Friday, July 18, 2014

Who Needs a Liberal Education?

Gilbert Meilaender, "Who needs a Liberal Education?," The New Atlantis, Number 41, Winter 2014, pp. 101-108.

Who needs a Liberal Arts Education?

The main purpose of this article is to argue for the importance of a liberal arts education. Meilander, however, suggests that there are correct and incorrect ways to defend a liberal arts education. Quite surprisingly, he argues against having a core curricula and argues for specialization. Why would this author argue in this way? In addition, he seeks to address the question who needs a liberal education.

One argument the author is making that some of the things that are defended by "educational traditionalists and defenders of the liberal arts" are not necessarily good for a liberal arts education. One of these things is the defense of core curricula. Another is the "bemoaning of the rise of specialization among faculty" (2). Another argument the author makes is that the "notion of 'interdisciplinary' study is misguided" (3). In addition, the author argues room must be made for the natural sciences. Lastly, the author concludes, "it may simply be true that education in the liberal arts is not intended for or needed by many students" (6).

The evidence the author uses in this article to support his arguments are student indebtedness, a definition of liberal arts, disciplinary knowledge, student interest, and vocation. He notes that many students do not want to be in these general education courses. In addition, their "energies are focused mostly on other aspects of the curriculum" (2). The author actually thinks we should have few required courses. He thinks that simply adding educational courses to students coming to college to earn a degree in business, nursing, education, or some other professional field does not make it a liberal arts education. He defines the liberal arts as being free. He notes, "they are free in the sense that they serve no goal external to themselves" (2). In other words, a liberal arts education is not training for a job. Neither are they to make us "good citizens." The author thinks the true goal of a liberal arts education is "an openness to what transcends us" (6). It is a freedom to pursue truth and wisdom.

What are the implications of the article? Should we give up general education courses? Should we give up interdisciplinary studies? The author thinks that the future liberal arts students should "look for schools where the specialized academic disciplines are valued and cultivated" (3). In addition, he argues that "no one's knowledge is narrower than the non-specialist, who knows a very little about a very lot" (3). These words seems quite strong. Does this condemn all interdisciplinary studies? Is there a difference between disciplinary studies at undergraduate and graduate levels? The author believes we get at truth from a disciplinary perspective. It is specialists in different disciplines in conversation about truth:

"But why do we need students of philosophy, literature, history, or religion? What is their study for? The point of this sort of education is simply that we want to understand ourselves and to know the truth about human life, whether about individual lives as we might examine them in literature or philosophy, or life in society as we might examine it in political theory or sociology. To be sure, an education in the liberal arts will sometimes be more about seeking than finding this truth. There are no guarantees. At its best, however, it draws us into a centuries-old conversation among specialists--scholars from various disciplines, each providing us a different angle from which to examine what it means to be human" (3).

Meilaender makes a strong case for his argument. He defends a liberal arts education, but, maybe, not in the way we would expect. Not everyone will want to follow his suggestions. Do we really want few required courses? Do we really want no general education requirements? Is career training really the purpose of education?

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