THR Web Features   /   October 13, 2014

"What is Liberal Education For?": A Preview

B.D. McClay

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great, Charles Laplante (1866).

This week, I’ll be presenting a paper at “What is Liberal Education For?,” a conference being held at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.  Lasting three days, it will have some twenty-eight panels and include presentations by scholars such as Boston University’s Christopher Ricks, Institute for Advance Studies in Culture fellow and author Matthew Crawford, and philosopher Roger Scruton, whose lecture “Architecture and Aesthetic Education” will close the proceedings.

Here is the conference's statement of purpose:

We raise this question [What is Liberal Education For?], recognizing that liberal education and the great tradition of the American liberal arts college have been put on the defensive of late. Small colleges across the nation have to make their case to students, to their parents, and to the public more urgently than ever. The causes of this crisis have been analyzed extensively: there is an emerging consensus that the rapid growth of consumerism amidst new economic challenges, and the fragmentation of general studies driven by professional training and specialization in the universities, have led us to undervalue drastically the humane goals of liberal studies. These causes are themselves symptomatic of a deeper crisis in our time, a crisis of uncertainty and disorientation affecting every field of human endeavor—scientific, social, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual. Precisely in response to this crisis, liberal education can reaffirm its relevance and purposes.

My own panel, "Liberal Education: Changing Conversations,"  is focused on the rhetorical arguments for liberal education. My paper, “Liberal Education in a Specialized Age,” considers the case that can be made for unspecialized education in an economy that—on the surface at least—demands specialization and views education as job training.

There are reasons to suspect that this narrative is untrue, or at least extremely incomplete—witness the rise of the service economy. But I think it is true that we take for granted that specialization is a good and that education ought to accommodate the marketplace by helping students to specialize sooner and more adeptly. We take these things for granted even if the facts around us aren't bearing them out.

It's certainly true that many of the most popular majors have, for some time now, been practical ones that are a form of pre-job training, or at least pretend to be, such as the business major. (You can look at the data from the National Center for Education Statistics here, or you can look at this interactive chart from NPR that shows the rise of the business major.) Then there are also majors that correspond to traditional fields of academic research, whether in the sciences, humanities, or mathematics. These majors are—I think—also a kind of training, albeit for a career many students are not planning to pursue.

One difficulty faced by people talking about higher education—or marketing institutions of higher education—is that the purpose of education is now widely considered to be job training, and on that level, it doesn't appear to be succeeding particularly well. But given the cost of a college education, defending its value on non-economic grounds  is risky. So rhetorically there’s been a shift to defending certain intangible qualities supposedly acquired over the course of studying a subject—any subject—that will train a graduate to be trainable. My paper is, in part, an effort to tease out the connection between understanding education as career training and as training for training (or meta-training, or whatever exactly we call this second understanding). It's also a consideration of the relation education ought to have to the market.

To think about these things, I decided to return to Adam Smith's discussion of public education in The Wealth of Nations—where better to go, after all, to think about specialization and markets?—and to the writing of Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909 and a major figure behind the transformation that gave broad shape to the modern American university.

More specifically, Smith and Eliot both shared an interest in women's education as a prime example of specialized education, but they disagreed strongly about what that example  suggested for education more broadly. To Smith, such an education robbed its students of full personhood. He saw unspecialized education as providing an important and necessary resistance to the specialization that the division of labor would produce. But to Eliot, women's education represented an ideal, an education that could be perfectly crafted to suit people to a particular and pre-ordained path. Women's education represented a kind of  efficiency of means to ends that men's education could only dream of achieving.

My sympathies, not surprisingly, are with Smith. But I'm interested to hear what my co-panelists and other conference participants have to say on this and related subjects. So consider this a preview—Liberal Education, Part One—with further reflections on the conference, and anything worthwhile I learn there, to follow.

B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.