Shapiro: The importance of a liberal arts education
By Robert Shapiro Guest Commentary September 6, 2013 6:04PM
Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.
Updated: October 9, 2013 7:35PM
Debate regarding today’s universities has tended to pit administrative cost-cutters and efficiency experts against old-fashioned teachers who insist that learning requires a traditional classroom format where teachers lecture and students take notes and ask the occasional question.
But neither side in this classic confrontation has well presented the critical elements of a university education.
Education is not purchased at retail like a commodity and is not subject to a simple cost-benefit analysis. Nor does it consist of rote learning or the mere absorption of information imparted from professor to student.
As such, both sides have done a disservice to the goal of evaluating the university’s role and value in modern America.
This is particularly true for universities offering a liberal arts education. The reason this course of study is called “liberal” is that it is the education worthy of, and essential to, a free person, a mind liberated from the tyranny of common opinion.
Essentially, the goal of a liberal arts education is to have the student learn to think for himself. As such, it is not about packing up a box of useful information the student can take home nor does it comprise a collection of answers to various questions within the disciplines.
A liberal arts education is hardly “about” information or answers at all. It concerns the process of learning how to reason through the most important matters in life — using the raw materials that history and literature and science and philosophy offer for that undertaking.
Its success cannot be simply determined or measured. It is not a matter of the degree earned, let alone how the student’s earning power is later affected.
The original concept of a university is as a place that fosters this education in thinking, an education in educating oneself. It is a process intended to go on far from the madding crowd and unconstrained by the vagaries of everyday living.
This is not to say that the university is an “ivory tower” where everything is abstract and inherently impractical. But learning how to think, as Aristotle emphasized, requires at least in some respects the leisure to be thinking at all, when one is not distracted constantly by too many needs and fears.
To be sure, thinking on your feet and the school of hard knocks have their uses, but these are far from the only kind of thinking. The university should be an “academy,” as the ancients put it, where students learn from their teachers and each other how best to inquire, trying to slake their natural thirst for knowing, which the process itself stimulates.
It assumes along with Socrates that perfect understanding is impossible, and that the only thing one ever really knows is that one doesn’t know. The best thinking knows that every answer is dependent on everything else, a “soiled fragment of the pure truth.” Because we cannot know it all, thinking never stops.
A university devoted to the liberal arts leaves a student with this precious gift of non-stop thinking. It is not a trade school, though specific skills may be learned there.
It is a refuge from the “real world” that lasts just long enough and has just enough contacts with the real world to give students the intellectual resources they need to face the constant challenges of life — and to find the best, if still imperfect, way themselves rather than merely adopting one approach or another because others do so.
This is an individual process pursued collectively and vice versa. Teaching in the liberal arts addresses the students personally by inviting them to join others with similar goals and finding out what stimulates them — prodding them, challenging their biases, allowing them to think through all the possibilities and experiencing the pleasure of it all.
These conclusions should inform the university’s use of newer technologies, including online courses and demonstrations. Technology is never simply bad or good. It can be used for either.
Surely there is a place within a community of learning for online instruction, which often can be provided at an affordable cost.
But just as financial savings are insufficient to justify its use, the absence of classroom instruction or an inability to ask questions is insufficient to bar its adoption.
If online materials contribute to the goal of inquiry, of learning, of thinking, they have a place within the university — even if they can never become a complete substitute for liberal education without necessarily undermining it.
Learning and especially learning to think and think well is not a simple process. Like so many things in life, it takes a whole like-minded community, one dedicated to the same goal of ensuring that young people are learning to effectively think and learn.
As we debate the future of a university education, modernists and conservatives would do well to revert to this broader model.
It best allows professors and students to enjoy exploring, considering, ruminating and testing together the world’s possibilities in the interests of allowing graduates to pursue the best or at least a better life.
Robert Shapiro , a practicing lawyer, is also an adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago.