Essay

The Power and Promise of the Liberal Arts

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza
Illustration by Simon Pemberton

What is the value of a liberal arts education? From the public to the press to the U.S. president, the quality of university education is a burning issue.

The challenge can be seen in the falling numbers of liberal arts majors. Today, nationally, the liberal arts account for less than 30 percent of degrees awarded, a sharp drop from the 1970s. The Carnegie report, “Liberal Arts Education for a Global Society,” indicates that the benefits of a liberal arts education are no longer self-evident outside academe. The liberal arts find it particularly difficult to attract first-generation and foreign students, and students of color. In the meantime, independent liberal arts colleges are closing or adding vocational schools to survive.

We cannot ignore the challenge. We have an ethical responsibility to provide the best education we can and to continuously reflect on how we do so. Failure to do so invites external interventions that might not be in the best interests of our educational enterprise.

Ironically, what may be helpful is the accountability movement — the strident calls for quality education from the public, parents, pundits and politicians, whose model continues to be the small liberal arts college. Liberal arts educational practices are being replicated across universities through the establishment of learning communities, living and learning centers, honors colleges, and first-year seminars.

The rapid changes taking place in the world of work require flexible, transferable skills. This is what the liberal arts do best: They teach students to learn continuously, think critically and confront new challenges creatively. As one-career lifetimes disappear for most people, the knowledge, skills and literacies of the liberal arts will become even more important. Not surprisingly, surveys show business executives tend to have great confidence in the value of a liberal arts education, more so than parents.

I see the liberal arts resting on four interconnected values: intrinsic, intellectual, instrumental and idealistic. The power and promise of the liberal arts lies in the multidimensionality and mutuality of these values.

The intrinsic value of a liberal arts education lies in the sheer joy of learning for its own sake, asking the big questions, making discoveries, cultivating a life-long quest for learning. The liberal arts explore and engage the profound issues facing humanity, our enduring individual and collective searches for meaning and belonging, the moral, metaphysical and material dimensions of our existence.

The intellectual value is embodied in the capaciousness and versatility of the liberal arts, the richness of their content, the treasure of knowledge in the liberal arts disciplines and interdisciplines. Students are exposed to various fields, foci, and methodologies in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, as well as to vast repertoires of human experience, thought, creativity and invention that are both enlightening and liberating.

The liberal arts also have instrumental value. They cultivate invaluable skills and capacities for the world of work including verbal and written communication skills, critical thinking skills, and creative sensibilities. They foster breadth and adaptability to contexts, as well as sensitivity to human difference and commonality.

Finally, the liberal arts have idealistic value in their contribution to character development. They can deepen and expand students’ sensibilities and emotional richness, ethical reasoning, and capacity for empathy. The liberal arts often cultivate students’ moral and narrative imaginations, which is critical for responsible citizenship and leadership.

Through the liberal arts, we develop the capacity to commit to something greater than our individual selves as we grasp the complexities and connectedness of the human condition. There is no doubt the world needs technically skilled workers and professionals, but, in the words of the Carnegie report, there may even be a “greater need for liberally educated citizens and human beings who can distinguish between good from evil, justice from injustice, what is noble and beautiful from what is base and degrading.” Technological progress without ethical values produces the grotesque barbarisms that littered the 20th century, the most materially advanced century in history.

The liberal arts, which have been with us since the modern university emerged and can be traced back to the ancient universities in Europe, Africa and Asia, have a long future so long as the human need to understand ourselves, the natural world and the spiritual dimension exist.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is Presidential Professor of African American Studies and History and dean of the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.