On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

The Liberal Arts in Global Context

Liberal education today is in some quarters seen as being in decline; headlines almost daily question its value and predict its demise. It is increasingly passed over in favour of pre-professional or vocational degrees, and the rise of the glamorous Silicon Valley technology industry is encouraging undergraduates to specialise earlier. This, alongside the reality that the idea of the liberal arts college has hardly existed outside of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one could be forgiven for assuming liberal education’s days are numbered.

And yet, simultaneously, liberal education is expanding globally. Yale-NUS College is perhaps the flagship of this expansion, but across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, liberal arts programs and colleges are increasing in number. Liberal education is seen as an antidote to overly rigid career and workforce structures, and a way of claiming back personality and individual meaning in cultures that demand conformity. In these circles, liberal education is to experience not decline but a surge in both interest and enrolment.

These views cannot both be right. But how should we understand liberal education amidst the two narratives? What has liberal education been, what is it today, and what should we expect it to be in future? Can we expect it to expand globally, or will such an expansion be to lose the essence of the liberal arts? How should we think about Yale-NUS College in terms of these larger trends in liberal education, and what lessons can we draw for the further expansion of liberal education into other countries and contexts? And perhaps above all, how will these different facets of liberal education affect its original political purpose of educating informed, actively engaged and critical citizens?

I’m to attempt to answer some of these questions over the next year as part of my senior thesis project at Yale-NUS. For a while I deliberated over the topic that I should focus on for the next year; and thought there were many others, and one in particular which spoke to a question I had around how small states function in the world, these questions on the liberal arts spoke much more meaningfully to my education as a whole and an interest that I’ve never particularly done anything to cultivate.

My own experience with the liberal arts has been struggling to understand what the term even meant, coming from a country where there is no such educational tradition. But I now believe liberal education is a component of personal growth not to be passed up; I feel I understand the opportunity a liberal education offers on a deeper level, and yet do not know how to make sense of this in terms of the liberal arts tradition globally. And, especially pertinent to a New Zealander studying at a liberal arts college in Singapore, I wonder whether the liberal education I’ve received is a result of studying at an American-styled institution with predominantly American professors. Is the idea unique to America today? Can it ever truly be spread globally? Or can it only spread by maintaining the people and structures present at liberal arts colleges in the United States?

I anticipate writing with increasing frequency on the liberal arts here on this blog. My blog has always been a space to hone my own thinking on topics, and to hear from readers about what books I should be reading next or who I should be talking to. So please, if you do have thoughts, get in touch.

The Commodification of Learning

Note: I wrote this article in late 2012, in one of my final few months of high school. I originally published it on Medium, where it was widely shared. What I was getting at, really, was the value of the liberal arts, though I don’t think I fully comprehended the term back then.

You can learn a huge amount by reading a novel, examining an artwork, or watching a movie. You can usually learn a lot more by doing one of those things than you can by reading a school textbook that spoon-feeds you information.

But every day, I see people choose to read a textbook they’ve already read a dozen times over a new novel, because they can see an immediate reward for reading that book. Namely, that reward is better grades.

But getting better grades doesn’t mean you’ve learned more. Getting a better grade on a topic usually shows that you’ve trained your brain to regurgitate information on a given topic so well that your brain isn’t even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t learning beyond the point that you understood the concepts – from there, it was simple memorisation.

In other words, people choose to learn less, simply because there is a more obvious reward that society offers by reading something less insightful that they already understand to a certain extent.

I think the rewards should be given to the people who choose to broaden their minds by learning about a larger range of topics, rather than those people who devote themselves to being able to recite their textbooks.

Yet no one gets credit for reading a book that is unrelated to school. It doesn’t go on their report, and doesn’t contribute to grades. In the mental equation that all students carry out, the most obvious payout comes from continuing to read the already-familiar textbook over a new book on an entirely new subject.

This is the commodification of learning. Learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes, in the form of good grades that (eventually) are said to lead to a better job. Yet not all learning is assigned an economic value – only very specific, measurable, tangible learning that is done in a classroom is assigned this value in the form of grades.

The result of this commodification is that the incentives facing students are wrong. The incentives should be geared toward encouraging learning and understanding of a range of topics, not the recital of textbooks and basic knowledge that all high school students have. The incentives brought about by this commodification of learning lead to homogenous thinking and lack of creativity – undesirable traits in the world today.

To fix this problem, we need to either:

– Commodify the learning of everything.

or

– Ensure everyone realises that learning, in its true form, is an uncommodifiable concept.

Commodifying the learning of everything would involve giving individuals credit for the books they read, the topics they learn about, the subjects they speak on, and the artworks they create. In some ways, it’s fixing a problem by throwing more of the problem at it. But that might just work.

If everyone were to realise that learning cannot be truly commodified, then greater consideration could be given to individuals who exhibit learning beyond their textbooks. This attaches intrinsically recognisable value to all learning, without making that value economic, and thereby commodifying learning.

I don’t know which solution is better. But what I do know is that education, where it’s currently headed, shows no signs of creating broad-minded, creative individuals. And that seems a mighty big failure of twenty-first century education.

The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future

There are two separate and entirely incompatible strands of thought about liberal education passing through public discourse at present.

The first argues that liberal education is a solution to increasing mechanisation of the work force, an antidote for the feeling of alienation and a loss of meaning, and the way to produce broad-minded, deep-hearted leaders. As Asia invests in the liberal arts, and as a new public narrative along these lines becomes more common in the United States, the liberal arts appear on the one hand to be experiencing a resurgence.

The second narrative argues that the liberal arts, and more specifically the humanities that make up their centrepiece, are worthless in a world where value is created digitally. This view is summarised succinctly by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who writes in one of his polemics that “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Instead, science and technology are the paths to progressing humanity and improving the world.

The inability of these two strands of thought to connect or engage with one another points to the central issue: they each have incompatible visions of the future.

One imagines a world where morals, character, public service and living well are the purpose of education. The other imagines a world where humanity is advanced by technology, and education must focus on preparing the minds necessary for this advancement.

Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually. And by acknowledging that those who disagree with us about the value of liberal education do so not out of ignorance but from a different vision of a noble future, perhaps for the first time these narratives may engage with one another.