A modern “liberal arts” education largely reflects the Ancient Greek ideal of cultivating the knowledge necessary to be free in the society in which we live today – especially when one includes economic freedom. This “freedom,” however, often comes at a hefty price – though it does not require such an expense. A modern “liberal arts” education must be view both in the context of economic and intellectual freedom. ImageWhile both are important, the economic component has become more prominently emphasized in recent years. The question of how much return on one’s educational investment one receives from a liberal arts education has become central to college’s missions. As applicants consider which college they wish to attend, they often evaluate the long-term financial benefit of the education in terms of future job prospects and college tuition rather than simply what they might learn there (vs. another college). This evaluation method reflects the capitalistic environment in which we live and is therefore useful in determining the financial freedom such an education will allow in the future. That, however, is not the only goal of a liberal arts college. The other primary purpose is to cultivate our nations future leaders and thinkers. Once financial freedom (from wage-slavery and burdensome debt) is achieved, a liberal arts education (whether through a collegiate institution or self-cultivated) is necessary in order to take part in shaping the future of our Republic. Whether through a business venture or a popular book or an intelligent conversation about the Presidential candidates, a well-rounded liberal arts education is necessary to be truly free from the financial and social chains our society has created.

         At the same time, a modern “liberal arts” education differs from the Ancient Greek ideal in a number of important ways. First, unlike the Ancient Greek ideal, where all “free peoples” learned the basics of the liberal arts in order to participate in civic life, our liberal arts system is not all created equal. Graduates of elite collegiate institutions are systematically exposed to and picked for elite jobs. Naturally, these elite institutions cost more – requiring one to either be wealthier (in order to pay) or take-on additional financial debt, making it harder to achieve true financial freedom. Attending an elite institution, however, is not necessary in order to receive a good liberal arts education. Similar to the Ancient Greek liberal arts, interested young adults can find liberal arts educations that prepare them for active engagement with our intellectual universe without burdensome debts.

         The question then becomes whether technical schools, focusing narrowly on a single field, can provide an education that ensures one will be “free” both intellectually and financially after graduation. In general, I would argue that such technical schools (even full Bachelor programs) do not fully prepare one for an intellectually free life – even as they, perhaps more readily, provide graduates with financial freedom. It is my view that such educational institutions effectively train their students to continue the work of those before them. Given the high level of academic achievement necessary in order to attend these places, I am not arguing that the students are not as intelligent – in fact they may often be smarter – but rather that they are more likely to lack certain fundamental knowledge necessary to be “free” of the capitalistic system in which we live. Students working towards a degree in a highly specialized field, with limited or no liberal arts component to their degree, are simply a more financially “free” part of the capitalist system that dominates the lives of the majority of “the people.” Given the higher pay of these professions, however, one can argue that it is the most secure path to financial freedom. I agree. But to what extent is financial freedom more important than true intellectual freedom? What amount of money accounts for “doing a job” rather than experiencing the wonders of life? And finally, to what extent does our Government, Business and Societal Capitalism squander our most precious resources – our minds?


“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

7 responses »

  1. eric says:

    “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.”

    -A quote

  2. Matt says:

    Well thanks for crapping all over my entire engineering education…;)

    I completely agree, while education is measured more by ROI’s than it is by intellectual value, we will continue to move down the technical track. But just believe technology is more prevalent doesn’t mean we need to become more technical, per se. I know private defense contractor who made a gas tank that seals itself before it explodes (they shot a 55 gallon drum full of gasoline with a .50 calibre machinegun and it didn’t explode…this is like science fiction stuff); obviously highly technical. He makes all his employees complete a reading list every year with major works of literature, because he got so sick of getting computer monkeys and robotic engineers who can’t do anything beyond their appointed tasks that he demanded they have the ability to think past their job. And this is becoming more and more prevalent; top required skills even in engineering jobs usually involve people skills and critical thinking. So while the pendulum is starting to swing back, I agree it is critical that we learn how to think again, or else we are doomed.

    • eric says:

      You’re quite welcome. Luckily Bucknell’s education integrates at least some level of liberal arts education into its Engineering… And I’d like to additionally stress that a liberal arts education doesn’t have to come in the form of a BA or BS degree. You are obviously well-read and intellectually curious. I’d argue that its the more creative engineers that can “think different” that end up changing the world. i.e. Steve Jobs (see Apple posts and Paper 1). And he dropped out of college…

  3. wesmw says:

    I completely agree that the economic component of education has definitely become the dominant factor over the last few decades. With that said, people should realize that individuals in the real world often find themselves in various job positions (which they enjoy) in which they had no education on in college. However, the well-rounded tools that a liberal arts education provides helps people succeed in various fields.

  4. Jordi says:

    I would love to see how you think more technical/vocational educational organizations or degree programs could bring more of the intellectual freedom one gains fro LArts into their curriculum.

    Imagining the plumber who reads Shakespeare, the beautician pondering gravity, and the medical technician pondering on Buddhism is a lovely vision, an Uncle Walt (Whitman) vision of the great surging diversity of noble, ordinary folk unshackled from presumptions about who deserves the privileges of learning and knowledge.

    Still, the economics of higher education seem to place such a vision out of reach; the coarsesness of popular culture seems to dull the mind; the incessant beat of more and more specialization drown out the melody of the Jeffersonian educated citizenry.

  5. eric says:

    I think all education is great. And with the dawn of the information age upon us I can only imagine what is to be possible. The liberal arts will be available to all. Already, an iPad buys you well over $500 worth of classic titles and gives you a connection to knowledge once only available to an elite few, in any field.

    We just need people to use their sociological imagination/potential to strive for more than an hourly wage. To all those you go to work and learn to love their job, Jim Morison’s quote speaks. Happy in the system. Not that that is any worse or better than changing the status quo. Simply that I hope people learn to look to cultivate themselves so that all may enjoy the “Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or read Dr. Kaku’s “Physics of the Impossible.” And finally, that as more people engage with their sociological and intellectual imaginations, our culture shifts towards a reality of collective creativity.

    Finally, I propose that we not wait for others to create a system more geared towards freedom, but that we all pursue a course of freedom ourselves and encourage our social and educational institutions to follow suit. Technology will soon replace the necessity to go to school to learn facts. Now, school and higher education will need to teach its students how to think, rather than what to think.

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