Rationales for the Liberal Arts by Samuel Ruhmkorff
Rationales for the Liberal Arts
by Dean of Academic Affairs Samuel Ruhmkorff
Bard College at Simon’s Rock is an early college, which is often our most salient attribute in discussions about our mission. We are also a liberal arts college. As educators, we are in the habit of reflecting on the goals of the liberal arts in structuring our curriculum and teaching our students. In this era of attempts by the federal government and others to assess through quantitative and qualitative measures whether higher education is achieving its goals, our reflection has pragmatic value as well.
Why the liberal arts? One answer to this question is that it prepares one for the tasks and careers of the future through a well-rounded program of general education, electives, and concentration in a particular field of study. We don’t know what will be required of current students in 2025 or 2040, either in their careers or in their lives in general. But we do know that reading Aristotle will sharpen their ability to think, and we know that flexible analytical thinking will help them do whatever is required of them in the future. This is a practical goal. And it’s a good one! After all, we do not want to render students unable to get by. But this goal is limited in that, if it is the only purpose of the liberal arts, a liberal arts education becomes a commodity and investment only. Practicality is important, but it does not constitute the intrinsic value of the liberal arts.
Another rationale for the liberal arts is to prepare one for civic life. It is fundamentally important to a successful democracy to have knowledgeable and reflective citizens and leaders. Studying classic texts and contemporary scholarship positions one well for these roles. A liberal arts education is an important asset in a collaborative society. Nevertheless, the importance of the study of the liberal arts is not exhausted by its support of democratic life. A democracy is, in the end, a state, and we do not take our primary duty to be to the state. We might think more broadly of educating “citizens of the world.” Yet there is a place in the study of the liberal arts for scholarship not directly linked to the social good.
The final rationale for the liberal arts that I’ll mention is education as personal transformation. As Socrates and First Year Seminar exhort us, we ought to live the examined life, for part of being human is trying to figure out as many important things as we can about the world. The liberal arts examine important things, including: how to write a poem; how to eliminate a disease; how to structure a society; how to create a harmony. (It’s good to remember that discovering unimportant truths about the world is not part of the goal of the liberal arts, though they are often maligned for this.) We study different, fundamental disciplines because we want to learn as much as possible about the many ways of understanding humans and the world we live in. We take knowledge and inquiry to be important for their own sakes.
Conceived in this way, justifying the liberal arts to worldly authorities seems quite hopeless. The best we can do, perhaps, is to examine the aspirations of each component of a liberal arts education. For example, the study of mathematics is part of the liberal arts. We can formulate desired learning outcomes for various mathematics courses and requirements. We can then determine whether the college’s curriculum is effective in attaining those outcomes. As for the project as a whole – the project of teaching mathematics in conjunction with literature, theater, economics, and the rest of the liberal arts – we will have to accept on the centuries’ worth of experience of those educated in the liberal arts, and on our own personal reflections, that it is a worthy undertaking.
A college education is a fantastic resource. It is, fundamentally, to receive information and attention from a number of committed people who are experts in their fields of study while in community with a peer group dedicated to learning. Everyone deserves the opportunity provided by this resource. Yet in 2002, only 26% of people in the US over the age of 25 had Bachelor degrees. (West Virginia had the lowest rate at 16%, Massachusetts the highest at 35%.) There are significant differences in college participation across the lines of income, gender, race and ethnicity, and level of parent education. The fact is, most people in this country do not have a college education. Those of us with college educations who work in professional fields can easily lose sight of this.
Access to the resources of a college is vitally important. Yet our commitment to the value of education must not lead us to think that this is the only path to proper citizenship or personal transformation. There is incredible brilliance and wisdom throughout this country and this world. There are many ways to gain important knowledge about the world, or to become an informed citizen, other than going to college.
At Simon’s Rock, students are learning all that we are able to teach. There is much that we are not able to teach that can be learned from people who have taken different paths in their understanding of the world. They may not have an advanced degree; they may not live in a country where formal study is a possibility for them; but their understanding of aspects of the world exceeds that of many of us who have had more opportunities. Simon’s Rock is developing more community-based learning programs and internships that get our students out in the world to learn some of what we cannot teach. Some of the challenges for Simon’s Rock students – in these programs and in their lives in general beyond college – include learning from those who have not received or pursued the same opportunities as they have, and always supporting greater accessibility to the opportunities provided by study of the liberal arts and other forms of education.