It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.

You Are What You Read

Over longer periods of time we come to subconsciously take on the qualities and attitudes of the information we consume.

It pays, therefore, to give some thought to the incentives facing the producers of that information.

News sources funded by advertising face very different incentives to those that directly charge their consumers. The former are incentivised to maximise clicks, as their bottom lines come directly from what advertisers pay per CPM—the cost per thousand impressions of an advert. More thousands of views, more dollars.

We know what that incentivises. Rumourmongering, since making up something fantastical is sure to drive traffic. Listicles, since of course everyone does want to know 29 ways to get cheap airfares that airlines don’t want you to know about. And, more generally, shoddy content, since incisive writing wins only Pulitzers rather than page views.

By paying for news, you are aligning your interests with those of the news source. You want quality journalism that cares about the world and cares about what you consume. The news organisation only makes a profit by providing that.

If you are one of those people who complain about the quality of journalism but consume it for free online, you are part of the problem. Your actions drive producers’ decisions about what to produce—yes, even that click on your trackpad.


Note: The print news business is capital intensive (printing presses, delivery vans etc) so it is not a competitive market. It doesn’t therefore fully fit what I’m describing above—you can pay for your daily newspaper and still get shoddy writing.