What Is the Value of a Liberal Arts Education?

Reflections on the Current Role of the Liberal Arts in Higher Education


By Jonathan Worley, Lecturer in Written Communications

In 2002, St Mary’s University College Belfast, a college of Queen’s University, proudly graduated its first cohort of students on its newly established Liberal Arts Degree, the first degree of its kind in the UK. It drew upon ideas from American liberal arts colleges and was based upon visits by St Mary’s staff to several of these institutions followed by the establishment of more permanent relationships. (The term “college” in America is a roughly equivalent term to “university” in the UK.) Liberal arts colleges are popular and ubiquitous in the United States; I know because as a young American, I chose to be educated at one.

In spite of their prevalence and popularity, liberal arts colleges have received more than their fair share of criticism, having been regarded by some as impractical, a luxury and not leading directly to a particular career and a high salary. The terms of such criticism are often based upon a conservative, neoliberal economic model, which a priori contains readily identifiable weaknesses. Nussbaum points out many of these: “The goal of a nation, says this model, should be economic growth. Never mind about distribution and social equality, never mind about the preconditions of stable democracy, never mind about the quality of race and gender relations, never mind about the improvement of other aspects of a human beings’ quality of life that are not well linked to economic growth” (Nussbaum, 2016, p. 14). Neoliberalism and the liberal arts, in spite of sharing the same root word “liberal”, are virtual opposites. What neoliberalism leaves out, the liberal arts regard as central. What do the liberal arts, in particular, value?

Andrew Delbanco, an American scholar and lecturer at Columbia University in New York has encapsulated the arguments for the liberal arts in a recent book (2012). First, he considers economic arguments. After surveying the American scene, he concludes that liberal arts students obtain good and rewarding jobs, although their route to an ideal job is usually not a direct one. He further concludes that these students tend to find jobs in areas in which they have a passionate interest. While these students may not become millionaires, he continues, they appear to generate enough income to meet their needs. Secondly, he concludes that the Obama administration policy was right: without broadly educated students, America will fall behind other countries both educationally and economically. There is something about the creativity and independence that come with a liberal arts degree that is essential to American vitality, he argues. This economic argument has gained a significant number of adherents in the UK and Europe and, to a lesser extent, in China where the government has been concerned about a lack of innovation. (St Mary’s has a student exchange with such a Chinese liberal arts programme.)

Delbanco’s second argument has its basis in ideas foundational to American democracy. To have a legitimate, viable democracy, the American Founding Fathers believed the electorate must have a sound education. Public education in America has been based upon this ideal of  an educated and enlightened citizenry. As reinforcement of the importance of this value, Delbanco offers the following words of early twentieth-century advice from an Oxford professor to his students: “Nothing that you learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you—save only this—that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot” (Smith, A., 1914, quoted in Delbanco, 2010, p. 19). In an era when national leaders on both sides of the Atlantic appear to be talking “rot”, the importance of a broadly educated citizenry is evident.

The American democratic ideal of education is often infused with a strain of liberalism that believes individuals should be limited only by their talents and depicts ideal citizens as “free from the tyranny of circumstance; with healthy bodies and alert and trained minds: enjoying a raw equality of opportunity to make the most and best of their powers for their own advantage and that of the community” (The Liberal Way, 1914, quoted in  Eccleshall, R., 2014, p. 18). Education is therefore also the means for a citizen to achieve within a democratic society. Abraham Lincoln is frequently cited as a quintessential example: the log-cabin boy who rose to become a successful lawyer and then President of the United States through qualities of character, hard work and education. Thus, a liberal education in America has been perceived as the bedrock for a sound democracy and for the full development of human potential.

Delbanco’s third and final argument is the one that conservative ideologues most frequently critique. After giving a lecture at Columbia on the importance of a liberal education to citizenship, Delbanco received this comment from one of his students, who told him that his lecture had missed the point: “Columbia taught me how to enjoy life”, he said (p. 32). A narrowly constructed neoliberal or conservative economic argument might view this kind of “enjoyment” as irrelevant: neoliberalism tends to perceive enjoyment as the product of wealth, exclusively. Delbanco, however, further elaborates on this  student’s point: a liberal education creates the capacity, for example, to enjoy reading “demanding works of literature and to grasp fundamental political ideas” but also to enjoy “colour and form, melody and harmony” (p. 32). By using the terms colour, form, melody and harmony, Delbanco is mounting a deliberate assault on utilitarian values. He refers not merely to the appreciation of cultural artefacts—such as works of art, literature or music, although he values these—but to the alternative ways in which individuals create and acquire knowledge and understanding, search for meaning and express their aspirations. A liberal arts education embraces this kind of range in human experience. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, Hamlet tells his friend (Shakespeare, 1625, Hamlet, 1.5.167-8). The liberal arts do not discard the additional “things in heaven and earth”. As a consequence, a liberal arts education has the ability to inspire “the invaluable experiences of a fulfilled life” (Delbanco, p. 32).

Returning to my own life (fulfilled or otherwise), I began my liberal arts education with a study of the English literature from Beowulf  to Virgina Woolf and with the study of the history of Western civilisation, as well as the study of calculus, biblical literature, advanced French and political science. In my spare time, I joined the chess club, wrote for the college newspaper, sang in the college choir and joined a Christian fellowship group. If anyone had asked me why had I wanted engage in all this activity—and if I could have articulated my thinking at the time—I might have said it was because it was interesting, it rewarded hard work, and it felt meaningful and purposeful. It was also exhilarating to be surrounded by people excited by learning and making use of it. I see the same kind of enthusiasm in many of today’s St Mary’s students. When, for example,  liberal arts students recommend books to me or establish a European Studies Forum, they are tapping into that enthusiasm.

In spite of all this (apparently) widespread enthusiasm, in my years as a student, late at night, I would occasionally worry (as I am sure my students do) about the ability to support myself after college— a scary thought! Yet counterbalanced against that fear was engagement with new learning and new people. In experiencing this, I simply had to believe that all this new knowledge, all this inquiry, all these new skills and new insights were leading me in a proper direction.

A liberal arts education appears to have been at least partly responsible for placing me at the doorstep of St Mary’s, applying for a position as a lecturer in written communications. It wasn’t my skills as a teacher of academic writing, alone, however—a direct product of my liberal arts education—that secured the position. It was also the kind of person that I had become as a consequence of a liberal arts education. That education gave me a seemingly eternal interest in learning. It encouraged my embryonic longing for a Christian identity and developed my sense of social responsibility. It helped me to to identify and to aspire to a become a particular sort of person. It added an element of generosity and kindness to my sense of  humour. It led me to want to take on more, and more challenging, kinds of work, to try harder to understand the world and to more fully appreciate the many different ways humans express themselves. I discovered just how much I enjoyed interesting and useful conversations. When I appeared on the St Mary’s doorstep, these aspects of my character walked in the door with me.

Girl's 1949 graduation
BEd Class of 1948 (52 Years Before First Liberal Arts Graduation)

In an age driven by conservative economics and neoliberal ideology, where STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects become so privileged that the humanities (and even the study of medicine) have been devalued by our national politicians, the importance of the liberal arts becomes more clear: humans are ultimately not meant to be cogs in an economic and technological machine where the exclusive goal is the creation of wealth and ease. Wealth does not efface the need for meaning and identity, nor can it address the full range of crucial problems threatening our world today. Humans have a greater need for authentic learning, meaning, purpose and significant action than they do  for “sustainability”, “wealth” or “efficiency”.  At St Mary’s, when students study the liberal arts, they are being encouraged to pursue a serious and sustained engagement with the world. Spellmeyer (a twenty-first century defender of the humanities) asserts it is to “this fragile, fearful world that we must turn with all our energy, intelligence and care” (2003, p. 247).

  • Delbanco, A. (2012) College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton: Princeton UP.
  • Dirkson, J., Kontowski, D., Kretz, D. (eds.) (2017) What Is Liberal Education and What Could It Be? Lüneburg, Germany: Liberal Education Student Conference.
  • Eccleshaw, R. (2014) Political Ideologies: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
  • Nussbaum, M. (2016) Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP.
  • Spellmeyer, K. (2003) Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-First Century. Syracuse: SUNY UP.

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