Does the Liberal Arts Model Deliver Life Success? National Success?
My friend Steve wonders at all the college students who study Lithuanian folk dancing and the like, and wonders whether they shouldn’t study something useful instead, and pursue less remunerative interests when they’re past their prime earning years.
This makes some sense to me, theoretically. But here’s what’s weird, something I’ve been wondering at myself for quite a while:
America is the only country in the world where “liberal arts education” is widespread, actually pretty much ubiquitous in higher ed. (And Canada? Je ne sais pas.) Every other country has a much more voc-tech model: even at Cambridge and Oxford (and certainly in France or China), when you get to college you declare your major immediately, pursue that major, then get a job in that major. In many countries you have to make that decision, or have it made for you, far earlier — at 12 or 15.
America also has, far and away (by everyone’s measure, here and abroad), the most, best universities in the world — maybe even equivalent to its military dominance. America is the number-one magnet location for students from across the globe. And countries across the globe are soliciting American universities to set up satellite shops — with their liberal arts models — in their countries.
How to explain this? The standard, loosy-goosey nostrums about developing critical thinking skills, flexibility of mind, adaptability in a fast-changing work world, etc. seem so vague and wooly up against hard-eyed, nuts-and-bolts preparation for the world of work. But on a national and global level they seem to be born out, in spades.
It’s worth noting that those university rankings give a lot of weight to the strength of graduate schools — which are, essentially, voc-techs at a high level. But (almost) all the people in those graduate schools came up through the liberal arts undergraduate system.
It’s possible, of course, that we have the best universities in spite of the liberal arts model, not because of it. Perhaps if we were more utilitarian and instrumental, we’d be even more profoundly dominant in higher education. But I’m thinking that that imagined counterfactual has the burden of proof on it, up against the existing evidence.
This reminds me of the comment I read a while back from history professor. His students would ask him what they could do with a history degree. He said (paraphrasing from memory here), “Unless you’re going to teach, nothing. But that’s the wrong question. The right question is ‘What do people with history degrees do?’ The answer is — everything.”
Me, I got my B.A. in Literature, Theory and Criticism, and went on to be an equity partner and/or principal in a whole string of startups, with combined values totaling tens of millions of dollars. Did that degree help me do that? I have absolutely no idea. I do know that it’s what I wanted to do at that time — what I’d work at day and night because I was fascinated by the subject. (Even though I had absolutely no intention, at any time in my life, of becoming a teacher or a professor.)
And that interest has continued, greatly enriching my life ever since. Viz. (Competing for the most life-enriching prize is what I call my pre-graduate degree, which I took in downhill skiing — paid for by loading chairlifts in Very Cold Weather for two winters at low wages, and by the opportunity cost of not doing something more remunerative and/or career-enhancing. Shoulda become an investment banker, right? I considered it at the time, it was quite clear where the money was…)
I don’t call myself representative — I’m somewhat smarter than the average bear, and I had a lot of other advantages of birth. Certainly many people will enhance their lives far more by studying something more practical.
But on a national level, I like to think about one of my kids’ best friends, who is currently at the Annapolis Naval Academy, majoring in … literature.
Wacky? Maybe so. But when I look at the world around me, the balance of the evidence tells me that our country and our world are better off because he has the freedom and opportunity to do that. It’s another aspect of the freedom that our country provides — cultural, institutional, intellectual, psychological. It’s among the main reasons — maybe the main reason — that we’re such a remarkably successful country.