Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: What is the value of liberal education?

by Christopher Wilkinson

While West Virginia University was in the throes of the fiscal crisis resulting in the elimination of faculty, staff and disciplines, there were repeated assurances that whatever change took place, one could still obtain a liberal education.

But why care about a liberal education? Though its history in higher education is long, to many, I believe, its purposes are unclear, even suspect.

Of late, there are those who question the value of a liberal education in the mistaken belief that it has political overtones. Supposedly, in the course of their liberal educations, students are being indoctrinated by their faculty into adopting liberal (as opposed to conservative) political values. Not true.

That is not what “liberal” means when attached to “education,” nor does such an education intend to change students’ politics.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines it as an education “befitting of a [person] of free birth.” Who is that? Among others, any American wishing to attend college. This meaning of liberal finds its origins in the Latin word “liber,” meaning “free.”

 A liberal education educates students to become productive citizens, regardless of their politics.

 What constitutes a liberal education?

 Traditionally, all knowledge has been divided into four categories: the natural and physical sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. Each category focuses on a different domain, and while they can abut one another, there is no duplication.

 The sciences concern what one scholar referred to as the “material world.” Better, I think, to say “material universe.” From what electron microscopes reveal about the components of individual cells, including the genes found within them, to the farthest reaches of the universe, a view of which has been greatly enlarged thanks to the James Webb Telescope, one or another of the sciences seeks to explain some portion of that domain.

The social sciences concern themselves with how groups of people interact with one another and how individuals interact with groups. Anthropology, sociology, psychology and political science (government) are four representative social scientific disciplines.

The humanities are devoted to the study of human culture. At its core, humanistic research is grounded in history, including public history, social history, religious history, literary history and the histories of art, music, theater and dance. Also to be included is the study of world languages and literature.

 Finally, the arts. What is their approach to the universe? They are the creations by individuals whose personal values and engagement with the world at large are reflected in their paintings, sculptures, symphonies, songs, choreography, plays, poetry and novels, among other media. Their creative processes may be compared to (not confused with) the research processes of natural scientists, social scientists and humanists.

 A liberal education enables students to develop a fundamental understanding of all these approaches to knowledge in order to acquire the skills to deal with whatever subject or vocation calls to them. Thus, it provides an opportunity for students to discover their true interests and, thus, their vocations.

It introduces thought processes associated with each of these broad categories of knowledge and critical thinking skills, enabling one to evaluate the validity of a theory or a claim and the quality of the supporting evidence.

It ensures students develop the skills to read critically, not simply to comprehend what a text is saying, but to assess the nature and quality of both its evidence and the argument leading to its conclusions.

It promotes the ability to communicate in speech and in writing what students have learned concerning a subject within any of these categories of knowledge and provides them with the skills needed to teach themselves about new subjects.

Given these goals and the subjects that provide the setting in which to attain them, what is the value of a liberal education? It is not to prepare one for a specific job (which could become obsolete in a few years). Rather, it prepares one to pursue any one of a number of career paths.

In sum, it is fair to say a liberal education trains you for nothing but prepares you for everything.

Christopher Wilkinson is professor emeritus of Music History at West Virginia University.