March 29, 2020
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In Defense of Liberal Arts

The so-called liberal arts education may become a victim of the recession. The hard economic times probably won’t kill it, but it may limp into the next decade. Those who would defend it must do a better job of explaining its value, while also conceding that it must evolve in the face of certain economic and social realities.

Seventy-five years ago, it was mostly upper class and upper-middle class young men and women (and really, mostly young men) who headed off to college for the classic liberal education. That education exposed them to the best ideas from the past 2,500 years in literature, philosophy and religion, history, hard and soft sciences, mathematics and art and music. College administrators in those days were not asked to defend the value of teaching Sophocles or Descartes; certainly, they would not have had to explain how such academic explorations would lead to a career.

That approach changed after World War II because of the G.I. Bill, which enabled millions of returning soldiers and sailors to go to college. Since those college students were older, and more heavily tilted toward the middle class, courses were geared more toward vocations and careers.

In the early 21st century we see even more young men and women — and some not so young — enroll in postsecondary education. They hail from a variety of economic backgrounds. Paying for that education will likely be one the biggest investments their parents will make. And when the students themselves take on the burden of paying for it, the demand for value, for a return on that investment, is great indeed.

And so increasingly, public colleges and universities are asked to tailor their offerings to make students marketable for jobs. A poor economy, and consequently poorer state governments, hasten this trend.

In recent years, Maine’s public university and college systems wisely have moved toward a multipronged approach to education. Instead of deciding between the classic liberal education and more vocationally oriented programs, the systems provide both through university, technical and community college campuses and branches. As the University of Maine System conducts a self-assessment with an eye to cost savings, it must confront the underlying but critical question of what role college education plays in individual lives and in society at large.

The classic liberal education must be defended, even as policymakers work to ensure they are preparing the next generation’s labor force. And liberal education can be defended. It provides its graduates with an ability to weigh new ideas against, and in the context of, all that has come before.

It’s easy for the owner of a successful building business to dismiss his college degree in biology as a mistake, or the nursing home deputy administrator to wonder why she majored in political science. In fact, those academic disciplines grew minds; they provided problem-solving, analysis and synthesis abilities. And if their educations were truly liberal, they help that man and woman appreciate and understand the world in which they live.

That’s return on investment.

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