Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts….
(Thomas Jefferson, addressing the benefits to society of a liberal education, in an 1813 letter to John Adams)
Western civilization is home to a long tradition of liberal education, defined as an emphasis on the whole development of an individual apart from (narrower) occupational training. The beginnings of this philosophy can perhaps be traced back as far as ancient Greece and more clearly to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) of medieval times. That tradition has continued, and today liberal education is an important segment of higher education in all developed countries. Its role in nurturing leaders and informed citizens is recognized in both the public and private sectors. Global statistics are difficult to obtain, but our impression is that interest in liberal education is growing in many parts of the West.
The contrast with developing countries is stark. Especially since many of these countries achieved independence after World War II, liberal education has come to be viewed as a luxury and not a necessity. This is reflected in the curricula of both secondary and higher education, where vocational training is frequently favored. Liberal education has been shunned by governments as elitist, emblematic of the values of hated Western colonialism, and too expensive. Very recently there have been a few signs that these attitudes are changing, but recognition of the benefits of liberal or general education remains far from common.
We will argue that liberal education should play a vital role in the colleges and universities of the developing world--in undergraduate as well as graduate-professional studies. What follows represents our speculations based on research and observation in many different countries. Of course, we must recognize that each country is, to some extent, a special case, and that offering proof for all that we advocate is not possible. We believe, however, that our conjectures are backed by history and logic.
Liberal education in developing countries
As cited in the recent report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000), which explores the current state and future of higher education in developing countries, a liberally educated person is described as someone who2:
- can think and write clearly, effectively, and critically, and who can communicate with precision, cogency, and force;
- has a critical appreciation of the ways in which we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves;
- has a broad knowledge of other cultures and other times, and is able to make decisions based on reference to the wider world and to the historical forces that have shaped it;
- has some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems; and
- has achieved depth in some field of knowledge.
In developing countries, persons with these qualities have traditionally tended to come from wealthy elites. This has become less true in the West as liberal education has expanded beyond a few selective institutions. In the United States, for example, the annual number and percentage of university graduates with liberal education degrees diminished and then increased again during the last 30 years.3
In some developing countries, the manpower needs of rapid industrialization have helped slow the spread of liberal education. Instead of giving its students a broad, general education, the Soviet higher education system focused heavily on vocational and other specialized training. With the rapid growth of Soviet industry beginning in the 1930s, this vocational model subsequently spread first to its non-Russian republics and satellite states, and then further afield. Echoing observations that could apply to many developing and transition countries, the political philosopher Irakly Areshidze (1999) has described what happened under the Soviet system in Georgia:
Upon acceptance [at University], for the next five years students would pursue an education focused on giving them [a] specific, limited set of vocational knowledge in their given field. Students would memorize information from textbooks and be lectured at by the Professors. Students would seldom engage in analytical, critical thinking, class discussion and writing.
In many developing countries, this lack of critical thinking might often have been viewed favorably by those in power. As Lao-Tzu said in The Way of Lao-tzu over 2,500 years ago, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Many post-colonial dictators have, for the sake of their own survival, understandably been keener to invest in vocational education than in liberal education.
Donor policy has abetted this focus on vocational training. Organizations such as the World Bank have traditionally promoted infrastructure and strong institutions as keys to development. These require skilled workers. Building physical and transport infrastructure requires engineers; setting up a strong financial system requires bankers and accountants; and establishing a health system requires personnel trained in modern medicine. It is not surprising, therefore, that higher education systems in many developing countries have been geared toward early specialization aimed at producing “job-ready” graduates.
There are other important reasons why families may prefer to send their children to schools that emphasize specialized job skills. Investment in university education, both in terms of direct and opportunity costs, is a major financial undertaking for the majority of poor-country families. Although tuition may be free or heavily subsidized, books and living expenses have to be paid for, and sending a child to college when he or she could be earning money for the family can be a tremendous sacrifice. A desire for a quick return on investment is therefore understandable, and professional courses are often seen as providing a faster and more certain return than liberal education.
The need for liberal education
By teaching students how to think rather than what to think, and how to learn rather than what to learn, a liberal education produces graduates who are better able to adapt and respond to the demands of a fast-changing economic and social environment. But in a rush to respond to a rapidly changing world, it is easy to overlook long-term objectives. The view that engineers should learn solely the technical aspects of their trade, for example, neglects the social and environmental impacts of their work. Skills in road design and maintenance are clearly essential for all countries, but if planners and policy-makers do not recognize and take account of the views of local populations, negative social impacts of a project may outweigh, and eventually threaten, the positive economic outcomes. As another example, genetically modified (GM) foods are creating an enormous and increasingly urgent need for a new body of technical expertise in developing countries. Such expertise is needed if these countries are to take advantage of the benefits of such foods (e.g., nutritional, health, cost), while seeking to minimize the risks (e.g., new invasive species; new plant, animal, and human diseases with no known cure; and greater agricultural dependency on developed-country seed providers). GM foods also raise many complex issues that go beyond science, including matters related to ethics, public regulation, business practice, community life, globalization, and world governance. It is hard to imagine countries addressing these and similar issues effectively without the leadership, or at least the aid, of individuals with a strong liberal education.
Many of the benefits of a liberal education are tangible in the form of higher incomes and accrue predominantly to the individuals who receive the education. But there are also intangible benefits, many of which are enjoyed by other members of society. Although it is difficult to offer decisive evidence, we can think of six main channels through which society may be expected to benefit from liberal education programs. Naturally, their applicability and importance will vary from country to country. All forms of higher education create national benefits but liberal education creates a particular set of benefits through the channels delineated below.
The first channel is economic. We think that business leaders are more likely to innovate when they have been stimulated by the broad range of studies that typically comprise liberal education. For developing economies, such innovation can mean moving into new, more productive fields, and adapting technologies developed elsewhere to create new jobs, and reduce poverty at home. Liberal education, which encourages people to question and challenge conventional thinking and practices, can be an important catalyst for increasing an economy's fluidity. In addition, as Thomas Jefferson observed, liberal education can raise the value placed by a society on merit, as opposed to status or wealth at birth. In many developing countries, nepotism has hampered economic development.
The second channelis the impacton policy-making. There is no standard recipe for reaching development goals, but much of the evidence we have suggests that good governance, good macroeconomic management, attention to education and health, and integration into the world economy are useful ingredients. All of these instruments of development (some of which--like health and education--are goals in themselves) require both generalist as well as specialist knowledge and skills.
The impact of liberal education on political participation is a third possible source of public benefit. Strong leaders help move countries forward, but an informed and engaged citizenry can often serve as a necessary and constructive counterbalance to the power of leaders. Representative democracy, which has contributed powerfully to long-run economic and social development in the West, depends crucially on having a critical mass of citizens who are well informed and able to assimilate and work with complex ideas. By spreading knowledge and increasing debate, broadening liberal education away from elite groups will tend to lead to a more involved citizenry.
The fourth channel isthe effect on the cohesion of societies. By exposing students to a wide range of differing views and encouraging them to make connections across different disciplines and cultures, we would hope that liberal education promotes tolerance and understanding of others. Liberal education can also foster a sense of community and of working together to achieve goals. And by broadening and deepening knowledge of history, the arts, and the sciences, it nurtures both pride in one's own culture and respect for others. Liberal education can therefore have a strong influence on public spirit, which developing and developed countries alike require if their societies are to work together to solve problems and seize opportunities.
The fifth channelby which liberal education benefits society stems from the possibility of reducing brain drain. Students who have an opportunity to receive a well-designed, broad-based education in their own countries are more likely to pursue their studies at home and avoid the cost of going abroad. This may confer an added benefit on women, whose families may be reluctant to let them study overseas. Similarly, those students who do study in other countries are more likely to return home, knowing that they will find a stimulating environment. A related benefit derives from the fact that a liberal education promotes a culture of lifelong learning, which abets the development of a vibrant intellectual culture and encourages professionals trained in other countries to work in their own country, for that country's benefit.
The final channel relates to globalization. We believe that liberal education promotes cohesion not just within, but also among, societies. Studying the world's religions, for example, can help students see the connections between them at the same time as understanding and valuing the differences. Literature, history, and language shed light on a country's past and present ways of thinking. In an increasingly interconnected world, empathy with other cultures can encourage both peaceful relations and productive business and cultural interaction.
Globalization is also changing the economic climate. Trade between countries enables many economies to move into new areas. Successful economic development is generally accompanied by a move up the industrial value chain. Training in a specific area of expertise, therefore, quickly becomes obsolete, and as individuals' careers become more varied, more flexible skills, as well as the ability to quickly learn new skills, are required. Rapidly developing technology exacerbates this requirement as the machines of the future will bear little resemblance to the machines of the past. Knowledge has become a core competitive advantage for both individuals and economies, and the generalist skills nurtured by liberal education appear poised to grow in value relative to more specialist abilities.
New ways of working are accompanying the trend towards global integration. The increasing quantity of knowledge means that, as Michael Gibbons (1998) has argued, “no matter where one is, more than 99 per cent of the knowledge needed lies elsewhere.” New connections must therefore be developed, across disciplines and across cultures. Networks of expertise, which “bubble up like molasses on the stove” as intellectual resources shift from “area to area, problem to problem, grouping to grouping,” are likely to propel economies forward. This kind of thinking and working is a key feature of a good liberal education, which encourages students to make connections across disciplines and draw on others' ideas, while working together to advance learning and tackle problems.
We understand that the connection between social and private benefits ascribed to these channels is a mixture of hope and reality. Opportunities can remain unexploited, and excellent education alone cannot prevent all manner of bad outcomes. (Nazi Germany is an obvious example of bad outcomes arising despite a world-famous national system of schools.) Nevertheless, the channels do reflect what is possible and what has happened in different societies as they have moved from poverty to greater well-being.
Developing a liberal education
Several important questions face those attempting to design a liberal education program in developing countries.
The first question is what to teach. Liberal education in the West has evolved over time to a broad-based menu, which takes in history, politics, literature, languages, and the physical and biological sciences. Developing countries have the opportunity to learn from the experience of the West, but they also need to take into account their own economic, social, and political environment. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) has recently established a university that offers a liberal education and that aims to reflect the needs and aspirations of Bangladeshi society by producing graduates who will work to alleviate poverty and to overcome the country's severe problems in the areas of health care, education, and employment. The report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000, 85) summarizes their strategy for designing a liberal education curriculum as follows:
BRAC started with a significant program of research among potential employers, students and parents, as well as successful local universities. BRAC wanted to … ensure not only financial viability through good initial enrollment rates, [but also] that the university's graduate stream would prove attractive to prospective local employers; this, in turn, would link back to maintaining enrollment on an ongoing basis.
BRAC's research found that employers were seeking graduates with analytical abilities and skills in writing, use of the English language, and communication. The ability to think independently and take the initiative on tasks was also highly valued. BRAC realized that the involvement of key local stakeholders in the curriculum design process is perhaps the best way to maximize its benefits to society. Consistent with the type of liberal education we are espousing, undergraduates at BRAC are required to pursue a diverse set of topics, including a substantial number of courses outside of their main focus area.
The content of liberal education curricula will naturally vary across countries. Each country will need to take lessons learned elsewhere and adapt them to its own needs. For example, while South Africa, where English is widely spoken, may not need the same language courses as Korea, it may need to focus particularly on the country's need to build strong institutions. Accordingly, subjects like law, philosophy, economics, and politics might be relatively more important. Designing a liberal education program offers the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what matters to a particular society. It offers the opportunity to focus on a country's history, its culture, and its values. Doing this will help energize the whole higher education system--and, in time, may change the way a society thinks about itself.
Having determined what to teach, educators next need to decide how to teach. The rote-learning-passive-learner model that typifies so many institutions of higher education in developing countries makes this a particularly important issue. New teaching methods that require students to take a more active role fit well with the more collaborative ways of working that an increasingly knowledge-based society requires. A well-delivered liberal education can give graduates a head start in developing the necessary skills in working with others to address problems and create solutions.
Finding faculty who can take part in interactive learning is, in fact, a major obstacle to the development of liberal education in the developing world, because the tradition of "intentional learning" is so weak.4
The needed reforms will only take place if the political aspects are realistically taken into account. Policymakers and stakeholders alike must acknowledge that while the technical and narrowly pedagogical aspects of such reform are important, they are only a part of the story. A wide range of interested parties--from students to parents to educators of all levels, from business to donors--have contributions to make, and if any group feels ignored, the success of the reform may be jeopardized.
The third question facing curriculum designers is how to make students aware of liberal education's merits. At present, as we have seen, specialized training often has a stronger lure than more general subjects. Enlisting employers in promoting liberal education is critical. The National University of Singapore, for example, has launched a new liberal education curriculum for some of its undergraduates, with the ambitious goal that those students will be comparable to those of more-established universities in wealthy countries (www.nus.edu.sg). This effort has the support of local companies, whose pronouncements about the course's value are likely to have a strong effect on parents and students alike (Task Force, 90). The availability of a liberal education curriculum by itself is unlikely to stem the tide of technical training. Concerted efforts are therefore needed to raise awareness of its importance for both individuals and society.
Access is the final major issue to address. Because of its breadth and typically low student-teacher ratios, liberal education tends to be expensive relative to specialized professional training, and therefore not all students in poorer countries can be offered a full course of liberal education.5 Those universities with established traditions in the field will be able to provide the more intensive programs, but in order for liberal education to contribute more fully to society, expansion beyond elite groups is critical. Pakistan's private Aga Khan University (AKU) uses some of its endowment to fund scholarships to extend its fledgling liberal arts and sciences course beyond wealthy groups.6
Although it is difficult to generalize about this topic because systems of professional education vary so widely, establishing general education as a component of technical and professional courses is one promising way of expanding access. This would help broaden the learning of specialists and give them a better background to cope with changes in social and economic conditions. Promoting liberal education in professional courses would also help such students incorporate broader societal goals into their interactions with a wide range of people in their countries. Students could be given liberal arts education for a year before moving on to their core course; alternatively, the two could run concurrently. Consistent with this goal, the AKU states (www.aku.edu) that graduates from its medical school should be able to "provide leadership in issues concerning society."
Most developing countries will find it neither possible nor necessary to give all its college and university students a liberal education. Indeed, not all, or even most, students need to have a generalist background. Constructing a system of higher education in which various types of institutions serve distinct purposes will be essential for developing countries, and some institutions will, inevitably, offer very little in the way of liberal education. (This applies as well in developed countries.) But increasing the number of students with the option of at least a basic grounding in liberal education will help shed the elitist label and strengthen the national stock of human capital. As the Peril and Promise report (Task Force, 87) suggests, higher education institutions “must become more tolerant at points of entry . . . ensuring that those who have not had a broad secondary education have the chance to catch up and fulfill their potential.” In this spirit, AKU's liberal arts program is considering the possibility of bridging courses to help secondary school students from poorer backgrounds and from neighboring countries to transcend the gap.
In implementing a liberal education program, policy-makers and educators currently face several challenges. As well as designing courses and making them fit society's needs, promotion of the benefits of liberal education will be needed along with efforts to attract students from beyond the traditional target audience.
These efforts promise to be extremely worthwhile. In the past, liberal education has been regarded by many developing-world policy-makers as a luxury, and only meant for the rich. Today, it is a much more a necessity. Leaders with the vision to look beyond the short-term economic benefits of a highly specialized technical education have the opportunity to make significant long-term contributions to their countries' development.
David E. Bloom is Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Henry Rosovsky is Geyser University Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.1
1. Larry Rosenberg and Mark Weston provided helpful comments and assistance.
2. Participants at a seminar of the British Council held in Bath, UK, in March 2002, noted that raising the question “What makes an educated person?” could in itself “be a potential catalyst for wider curricular reform.” The full report of the seminar is at www.tfhe.net/seminar/report_of_the_seminar.htm.
3. As to the current situation, Carol M. Baker, in “Liberal Education for a Global Society” (a 2000 Carnegie Corporation of New York report) says, “In 1995, 40 percent of the degrees granted were in the liberal arts. And the number of liberal arts undergraduate degrees reached an all-time high of 466,000.” The report is available at www.carnegie.org/sub/pubs/libarts.pdf.
4. A new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities points out the importance of “intentional” learning—that students who learn with a purpose, learn more and are much better prepared to use what they have learned for the betterment of society. See Greater Expectations: A New vision of Learning as a Nation Goes to College, available at www.greaterexpectations.org. In referring to the U.S. situation, the report states: “The best undergraduate education for the twenty-first century will be based on a liberal education that produces an individual who is intentional about learning and life, empowered, informed, and responsible.”
5. The emerging view in the United States is different. The Association of American Colleges and Universities says that liberal education should be available to all students. See www.greaterexpectations.org.
6. Aga Khan University (1994). The Future of the Aga Khan University: Evolution of a Vision. Report of the Chancellor's Commission. Available at www.akunet.org/aku.
Areshidze, Ivakly. 1999. Liberal education and self-government in Georgia.
Gibbons, Michael. 1998. Speech delivered at World Conference in Higher Education. Paris:UNESCO, 5-9 October.
Task Force on Higher Education and Society. 2000. Higher education in developing countries: Peril and promise. Washington, DC: World Bank/UNESCO
Is Majoring in Liberal Arts a Mistake for Students?
Critical Thinking, Knowledge basics and the Scientific Process First — Humanities Later
If luck favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, we’re in danger of becoming a very unlucky nation. Little of the material taught in liberal arts programs today is relevant to the future.
Consider all the science and economics that has been updated, the shifting theories of psychology, the programming languages and political theories that have been developed, and even how many planets our solar system has. Much, like literature and history, should be evaluated against updated, relevant priorities in the 21st century. There is more need for process thinking and model think than knowledge today in undergraduate education.
I feel that liberal arts education in the United States is a minor evolution of 18th century European education. The world needs something more than that. Non-professional undergraduate education needs a new system that teaches students how to learn and judge using the scientific process on issues relating to science, society, and business.
Though Jane Austen and Shakespeare might be important, they are far less important than many other things that are more relevant to make an intelligent, continuously learning citizen, and a more adaptable human being in our increasingly more complex, diverse and dynamic world. When the rate of change is high, what one needs in education changes from knowledge to the process of learning.
I am going to now suggest we call this basic education “Modern Thinking”. I suggest universities introduce it as a much more rigorous and demanding version of traditional Liberal Arts for those not pursuing undergraduate professional or STEM education. Let’s try and separate the old “get through college easily and leave time for partying” student set from those that want a rigorous education with many more demanding, broad and diverse minimum requirements. Let’s keep the old and construct a new higher honors-like separate program with much more rigor.
The test for Modern Thinking would be quite simple: at the end of an undergraduate education, is a student roughly able to understand and discuss a broad set of topics like the Economist, end-to-end, every week. That covers everything economics, politics, literature, drama, business, culture and more. Of course, there are other surrogates for the Economist that would be just as valid if broad enough.This modern, non-professional education would meet the original “Greek life purpose” of a liberal arts education, updated for today’s world.
The most important things for a general, non-professional or vocational education are critical thinking, abstract model building, generalization skills and problem-solving skills, familiarity with logic and the scientific process, and the ability to use these in forming opinions, discourse, and in making decisions. Other general skills that are also important include — but are not limited to — interpersonal skills and communication skills.
So, what is wrong with today’s typical liberal arts degree?
Neither the old definition of liberal arts nor the current implementation of it is the best use of four years of somebody’s education (if it is to be non-professional — I am explicitly not suggesting everyone do STEM “profession” oriented degrees!). The hardest (and most lucrative, but that is less relevant here) problems to solve are non-technical problems. In my opinion, getting a STEM degree gives you the tools to think about those problems more effectively than a Liberal Arts degree today; though it is far from a complete way of thinking, and a Modern Thinking degree will do this in an even more complete form. If STEM was turned into a non-professional degree it’d teach more of the skills for this Modern Thinking education than a Liberal Arts degree AS PRACTICED generally does today. But Modern Thinking would go more directly at the education I’d recommend for non-professionals who want to operate at the highest levels of thinking.
Some of you will point to very successful people who’ve gone to Yale and done well, but you misuse or misunderstand statistics. A lot of successful people have started out as liberal arts majors. A lot haven’t. If you’re very driven and intelligent or lucky, you’ll probably be successful in life, even with today’s liberal arts degree. Then again, if you’re that driven and intelligent, you could probably find success with any degree, or even no degree. Apple’s Steve Jobs and Joi Ito (Director of the MIT media lab) are both college dropouts. Joi is a largely self-taught computer scientist, disc jockey, nightclub entrepreneur and technology investor and I think this diversity makes him better educated. The top 20% of people in any cohort will do well independent of what curriculum their education follows, or if they had any education at all. If we want to maximize the potential of the other 80%, then we need a new Modern Thinking curriculum.
What I am discussing in this piece is the median student who gets through a liberal arts curriculum, excluding the 20% who I believe will do well no matter what education (or lack thereof) that they get. That means what I am concentrating on is “what actually happens to the median student” as opposed to “what is possible with Liberal Arts education” or “what Liberal Arts is supposed to teach”. I will add though that even the definition of what Liberal Arts SHOULD be needs updating for the modern world.
Yale recently decided that Computer Science was important and I like to ask, “if you live in France, shouldn’t you learn French? If you live in the computer world, shouldn’t you learn Computer Science?” What should be the second required language in schools today if we live in a computer world? My goal is not that everyone be a programmer, but rather that they understand programmatic thinking. And if you live in a technology world what must you understand? Traditional education is far behind and the old world tenured professors at our universities with their parochial views and interests, their romanticism and ossification of ideas will keep dragging them back. My disagreement is not with the goals of a liberal arts education but its implementation and evolution (or lack thereof) from 18th century European education and its purpose. There is too little emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills in schools and the grounding on which new knowledge, often technological, can be acquired, even though that was the original goal of such education. Many adults have little understanding of important science and technology issues or, more importantly, how to approach them, which leaves them open to poor decision-making on matters that will affect both their families and society, in general.
Connections matter and many Ivy League colleges are worth it just to be an alumnus. There are people with the view that Liberal Arts broadened their vision and gave them great conversational topics. There are those who argue that the humanities are there to teach us what to do with knowledge. As one observer commented: “They should get lawyers to think whether an unjust law is still law. An engineer should be able to contemplate whether Artificial Intelligence is morally good. An architect could pause to think on the merit of building a house fit for purpose. A doctor could be taught whether and how to justify using scarce medical resources for the benefit of one patient and not another. This is the role of humanities — a supplement to STEM and the professions.”
In my view, creativity, humanism, and ethics are very hard to teach, whereas worldliness and many other skills supposedly taught through the Liberal Arts are more easily self-taught in a continuously updating fashion if one has a good quantitative, logical and scientific process-oriented base education. The undergraduate level (graduate level degrees are a whole different matter and should be specialised on areas of study) degrees I associate (with all my biases) as the more likely to be “easy courses so you can party degrees” in most US universities is mostly what i am discussing here.
The argument goes that a scientific/engineering education lacks enough training in critical thinking skills, creativity, inspiration, innovation and holistic thinking. On the contrary, I argue that the scientific and logical basis of a better Modern Thinking education would allow some or all of this — and in a more consistent way. The argument that being logical makes one a linear problem solver and ill prepared for professions that require truly creative problem solving has no merit in my view. The old version of the Liberal Arts curriculum was reasonable in a world of the far less complex 18th century Eurocentric world and an elitist education focused on thinking and leisure. Since the 20th century, despite its goals, it has evolved as the “easier curriculum” to get through college and may now be the single biggest reason students pursue it (There are plenty of students who take it for other reasons, but I am talking percentages here).
I do not believe that today’s typical Liberal Arts degree turns you into a more complete thinker; rather, I believe they limit the dimensionality of your thinking since you have less familiarity with mathematical models (to me, it’s the dimensionality of thinking that I find deficient in many people without a rigorous education), and worse, statistical understanding of anecdotes and data (which liberal arts was supposedly good at preparing students for but is actually highly deficient at). People in the humanities fields are told that they get taught analytical skills, including how to digest large volumes of information, but I find that by and large such education is poor at imparting these skills. Maybe, that was the intent but the reality is very far from this idealization (again, excluding the top 20%).
There is a failing in many college programs that are not pragmatic enough to align and relate liberal arts program to the life of a working adult. From finance to media to management and administration jobs, necessary skills like strategic-thinking, finding trends, and big picture problem-solving, even human connections and workforce management have all evolved in my view to need the more quantitative and rational preparation than today’s degrees provide.
Such skills, supposedlythe purview of liberal arts education, are best learnt through more quantitative methods today. Many vocational programs from engineering to medicine also need these same skills and need to evolve and broaden to add to their training. But if I could only have one of a liberal art or an engineering/science education, I’d pick the engineering even if I never intended to work as an engineer and did not know what career I wanted to pursue.
I have in fact almost never worked as an engineer but deal exclusively with risk, evolution of capability, innovation, people evaluation, creativity and vision formulation. Design is my personal passion far more than business. That is not to say that goal setting, design, and creativity are not important or even critical. In fact, these need to be added to most professional and vocational degrees, which are also deficient for today’s practical careers.
More and more fields are becoming very quantitative, and it’s becoming harder and harder to go from majoring in English or History to having optionality on various future careers and being an intelligent citizen in a democracy. Math, statistics and science are hard, economics, psychology and philosophical logic take effort, and school is a great time to learn those areas, whereas many of the liberal arts courses can be pursued after college on the base of a broad education. But without training in the scientific process, logic and critical thinking, and a basis of science, mathematics and statistics, discourse and understanding are both made far more difficult.
A good illustrative example of the problems of today’s liberal arts education can be found in the writing of well-known author, Malcolm Gladwell, a history major and a one-time writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell famously argued that stories were more important that accuracy or validity without even realizing it. The New Republic called the final chapter of Gladwell’s Outliers, “impervious to all forms of critical thinking” and said that Gladwell believes “a perfect anecdote proves a fatuous rule.” This, in my opinion, is too often the way many Liberal Arts graduates (but not all) think. Referencing a Gladwell reporting mistake in which Gladwell refers to “eigenvalue” as “Igon Value,” Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker criticizes his lack of expertise: “I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.” Unfortunately, too many in today’s media are similarly “uneducated” in their interpretation of experts. Storytelling and quotes become a misleading factor instead of being an aid to communicating the accurate facts more easily. His assertions around “10,000 hours” may or may not be true but his arguments for it carry very little weight with me because of the quality of his thinking.
Though one example of Malcolm Gladwell does not prove the invalidity of arguments for a Liberal Arts degree, I find this kind of erroneous thinking (anecdotally) true of many humanities and liberal arts graduates. In fact, I see the inconsistencies that Gladwell failed to understand (giving him the benefit of the doubt that these were unintentional) in the writings of many authors of articles in supposedly elite publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Again, this is not a statistically valid conclusion but the impression across hundreds or thousands of examples of one person, me. When I do occasionally read articles from these publications, I make a sport of judging the quality of thinking of the writers as I read, based on false arguments, unsupported conclusions, confusion of storytelling with factual assertions, mistaking quotes from interviews as facts, misinterpreting statistics, etc. Similar lack of cogent thinking leads to bad decisions, uninformed rhetoric, and lack of critical thinking around topics like nuclear power and GMOs.
Unfortunately, in an increasingly complex world, all these topics skills that many liberal arts majors even at elite universities fail to master. The topic of risk and risk assessment from simple personal financial planning to societal topics like income inequality is so poorly understood and considered by most liberal arts majors as to make me pessimistic. I am not arguing that engineering or STEM education is good at these topics but rather that this is not its intent of STEM or professional education. The intent of Liberal Arts education is what Steven Pinker called a “building a self” and I would add “for the technological and dynamically evolving 21st century”.
Learning new areas as career paths and interests evolve becomes harder. Traditional European liberal arts education was for the few and the elite. Is that still the goal today? People spend years and a small fortune or lifelong indebtedness (at least in the US) to obtain it and employability should be a criterion in addition to an education’s’ contribution to intelligent citizenry.
Wikipedia defines “the liberal artsas those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.” Today’s ideal list, not anchored in “classical antiquity” would be more expansive and more prioritized in my view.
Idealists and those who perceive liberal arts education today as meeting these goals are wrong not in its intent but in assessing how well it does this function (and that is an assertion/opinion). I agree that we need a more humanistic education but it is hard to agree or disagree with the current curriculum without defining what humanistic means. Does it really teach critical thinking, logic or the scientific process, things every citizen should know in order to participate in society? Does it allow for intelligent discourse or decision-making across a diverse set of beliefs, situations, preferences, and assumptions? And I believe we need to extend these goals to have education form the basis of lifelong learning broadly across all areas in our increasingly technological and fast-changing world.
While one may argue that historical liberal arts education included what I am arguing for, the context for this education has changed. In the 21st century, with airplanes and societal mixing, the internet and global information and misinformation, artificial intelligence and a technology driven and challenged planet, with many more risks both local and global, the old definition needs to adapted to the modern context. What we need for civic life today is far different than what’s needed when liberal arts education originated.
I do think whether it is for employability or dealing with nuanced and ever changing issues like race or artificial intelligence, national borders or international citizenry, or the nature of work and politics, the ability to understand new areas or repurpose oneself over time should be a critical part of any education, especially an education like liberal arts not geared towards a particular profession.
Should we teach our students what we already know, or prepare them to discover more? Memorizing the Gettysburg address is admirable but ultimately worthless; understanding history is interesting, even useful, but not as relevant as topics from the Economist, unless history is used as a logic tool which it can be used as. A student who can apply the scientific process or employ critical thinking skills to solve a big problem has the potential to change the world (or at minimum get a better-paying job). They can actually debate a topic like #blacklivesmatter, income inequality or climate change without being subject to “Trumpism” or emotion and biases-based distortions.
While it is undoubtedly important to understand how others feel, think, etc., I don’t believe the median student with a liberal arts education allows people to do that today. I do argue for kids who can understand other societies and people, have empathy and moral fiber. I have often wondered how best to teach empathy and understanding and (in my opinion) the happiness that ensues from being good human beings first rather than in winning or grabbing goods/wealth! I think the right education would allow each human being to arrive at the right conclusions given their circumstances, but would love to see an even better and more direct way to teach this important learning.
No wonder half the college graduates who fill jobs as some studies indicate, actually fill jobs that don’t need a college degree! Their degree is not relevant to adding value to an employer (though that is not the only purpose of a degree).
Further, even if an ideal curriculum can be stitched together, most liberal arts majors infrequently do it. If the goal is not professional education then it must be general education, which requires many more must-have requirements for me to consider a university degree respectable. Of course others are entitled to their own opinion, though the right answer is testable if one agrees that the goals of such an education are intelligent citizenry and/or employability.
For now, I am mostly leaving aside matters related to professional, vocational or technical curriculum. I’m also ignoring the not irrelevant and pragmatic issues of education affordability and the burden of student debt, which would argue for a more employment-enabling type of education. The failure I am referring to are two-fold: (1) the failure of curriculums to keep up with the changing needs of modern society and (2) liberal arts becoming the “easy curriculum” for those who shy away from the more demanding majors and prefer an easier, often (but not always) more socially-oriented college life. Ease, not value, or interest instead of value become key criteria in designing a curriculum for many students today. And for those of you who think this is not true, I am asserting based on my experience this is true for the majority of today’s students, but not for every liberal arts student.
Not every course is for every student but the criteria need to match the needs of the student and not their indulgences, taking interests and capability into account. “Pursue your passion” even if it increases the probability of getting you into unemployment or homelessness later is advice I have seldom agreed with (yes there are occasions this is warranted, especially for the top or the bottom 20% of students). More on passions later but I’m not saying passions are unimportant. What I am saying is with today’s implementation of a liberal arts curriculum, even at elite universities like Stanford and Yale, I find that many Liberal Arts majors (excluding roughly the top 20% of students) lack the ability to rigorously defend ideas, make compelling, persuasive arguments, or discourse logically.
Steven Pinker — in addition to refuting Gladwell — has a brilliant, clarion opinion on what education ought to be, writing in The New Republic, “It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.”
Though I agree, I am not sure this curriculum is more important than the ideas below. Based on the skills defined below any gaps in the above education can be filled in by students post-graduation.
So, what should non-professional elite education entail?
If we had enough time in school, I would suggest we do everything. Sadly that is not realistic, so we need a prioritized list of basic requirements because every subject we do cover excludes some other subject given the fixed time we have available. We must decide what is better taught during the limited teaching time we have, and what subjects are easier learnt during personal time or as post-education or graduate pursuits. If there are a hundred things we learn but can only study 32 (say 8 semesters x 4 courses each) which 32 are the most important? What is “base skill to learn other subjects from” versus stuff you can learn later? And what do you need to learn how to learn? I argue for many liberal arts subjects as good graduate programs but base skills are harder to learn on your own.
In the new Modern Thinking curriculum I propose, students would master:
1. The fundamental tools of learning and analysis, primarily critical thinking, the scientific process or methodology, and approaches to problem solving and diversity.
2. Knowledge of a few generally applicable topics and knowledge of the basics such as logic, mathematics, and statistics to judge and model conceptually almost anything one might run into over the next few decades.
3. The skills to “dig deep” into their areas of interest in order to understand how these tools can be applied to one domain and to be equipped to change domains every so often
4. Preparation for jobs in a competitive and evolving global economy or preparation for uncertainty about one’s future direction, interest, or areas where opportunities will exist.
5. Preparation to continuously evolve and stay current as informed and intelligent citizens of a democracy
Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, psychology, computer programming, and current (not historical) cultural evolution (Why rap? Why ISIS? Why suicide bombers? Why the Kardashians and Trump? Why environmentalism and what matters and what does not? What study to believe? What technology evolution might happen? What has important implications? And of course the question, are the answers to these questions expert opinions or have some other validity?).
Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way that physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory basic physics study along with the other sciences). And one needs the ability to think through many, if not most, of the social issues we face (which the softer liberal arts subjects ill-prepare one for in my view).
Imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist or Technology Review. And imagine a core curriculum that teaches the core skills to have the discussions above. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy.
Efficiency in undergraduate education matters given the wide array of subjects that need understanding, the inability to cover all of the subjects, and the constant change in what becomes more or less important or interesting to a person over time. It is for this reason I suggest that understanding the Economist on a weekly basis is important as it covers many diverse topics from politics to economics to culture, arts, science, technology, climate and global issues. A sufficiently diligent professor could in fact construct a more effective and efficient curriculum and hence the reference to the Economist was a short form for the concept of teaching broad understanding across a diversity of topics.
It would be essential to understand psychology because human behavior and human interaction are important and will continue to be so. I’d like people who are immune to the fallacies and agendas of the media, politicians, advertisers, and marketers because these professions have learned to hack the human brain’s biases (a good description of which are described in Dan Kannehman’s Thinking Fast & Slow and in Dan Gardner’s The Science of Fear). I’d like to teach people how to understand history but not to spend time getting the knowledge of history, which can be done after graduation.
I’d like people to read a New York Times article and understand what is an assumption, what’s an assertion by the writer, what are facts, and what are opinions, and maybe even find the biases and contradictions inherent in many articles. We are far beyond the days of the media simply reporting news, shown by the different versions of the “news” that liberal and conservative newspapers in the US report, all as different “truths” of the same event. Learning to parse this media is critical. I’d like people to understand what is statistically valid and what is not. What is a bias or the color of the writer’s point of view?
Students should learn the scientific method, and most importantly how to apply its mental model to the world. Building models in our head is critical to understanding and reasoning in my view. The scientific method requires that hypotheses be tested in controlled conditions; this can diminish the effects of randomness and, often, personal bias. This is very valuable in a world where too many students fall victim to confirmation biases (people observe what they expect to observe), appeal to new and surprising things, and narrative fallacies (once a narrative has been built, its individual elements are more accepted). There are many, many types of human biases defined in psychology that people fall victim to. Failure to understand mathematical models and statistics makes it substantially more difficult to understand critical questions in daily life, from social sciences to science and technology, political issues, health claims, economics and much more.
I’d also suggest tackling several general and currently relevant topic areas such as genetics, computer science, systems modeling, econometrics, linguistics modeling, traditional and behavioral economics, and genomics/bioinformatics (not an exhaustive list) which are quickly becoming critical issues for everyday decisions from personal medical decisions to understanding minimum pay, economics of taxes and inequality, immigration, or climate change. E.O. Wilson argues in his book “The Meaning of Human Existence” that it is hard to understand social behavior without understanding multi-level selection theory and the mathematical optimization that nature performed through years of evolutionary iterations. I am not arguing that every educated person should be able to build such a model but rather that they should be able to “think” such a model qualitatively.
Not only do these topics expose students to a lot of useful and current information, theories, and algorithms, they may in fact become platforms to teach the scientific process — a process that applies to (and is desperately needed for) logical discourse and social sciences as much as it applies to science. The scientific process critically needs to be applied to all the issues we discuss socially in order to have intelligent dialog. Even if the specific information becomes irrelevant within a decade (who knows where technology will head next; hugely important cultural phenomena and technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone didn’t exist before 2004, after all), it’s incredibly useful to understand the current frontiers of science and technology as building blocks for the future.
It’s not that history or Kafka are not important, but rather it is even more critical to understand if we change the assumptions, environmental conditions and rules that applied to historical events, would that alter the conclusions we draw from historical events today. Every time a student takes one subject they exclude the possibility of taking something else. I find it ironic that those who rely on “history repeating itself” often fail to understand the assumptions that might cause “this time” to be different. The experts we rely on for predictions have about the same accuracy as dart-throwing monkeys according to at least one very exhaustive study by Prof Phil Tetlock. So it is important to understand how to rely on “more likely to be right” experts, as defined in the book Superforecasters. We make a lot of judgments in everyday life and we should be prepared to make them intelligently.
Students can use this broad knowledge base to build mental models that will aid them in both further studies and vocations. Charlie Munger, the famous investor from Berkshire Hathaway, speaks about mental models and what he calls “elementary, worldly wisdom.” Munger believes a person can combine models from a wide range of disciplines (economics, mathematics, physics, biology, history, and psychology, among others) into something that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. I have to agree that this cross-disciplinary thinking is becoming an essential skill in today’s increasingly complex world.
“The models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department,” Munger explains. “That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines… These models generally fall into two categories: (1) ones that help us simulate time (and predict the future) and better understand how the world works (e.g. understanding a useful idea like autocatalysis), and (2) ones that help us better understand how our mental processes lead us astray (e.g., availability bias).” I would add that they provide the “common truth” in discussions where the well-educated discussants disagree.
After grasping the fundamental tools of learning and some broad topical exposure, it’s valuable to “dig deep” in one or two topic areas of interest. For this, I prefer some subject in science or engineering rather than literature or history (bear with me before you have an emotional reaction; I’ll explain in a minute). Obviously, it’s best if students are passionate about a specific topic, but passion is not critical as the passion may develop as they dig in (some students will have passions, but many won’t have any at all). The real value for digging deep is to learn how to dig in; it serves a person for the duration of their life: in school, work, and leisure. As Thomas Huxley said, “learn something about everything and everything about something,” though his saying that does not make it true. Too often, students don’t learn that a quote is not a fact.
If students choose options from traditional liberal-education subjects, they should be taught in the context of the critical tools mentioned above. If students want jobs, they should be taught skills where future jobs will exist. If we want them as intelligent citizens, we need to have them understand critical thinking, statistics, economics, how to interpret technology and science developments, and how global game theory applies to local interests. Traditional majors like international relations and political science are passé as base skills and can easily be acquired once a student has the basic tools of understanding. And they and many other traditional liberal arts subjects like history or art will be well served in graduate level work. I want to repeat that this is not to claim those “other subjects” are not valuable. I think they are very appropriate for graduate level study.
Back to history and literature for a moment — these are great to wrestle with once a student has learned to think critically. My contention is not that these subjects are unimportant, but rather that they are not basic or broad enough “tools for developing learning skills” as they were in the 1800s, because the set of skills needed today has changed. Furthermore, they are topics easily learned by someone trained in the basic disciplines of thinking and learning that I’ve defined above. This isn’t as easy the other way around. A scientist can more easily become a philosopher or writer than a writer or philosopher can become a scientist.
If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies. This can do a lot of damage.
Separating the aspirational claims by universities from the reality of today’s typical liberal arts education I tend to agree with the views of William Deresiewicz. He was an English professor at Yale from 1998–2008 and recently published the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” Deresiewicz writes on the current state of liberal arts, “At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a ‘nonaggression pact.’” Easy is often the reason students pick liberal arts subjects today.
Lots of things are important but what are the most important goals of an education?
To repeat, school is a place where every student should have the opportunity to become a potential participant in whatever they might want to tackle in the future, with an appropriate focus not only on what they want to pursue but also, pragmatically, what they will need to do to be productively employed or productive and thinking member of society. By embracing thinking and learning skills, and adding a dash of irreverence and confidence that comes from being able to tackle new arenas (creative writing as a vocational skill, not a liberal arts education, may have a role here, but Macbeth does not make my priority list; we can agree to disagree but if we discourse I want to understand the assumptions that cause us to disagree, something many students are unable to do), hopefully they will be lucky enough to help shape the next few decades or at least be intelligent voters in a democracy and productive participants in their jobs .
With the right critical lens, history, philosophy, and literature can help creativity and breadth by opening the mind to new perspectives and ideas. Still, learning about them is secondary to learning the tools of learning except possibly the right approach to philosophy education. Again I want to remind you that none of this applies to the top 20% of students who learn all these skills independent of their education or major. Passions like music or literature (leaving aside the top few students who clearly excel at music or literature) and its history may be best left to self-pursuit, while exploring the structure and theory of music or literature may be a way to teach the right kind of thinking about music and literature!
For some small subset of the student body, pursuing passions and developing skills in subjects such as music or sports can be valuable, and I am a fan of schools like Juilliard, but in my view this must be in addition to a required general education especially for the “other 80%”. It’s the lack of balance in general education which I am suggesting needs to be addressed (including for engineering, science and technology subjects’ students. Setting music and sports aside, with the critical thinking tools and exposure to the up-and-coming areas mentioned above, students should be positioned to discover their first passion and begin to understand themselves, or at the least be able to keep up with the changes to come, get (and maintain) productive jobs, and be intelligent citizens.
At the very least they should be able to evaluate how much confidence to place in a New York Times study of 11 patients on a new cancer treatment from Mexico or a health supplement from China and to assess the study’s statistical validity and whether the treatment’s economics make sense. And they should understand the relationship between taxes, spending, balanced budgets, and growth better than they understand 15th century English history in preparation for “civic life” to quote the original purpose of a liberal arts education. And if they are to study language or music, Dan Levitin’s book “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” should be first reading or its equivalent in linguistics. It can teach you about a human obsession but also teach you how to build a mathematical model in your head and why and how Indian music is different than Latin music. In fact, these should be required for all education, not just liberal arts education, along with the other books mentioned above.
The role of passion and emotion in life is best epitomized by a quote (unknown source) I once saw that says the most important things in life are best decided by the heart and not logic. For the rest we need logic and consistency. The “what” may be emotion and passion based but the “how” often (yes, sometimes the journey is the reward) needs a different approach that intelligent citizens should possess and education should teach.
As Atul Gawande, in an inspiring commencement address, says “we are battling for what it means to be citizens” and that is the original purpose of liberal arts. We are battling the ability to have debates and to have a basis to agree or disagree, that is logical and consistent, yet accommodates our emotions, feelings, our versions of humanity. I highly recommend the commencement speech by Atul Gawande: The Mistrust of Science as it is very relevant to modern thinking.
I am sure I have missed some points of view, so I look forward to starting a valuable dialogue on this important topic.
Additional Responses to Comments and Questions:
Sciences have always been at their core of Liberal Arts. The traditional liberal arts consists not just of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) but also the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. While those are medieval categories, there’s nothing inherent in “liberal arts” that would prevent one from updating them for contemporary reality. Ironically, you may even be seen as arguing for a return to liberal arts.
How many liberal arts graduates today are proficient in the sciences, or can argue cogently or understand philosophy or logic, let alone modern requirements for civic life like economics, technology literacy etc? I agree that there here is nothing inherent in its definition but practically there is a different reality. And beyond subjects taught the goal of liberal arts was to prepare for civic life. Sad that this goal is not being met. I am arguing for non-professional degrees to return to a rigorous description of the goals of liberal arts (as opposed to the old unevolved version of liberal arts) and away from what it has become today. It is the ability to learn new things that a non-professional curriculum should teach that I call modern thinking. If you move to working for an NGO after hedge fund trading the same education should help you learn this faster and understand the new area’s issues and critically analyze them! There is much inefficiency among the best intentioned because of this inability to critically think comprehensively about new areas.
Let us not forget that the “liberal arts” are essentially what helps students develop empathy and multifaceted understandings of how others feel, think, love, know, and live. This is especially important now because the influence of religion is weakening.
I agree on the importance of understanding how others feel, think, etc … and explicitly discuss that with regards to understanding “Black Lives Matter” and the role of emotion. But I don’t believe the median liberal arts education allows people to do that today. I do argue for kids who can understand other societies and people, have empathy and moral fiber. I have often wondered how best to teach empathy and understanding and (in my opinion) the happiness that ensues from being good human beings first rather than in winning or grabbing goods/wealth! I think the right education would allow each human being to arrive at the right conclusions given their circumstances, but would love to see an even better and more direct way to teach this important learning. I do think setting goals should derive from empathy in many cases but more often than not how to acheive them requires rigorous , unemphathetic, brutal cost benefit thinking.
How did you measure the level of importance of Jane Austen and Shakespeare?
I don’t measure the importance of Shakespeare but argue if there are a hundred things we learn and only can study 32 (say 8 semesters x 4 courses each) which 32 are the most important? What is “base skill to learn other subjects from” versus stuff you can learn later? And what do you need to learn how to learn? I argue for many liberal arts subjects as good graduate programs, but argue base skills are harder to learn on your own.
As a high school senior who’s applying to small liberal arts schools, what should I keep in mind as I choose what college to attend and what path to pursue once I’m on campus?
Don’t go for the easy classes. Go for subjects that teach you to think. This can be done at a liberal arts college but isn’t done by many. Go for diversity in the subjects you take and more than anything go for rigor instead of the easy subjects.