Valuing the Liberal Arts


Jonathan Giuffrida in The Brooklyn Quarterly:

To understand the contemporary why and how of liberal arts requires an understanding of the history of American higher education—namely the knowledge that traditionally “liberal arts” has always included training in quantitative and scientific “STEM” fields as well as the humanities. Both terms tend to be ill-understood in the ongoing debate, but a crucial distinction appears to be not what is studied, but the relationship between the breadth and depth of study. A STEM education is typified by a student who studies civil engineering from the minute she steps on campus to the minute she graduates. That is, a STEM education is characterized by singular focus on technical, “job-ready” fields, which could be true of students at technical institutes, state schools, and research universities. The liberal arts, in contrast, could be represented in that student’s roommate, who explores courses in English, biology, and economics before majoring in any one of them (or even civil engineering). Thus a liberal arts education may include the humanities, the social sciences, and the quantitative and natural sciences in any proportion—as long as it includes most or all of them over the course of a college education.

It’s important to note that while some schools clearly favor one model of education over the other, it seems that both types of education could really exist at any institution, and the choice between them is up to the student. The prototypical student at a large public university, who could go either route, is perhaps the one to whom we should really be speaking.

Both types of education have their paradigms: the liberal arts in the classical education favored by America’s founders, and STEM in pure vocational and technical schools such as in Europe. The liberal arts may be characterized by a breadth of subjects, but in fact they are not so much a particular collection of courses as a mindset about how to put them all together: “not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning,” as Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States and president of Princeton University, put it.

More here.