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In defense of the liberal arts

In our capitalist society, it seems that more than ever there is a disturbingly pragmatic premium on winning. On a large scale, our nation seems to be obsessed with results, seeking the internationally competitive test scores, a strong economy and a large military. It is fair to say that this ends-before-means philosophy is mimicked on a small scale at universities, as many students race to their diplomas in attempts to avoid crushing debt and obtain a high starting salary. In this race, many students don’t enroll in the liberal arts in favor of more lucrative professions. While pursuing a degree in English is unlikely to result in the same sort of economic success as studying engineering, those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields that ignore the liberal arts rob themselves of many skills necessary for personal and professional success.

First of all, it’s important to admit the luxury of the liberal arts and sciences. For instance, should a student embark upon the sequence of courses on civilizations in the University of Maine Honors College, it will not take long for them to encounter vague justifications about honors students ‘thinking hard about things that matter’ and ‘learning to think critically.’ These explanations are frustratingly broad, and cause one to call into question the actual usefulness of studying something like Plato’s “Republic” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” While studying and discussing these texts might not directly assist one in the field of molecular and cellular biology but it can equip an individual with some unexpected skills.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has been quoted arguing for the usefulness of philosophical studies when it comes to ethical questions in scientific fields, especially in relation to subjects like stem cell research. Being able to communicate such ethical distinctions is just as important as being able to make them and ground them in philosophical reasoning. David Skorton, president of Cornell University, has noted that many scientists that never received educations in liberal arts and social sciences largely fail to convey their ideas and the importance of those ideas to a non-scientist public. This communicative deficiency could be problematic should one need to seek support and/or funding for a project from public sources.

Beyond the importance of the liberal arts in terms of conveyance of ideas, there are reasons that have far more to do with the quality of one’s experience. In fact, the knowledge that one gains at college itself isn’t completely academic. A study published in the Oxford Economic Papers found that beyond traditional knowledge, researchers found that students’ extraversion and agreeableness increases over the course of four to eight years of attending university. In other words, attending a university led to an increase in hireability. Researchers suggested that these increases were a result of interpersonal interactions at these schools rather than what was being taught in class. Many liberal arts courses are based upon discussion and interaction with past individuals through their writing.

Although catchphrases about liberal arts and sciences teaching students how to think critically tend to be met with skepticism and eye rolls, I think the late David Foster Wallace put it best in his commencement speech at Kenyon College when he said, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” What Wallace means is that the study of the liberal arts teaches one how to think in a way that is conducive to being a good person and achieving one’s goals. This is not to say that avoiding the liberal arts will prevent one from being an effective engineer and making $60,000 as a starting salary, but it is to say that with a liberal arts education one can approach that job and the rest of their lives with a degree of sympathy and personality that few others in the field will have honed. Maybe that’s worth suffering through a little Plato.


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