What is the Value of Studying the Liberal Arts?

Continuing the Conversation at the Dean's Colloquium

Rosemary Keefe, February 15, 2001

According to a national survey released last month and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, this year's college freshmen are disengaged from politics but care deeply about one thing: becoming wealthy. What does this mean? Are we surprised? How could today's freshmen be anything other than a reflection of the commercial values that bombard them every day? Is there any hope that studying the liberal arts can tip the scales away from avarice and greed toward a love of learning for its own sake and impassioned social engagement? What role models and value models do the members of this post gen X generation see? What can we offer to broaden their vision?

According to a widely used "first year experience" textbook, a generation ago, three quarters of entering freshmen highly valued developing a philosophy of life and only one quarter highly valued college as a means to material wealth -- or admitted to having such venal values. Will college pay off financially? Yes. We know that all other variables being equal, high school graduates make more money over their lifetime than high school dropouts, and college grads make more than those whose formal education ends with high school. (The other variables are accidents of birth, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class, variables that may make more difference than educational achievement, but that's a discussion for another day.)

When those of us here think of the value of the liberal arts, we don't think of a fast track monetary pay off. We know that liberal learning grows and evolves slowly because only with time for reflection can the mind expand. Fast-track job training is like drive-through fast food dining. Four years or more of a liberal arts education is more like gourmet dining with time to relish each course. Most health experts would probably attest that the slower diners enjoy better digestion and ultimately lead longer and healthier lives. Our students might ask whether they can afford time for reflection. The other day Liz Blue described advising a student whose sole goal was finding classes to fit her full-time work schedule. Can we help these often first generation students scrambling to keep a roof over their heads find time by valuing the time it takes for liberal learning?

Let's remember that a public liberal arts education is part of the great American dream. In Europe, traditionally, only the sons of wealthy families considered liberal education. Many today enter European universities to specialize in a single profession such as law or medicine. In the US, we offer higher education and liberal arts education to everyone, even though our students may be less well prepared for higher learning and our institutions not as well subsidized by the government as elsewhere on the globe. As citizens as well as professional educators, we need to keep asking whether public liberal arts education is valuable for both the individual student and the community. Is it a private or a public good, and is it possible?

We know that studying the liberal arts leads to longer and healthier intellectual lives for those who take the time to nourish ourselves mentally. This may be the intangible value added by the liberal arts: developing analytic skills through practicing inductive and deductive reasoning and developing oral and written communication skills. What does it mean to learn and grow intellectually? Does it mean acquiring a relish for research, an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and a joy in creativity? How do we share these passions with our students and each other?

Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press, 1997) argues optimistically that we can and should extend liberal arts education as widely as possible. According to Nussbaum, a liberally educated person must, first, engage in Socratic self-examination, second, see oneself as a citizen of the world, and third, develop a narrative imagination. Following Nussbaums' approach, let me offer a stimulus to our continuing conversations by proposing that the study of the liberal arts promotes freedom, fairness, and creativity.


First and foremost, liberal education liberates the mind and the heart. When Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," he was referring the robot existence of those whose minds can only parrot the authorities. Today robot minds roll off a mass media assembly line, darkened by ignorance and shackled by received orthodoxies. People may never have examined what they know because they haven't examined who they are and how they came to know what they know. Liberal learning starts with every learner individually and seeks to "de-center" the self as it "de-naturalizes" whatever the norms may be. In every class and between classes, a liberal arts education should open windows and doors in students' minds and hearts, so that the question, "Who am I?" grows with resonance each time it is asked.

Liberated instructors facilitate Socratic self-examination by modeling it ourselves. Each time we present a problem, a concept, a story, a question, we must bring our newly examined selves, in candor and humility, to the discourse. We must awaken our own consciousness and demonstrate our courage to take risks and to ask open-ended questions which resist the closure of simple answers. Melissa Nelsen recently told me about an assignment she gives in her general chemistry class for general education credit. Students are assigned to research a controversial social issue involving chemistry, such as giving psychoactive drugs to hyperactive children or irradiating food and to report on opposing views. After completing the assignment, one of her students said that before he'd done the research, he had a pretty set opinion. Afterwards, he felt grateful that he didn't have to make the decision. This student learned to question the authorities, learned to examine where he stands. He discovered something about himself that was as valuable as chemistry, maybe more valuable. He learned the scientific principles involved, he learned how to dig for data and weigh and evaluate it, he learned the struggles and benefits of collaborative research and decision-making, and, most of all, he opened himself to examining who he is and how he knows what he may have taken for granted as "true" or "natural." Perhaps he got a lot more than he bargained for from his liberal arts education.

Martha Nussbaum states: The central task of education, argue the Stoics following Socrates, is to confront the passivity of the pupil, challenging the mind to take charge of its own thought. All too often, people's choices and statements are not their own. Words come out of their mouths, and actions are performed by their bodies, but what those words and actions express may be the voice of tradition or convention, the voice of the parent, of friends, of fashion. This is so because these people have never stopped to ask themselves what they really stand for, what they are willing to defend as themselves and their own. They are like instruments on which fashion and habit play their tunes, or like stage masks through which the actor's voice speaks (pp.28-29).


Secondly, a liberal arts education not only frees us as individuals but it moves us out of our own self-absorption into other worlds and lays the foundation for social justice. Every day of our lives we continue the experience we began as infants when we pulled ourselves up and looked around and noticed we are not alone. We share this small planet with many people, all of them different from us. The liberal arts can build a bridge to other worlds so that we can become not just a tourist in other cultures, consuming and commodifying cultural artifacts of the exotic "other," but an empathetic citizen of the world walking the path of the other. This Spring, Randy Gabrys Alexson is teaching The Geography of Difference. In the class I visited, her students had just read a personal narrative by Nicholassa Mohr about a racist experience of a girl from the Caribbean in the US Southwest. Students shared their own experiences of "culture shock" and made some profound observations based on geographic displacement.

When Winona La Duke speaks, she greets her audience by saying, "You are all my relatives." This generous attempt to dissolve racial boundaries cannot erase institutionalized American racism, but it subtly and gently foregrounds it. On New Zealand, the name the European settlers gave the two tiny islands that the earlier Maori settlers called Aotearoa or "island of the long cloud," official gatherings begin with the "tengata whenua" or people of the land welcoming whoever has come for a meeting or a festival. This ritual greeting acknowledges indigenous rights and values of the native peoples while reaching out across a bridge of human connection to transcend differences. Such hospitality is frequent in native culture where wealth is measured by what people can share and give, but alien to those who value status based on personal property and wealth above all else.

According to Nussbaum, Building a curriculum for world citizenship has multiple aspects: the construction of basic required courses of a "multicultural" nature; the infusion of diverse perspectives through out the culture; support for the development of more specialized elective courses in areas connected with human diversity; and, finally, attention to the teaching of foreign languages, a part of the multicultural story that has received too little emphasis (p. 70). At the Colloquium on March 15, Hagi Dokhanchi, Tim Crow, and Nick Sloboda will lead us in discussion of modes of infusing other languages and cultures more fully into our study of the liberal arts. Let's discuss how our general education program contributes to an understanding of non-western cultures and diversity in American culture.

Nussbaum further challenges us: There are complex connections between cross-cultural study and the study of gender and sexuality. Cross-cultural study reveals many ways of organizing concepts of gender and sexuality; and thinking about gender and sex is essential to thinking critically about a culture. A good undergraduate education should prepare students to be informed and sensitive interpreters of these questions (p. 70). During Fall 2000, our "Campus Conversations: Doing Gender" in preparation for the distinguished lecture by Susan Faludi began dialogue on this important topic which affects all of society.

A liberal arts education challenges students to examine the dialectic of power relations and the possibilities of social justice. Building a globally conscious liberal arts curriculum means giving everyone in the learning community multiple opportunities to explore other languages and cultures, to understand other customs and mores, to touch the fabric of other clothing, to taste and smell different foods, to hear the daily sounds and the music of another culture, to try to see other cultures from the inside out.


Finally, the liberal arts should capture our spirits and transform us for our whole lives. Through the beauty of mathematical or musical forms, through the wit and wisdom of poetry and drama, through the joy of dance and color and wild dreams of the imagination, the liberal arts make life worth living. The liberal arts tune our ears to the minor chords of tragedy and open our hearts to classical catharsis. In proposing the survey of multi-ethnic literature for general education credit, Nick Sloboda described ontological shifts of consciousness that students experience as they move from one imaginary life to another.

Nussbaum asserts that a narrative imagination prepares students for moral interaction: Habits of empathy and conjecture conduce to a certain type of citizenship and a certain form of community: one that cultivates a sympathetic responsiveness to another's needs and understands the way circumstances shape those needs, while respecting separateness and privacy. This is so because of the way in which literary imagining both inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life, not all of which is open to view; in the process, the reader learns to have respect for the hidden contents of that inner world, seeing its importance in defining a creature as fully human (p. 90).

Liberal learning invites us to play, "Let's pretend." What scientific discoveries have begun with the question "What if?" What if we stretched so far beyond our comfort zones that our ideas soared around the globe? What if we allowed ourselves to dream impossible dreams? What if we reached out to balance the scales of justice? What if we reached out and healed someone's pain? What if we nipped the problem in the bud? A student or citizen schooled in the liberal arts doesn't expect to know all the answers but has developed habits or dispositions of mind and heart to imagine a more harmonious world. With this Colloquium and our continuing conversations, the Chancellor's listening sessions, and open meetings with the Strategic Planning Core Committee, we are opening campus conversations on the meaning of the liberal arts. Here is your opportunity to weave your story into the narrative tapestry of UW-Superior.

Other dimensions of the liberal arts

Let me invite you to add other vital questions to continue our dialogue. How does liberal education help to preserve biodiversity and the fragile ecosystems on the planet? Is it important to balance a study of western civilization with learning the languages cultures of Asia and Africa? How can liberal learning help us understand and heal racial conflict? How does a liberal arts education enhance professional studies? How are the community counselors, school superintendents, high school science teachers, and other graduates of our professional programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels better prepared to face daily moral dilemmas and to grapple with ambiguities thanks to a liberal arts education? How is the local community in the Twin Ports enriched by the presence of a public liberal arts college and university? The other day Joel Sipress noted a significant difference between a public and private liberal arts education. The latter has a public service mission and offers something unique and complimentary to the other local institutions.

Studying the Liberal Arts may not lead to material wealth, but it makes us rich in far more important ways. The other day in one of the Chancellor's listening session, Michael Waxman said, "Education is what remains when training is obsolete." Michael Ball remarked that it's sad to hear students talk of wanting "to get general education courses out of the way." Apparently we haven't done a good enough job of convincing them of the value of broadening their intellectual horizons or connecting their learning from one class to another. Gloria Toivola suggested that students be encouraged to use knowledge gained from one class in another so that they can see how the pieces of their learning experience connect. We must not maintain separate disciplines as silos. Art Bumgardner spoke of integrating courses on common themes. Larry Martin challenged us to give a holistic picture of liberal arts to students coming from reservations. Mike Wallschlaeger connected our public mission to that of the Wisconsin Idea of education for all.

The traditional age freshmen enrolled now and those coming next year may have their eyes on a material prize at the beginning of their college career. When they emerge, let's hope they've set their minds and hearts on freedom of an intellectual sort. Let's talk now about how we can make this vision a reality here at UW-Superior over the next few years.