In Defense of Liberal Arts Education, with Help from Our Founding Fathers

"Those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and…they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance."

In addition to being a spectacularly well-loved professor of theater, my good friend and dear colleague, Rick Davis, also blogs about the liberal arts for the American Association of Colleges and Universities. He cited the above quotation by Thomas Jefferson in a recent post, and it reminded me of our many conversations regarding the virtue -- and obligation -- of a rigorous liberal arts education. Having spent the past decade in Virginia, for me, quoting Thomas Jefferson can become an occupational hazard. The quotation, however, seems particularly relevant as I begin a new position at Brandeis University, one of the most competitive institutions in the nation.

Unfortunately, in a sweeping and potentially inaccurate generalization, our society has not recently been over-supportive of the liberal arts. Apart from a visceral fear of the term "liberal," the public and, by extension, many parents and students, appear largely focused on careers and income.

I am not, of course, disputing the importance of either income or career success, and I wish tremendous helpings of both for all of you. I find it confounding, confusing and altogether discombobulating, however, when families openly accept a false dichotomy between these values and a liberal arts education.

The reality is that most employers -- certainly those that hire in the most lucrative, engaging and expanding fields -- tend to look less at preparation for specific vocational tasks and seek more to hire individuals who demonstrate mastery of vital skills: communication, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and synthesis, just to name a few. Conveniently, these are, to one degree or another, the results of a great liberal arts education.

SHAMELESS PLUG: Brandeis is one of the rare institutions that offers the depth and breadth of a research university in a true liberal arts college setting, so you should probably check it out.

I wrote recently of how misleading it can be for students to get overly concerned about a particular major. It is just as important for success to place as much emphasis on courses outside your major, especially those that challenge you.

Having now moved to New England, it seems only right that I shift to quoting a more local founding father, John Adams: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.... Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.... Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people."

College is about more than just your major, and education is about more than just getting prepared for a starting level position. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to have a really good time.

Be seeing you.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Brandeis student paper, The Justice.

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