Liberal Arts: Who Needs ‘Em?
A couple of years ago, on an NPR call-in program about the relationship between climate change, diminishing food, water and energy supplies, and the increasing world population, the host, who was joined by a panel of distinguished scientists and ethicists, received a call from a man claiming to represent a group whose sole mission was to oppose any attempt at population control. The gist of his argument? Have all the kids you can; use all the resources you want; don’t worry, be happy: Technology will solve our problems!
Admittedly, the caller came across as, well, to put it delicately, a whack-job. It might seem easy to dismiss, as the panelists soundly did, such rosy-hued if not delusional faith in Science as the ultimate fixer. However, most school and university curricula, with their emphasis on fostering math, engineering and other technical expertise, and the attendant neglect of the arts and humanities, suggest that in fact creating a creating an Uber-class of narrowly-focused experts has become the primary goal of education.
At the TED2009 Conference Bennington College President Elizabeth Coleman issued a rousing call for academicians, parents and students to radically re-imagine the liberal arts: not as a pleasant diversion with no real practical application but as the profoundly meaningful context for civic engagement that should lie at the very heart of learning. In doing so, she redefines what it means to be a citizen.
Coleman would have us reinvent the role of the arts and humanities in education as an organizing principle of connectedness, a broadening of vision rather than a restrictive focus on knowing little about much but a lot about something. History then would truly inform the present and people would see themselves — their work, life choices and actions — as inextricably linked to larger issues and destinies.
This will be no simple task. We, the populace, have become accustomed to the easy fix: to giving credence to broadcast “journalists” who pander to fear and one-dimensional (if comfortable) interpretations of events and ideas, to equating high test scores with real learning, to leaving the hard tasks of healing the ills of the planet — climate change, social injustice, poverty — to others. To invigorate the liberal arts as central to a college education will require a redefinition of success from material advancement to spiritual transformation — in other words, a big, honkin’ paradigm shift.
Bennington, The Union Insitute and University (where I teach), Goddard, Bard and many others have historically promoted this viewpoint and are currently meeting the challenges of reinterpreting the liberal arts for the twenty-first century. Others, from universities to public schools, must follow if we are to survive our own trajectory.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” As both national and global citizens, we face overwhelming challenges, from global warming to the use of force to tackling hunger and disease. Neither morally nor practically can we abnegate those burdens to others, however ‘expert’ they might seem. A knowledgeable, engaged citizenry is the only currency by which a democracy can thrive.
So, who needs the liberal arts? The short answer is, we do. The fate of our country, and the very existence of the planet, might depend upon it.