The value of a liberal arts education

When I went to college in the 1950s, there was a debate as to whether it was better to major in the humanities, the sciences or the social sciences.  The current issue of the New York Review of Books says that nowadays all three are lumped together under the heading of “liberal arts,” and are losing ground to majors such as business or communications aimed at preparing students to work in specific fields..

A Princeton professor named Anthony Grafton reported on a test administered by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which requires students to read a set of fictional documents about a business or political problem and write a memo advising how to respond to it.  Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics outperformed students in growing majors such as business and communications.

He didn’t say why, but I can guess.  Business and communications majors at liberal arts colleges can be just watered-down liberal arts programs—a way to keep the liberal arts alive in new packaging.  But if the students don’t really care about science and the arts, but only want to get the degree as a credential, they’re not going to learn as much.  Business and technical schools can offer excellent training for occupations, which is what students want, but that training may not offer much spillover into other fields.

I decided sometime in my sophomore year in college that I wanted to work on newspapers, but I majored in American history, not in journalism.   I thought I could pick up the nuts and bolts of newspapering on the job, while the opportunity to study history under distinguished historians was an opportunity I should not let slip away.  I have never regretted my choice.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said that an educated person has sound knowledge of three things — history, mathematics and foreign languages — because they provide the basis for mastery of everything else.

By Heinlein’s standard, I am one-third educated.  I have a reasonably good knowledge of American, European and world history, but I am woefully deficient in mathematics and know no foreign or ancient languages.  I neglected math and languages in college because they were hard; I took courses I liked and was interested in.  If I had my life to live over, I would make better use of my college years.

Click on Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? for the full article.

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