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Defending liberal arts education

| Wednesday, November 18, 2015

About a month ago at a town hall meeting in South Carolina, former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush urged universities to consider a shift away from liberal arts education, saying, “When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

During the Nov. 10 Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio advocated for more of an emphasis on vocational training and less on liberal arts, stating: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Considering that Bush and Rubio studied Latin American affairs and political science respectively, these remarks are extremely hypocritical. Moving beyond that, however, both claims imply that a student receiving a liberal arts education lacks the potential for meaningful work and a prosperous career. In addition, they suggest that if a career path does not offer relatively high pay, it is not worth pursuing.

It’s not just our presidential candidates who regard the future of students in the liberal arts to be bleak. As many of us in the College of Arts and Letters know, those in our home communities and even our fellow students often doubt our choice of study. Disclosing a major in “Arts and Crafts” is more often than not accompanied by a surprised, questioning look or a “So what are you going to do with that?”

Not only has study in the liberal arts provided American society and civilization as a whole with some of its greatest minds and leaders, but it is also one of the most powerful tools at our disposal when considering how to better our world. The liberal arts should most certainly not be cut back — if anything, they should be emphasized more.

In the broadest sense, a liberal arts education enables students to become free, autonomous thinkers who are able to question assumptions, form arguments and think critically about issues. Every discipline that falls under the liberal arts umbrella also offers a unique set of skills that can only come from immersion in the subject.

Studying history instills in students an appreciation for the people and cultures that came before us, and invites them to consider how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when looking to the future.

Students in design learn how to sketch, model and create products and systems from a multitude of tools. They are taught that everything around us is designed, from door handles to systems of economic oppression, which empowers them to realize that because everything is designed, it can also be redesigned to be better, more efficient and more fair.

Often labeled the least practical major, philosophy not only teaches students how to question the validity of claims made by people such as Bush and Rubio, but it also provides them with critical comprehension and analysis skills that are necessary in every field from business to politics.

Certainly there is tremendous worth to be found in receiving a vocational education, a technical education in a STEM field or in having a career that does not require as much formal training. Welders will not become irrelevant overnight, and we can be sure that engineers and scientists are an integral part of our ever-changing world.

However, as we look to shape our collective future, it is training in the liberal arts that holds the greatest potential for fresh thinking and new approaches to the problems that have been left to us by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In order to deeply investigate the issues facing our world today and properly formulate solutions, we will need to rely on the critical thinking skills gained through liberal arts education.

Our late University president Fr. Ted Hesburgh shared in The Hesburgh Papers, “If our lives in education have any meaning or significance, it will be in our reading the signs of the times and in educating the young of our times in the visions and values that will civilize and make for reasonable human progress and lasting peace on earth.”

This is the goal of a liberal arts education ­— not solely to provide students with the knowledge necessary to find a career, but to empower them to seek truth, think critically and have a lasting impact on our world. We will always need more philosophers.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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