we have if our best and our brightest don’t develop the critical thinking skills that  comes from a liberal arts education?

Here’s my concern: In that same Sunday opinion section, I saw this article: To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare. The title says it all.

The bottom line? We need to reinvigorate our liberal arts education programs. If we don’t, we just may “embrace drone warfare.” Even more tightly than we already have.

4 responses to “No, Dullards, The Liberal Arts Are Not Worthless

  1. Sen. John Kavanagh

    Almost every four-year degree requires at least three Humanities courses and three Social Behavioral Science courses and a few more can be taken as electives.

    The best advice to students not set on a liberal arts occupation is to major in a field that gets you a job that pays well and be satisfied with about ten liberal arts courses.

    Art History majors should take at least one course in coffee making so they can work at Starbucks.

    • If I had a do-over I’d take more STEM courses and be satisfied with about ten liberal arts courses. Having a glut of students making $10 an hour with massive student loans to pay off seems to be more problematic than the slight possibility of opening the mind of a few dogmatic types.

  2. captain*arizona

    When I got out of college(asu football and party school) with my liberal arts I guess if philosophy counts as liberal arts I used my degree to drive a garbage truck. Which was ok as a philosopher I took my philosophy(non exploitive capitalism)from the ivory tower down to the street. One of my class mates worked his way thru med school by rebuilding automatic transmissions he said it was quit similar to human surgery. I was going to take a class from morris starcky but he was fired before I could.(my loss) To this day I live my philosophy. Not many philosophers get to do that and they haven’t made me to drink the hemlock yet!!!

  3. We need Liberal Arts education to reinvigorate our society.

    Thanks for writing this post.