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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Academic breadth in a liberal education

1/14/16 9:23pm

You mention that you study the liberal arts and immediately hear the scoff, “What are you going to do with that?” This derision stems from a specious idea that equates a liberal arts education with studying certain disciplines that “don’t pay well.” But the ideological core of a liberal education is an approach toward learning that celebrates acquiring knowledge for its own end, rather than for any vocational advantage. You learn not what to think, but how to think — so goes the truism. Yet we easily shrug off this apparent banality before we consider its significance.

When people say a liberal education teaches you “how to think,” they mean it teaches you how to critique not just the validity and value of arguments, but also of the process by which they are determined. This education indispensably employs different kinds of reasoning about different types of knowledge, guided by the awareness that the world is far too complex to be understood by any isolated mode of thinking. Students of a liberal education aren’t defined by subjects they study, but by the academic breadth they espouse. They explore diverse subjects, familiar and alien, taking advantage of everything an undergraduate institution has to offer. They see their college years as a magnificent gift — the best time, and perhaps the only time, to experiment with the manifold forms of human perception and applications of abstraction, to tackle problems that utilize the complete range of their cognitive faculties.

Seeing how hyper-utilitarian and ultra-careerist our academic environment has become, this endeavour for academic breadth may seem ludicrous, even naive. Breadth in education may have worked a century ago, some may say, but students today are expected to know so much more about their chosen discipline, and are encouraged to specialize as soon as possible. That depth, not breadth, will get us further in our professions seems almost a given. It seems no one can spare any time and effort for a broad education.

This quandary stems from the erroneous conception that breadth and depth in contemporary education are incompatible, that a student can choose one but not the other. But, as former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes, “The ultimate idea of a liberal arts education is to render that distinction meaningless … The perspectives that you get from studying the general … are meant to interpenetrate the practice of your speciality.” So while you take your specialized classes, give yourself chances to pursue something totally different. Rice’s rather open curriculum already provides great opportunities to do this.

Our distribution requirements serve as a good enough impetus, but they’re not enough. It’s vital that we see these classes not merely as graduation prerequisites, time-fillers or grade boosters, but as occasions for genuinely novel challenges for the intellectual self. To this I might also propose the value of venturing beyond introductory or general courses. Instead of an overview of Western philosophy, why not a class on Plato or medical ethics? Instead of a survey of British literature, how about Milton or Victorian novels? The point is not simply to stuff your brain with a heap of information, but to carefully consider the questions and answers prominent thinkers have pondered over specific ideas, to scrutinize how great minds have wrestled with the same problems throughout time. For example, we can study how ecologists inquire into nature, how transcendentalists experienced it and how Impressionists captured it on canvas; we can study how neuroscientists research the problems of emotion, how Romantic poets perceived them and how Roman philosophers grappled with them. Survey courses may be worthwhile in acquainting us with disciplines in which we have little interest, but they often have too much to cover in too little time to afford students the luxury of slow and intricate contemplation. 

Through this exposure, not just to a diversity of knowledge but also of manners of reasoning, we develop a conscientious skepticism and mental acuteness that lets us interpret information in unconventional ways. It also expands our vocabulary to enable better cross-discipline communication, which is a rarity in a time when we are so adept at spewing jargon only a dozen other people in our insanely specialized fields understand. Thus a utilitarian purpose of a liberal education is revealed: It allows us to realize a more civically engaged life — or, more plainly, to work better with people. It nurtures in us a humane attentiveness and concern for society. We see that everything we have done and will ever do is shaped by human experience, and this (to paraphrase Deresiewicz) gives us recourse to the full scope of  our humanity in whatever career we eventually choose.

Obviously, everyone is entitled to his or her own idea of a college education’s purpose, and if a student sees it as nothing more than a glorified vocational training facility, that’s fine. Many do so and go on to lead (materially) successful lives. But I’m worried this transforms us into efficient but soulless automatons. A liberal education does the opposite. It liberates us — as the name implies — from becoming mindless followers and obtuse sophists. It may be expensive, it may be demanding and its payoff may appear distant, but ultimately a liberal education is still one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

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