The Danger of a Liberal Arts Education

The importance of “becoming.”
By Ryan McIlhenny

The number of essays extolling the importance of a liberal arts education has grown over the last few years. Writers argue that the skills acquired through such an education cultivate within students an ability to provide innovative solutions to challenges in the workplace. These well-trained individuals think outside the textbook, so to speak, and beyond the narrow confines of a specific major. Because of such critical-thinking skills, liberal arts graduates are highly valuable—especially to those in the corporate world. Yet there is something that most of these laudatory pieces overlook: the threat that such an education poses to established power, including corporate power. The liberal arts provide students the theoretical and practical tools needed to contribute to making the world a better place, which often begins by uncovering and confronting abuses of power. For this reason, these writers may need to rethink what exactly they value so highly.

Skills-oriented learning of the type provided by a liberal education has the potential to undermine one of the promises made by pie-in-the-sky proponents of the liberal arts: to create a generation of leaders. Learning how to become a stand-alone world changer is a common trope in the marketing campaigns of consumer-driven institutions. While truth is rarely the objective of such manipulative advertising, assume for a moment that schools are in fact able to deliver on their promise, to churn out a plethora of leaders. These marketing claims immediately face a twofold problem. First, the claims collapse under the weight of their own contradiction. Packing the market with leaders would create a leadership deficit. By definition, leaders form an elite group. Second, there is often very little explication, during the period between a student’s matriculation and graduation, of what constitutes a leader.

Defining Leadership

A leader, we might say, is someone who rallies and organizes others for the end goal of doing what’s right, to initiate direct action for the well-being of society. But those in power, including leaders, are not always interested in doing what is right. The sad reality is that many, particularly those under the influence of corporate power, rarely support leaders who seek the betterment of the world, since it can threaten their power. Would those at the top, for instance, really celebrate a liberal arts student who creatively exposes the unethical activities of a multinational corporation? Would a young student at a college or university run by corporate-minded administrators be considered a leader for trying to get at the truth—for example, through activism or articles in the campus newspaper criticizing the administration—despite the efforts of management to shut such a person up? Would they heed the critical and creative insights of an individual who confronts systems of oppression? The meaning of leadership today is quite restricted. It means, all too often, abiding by the dictates of the corporate world.   

Many institutions have forgotten the telos of a liberal arts education: to train students not how to be but how to become. The word liberal in liberal arts comes from liber, meaning “free” or “to be free.” What has been lost in education is the belief that one must work to acquire that freedom. Too many educators simply hand students good grades or are pressured to do so by students themselves or dictatorial administrators. Contemporary educators face the overwhelming—and seemingly unstoppable—tidal wave of grade inflation. In many institutions, students receive As with minimal effort (sometimes from instructors who expend little effort). Freedom, however, must be worked for and, when achieved, maintained. The artes in liberal arts refer to the skills a student needs to reach that freedom. The question that one may ask is “What do we mean by freedom?” It is a freedom that is both from and to—freedom from our individual ignorance and from systems of power that benefit from ignorance as well as the freedom to pursue truth. Education makes powerful agents—agents dedicated to the preservation of truth.

But, again, those in power are not always interested in preserving truth. At a college where I once worked and had helped to build, the entire board and administration (that is, the formal leadership of the school) were unwilling to consider the constructive observations made by representatives of the student body at an official board meeting in the fall of 2016, a year of tremendous financial and social strain. The students respectfully articulated their concerns related to the leadership’s implementation of austerity measures that inequitably targeted the faculty, lack of overall honesty regarding the state of the college, and unwillingness to address the culture of intimidation created by the new president. Instead of responding to the issues brought by the students, board members and administrators pointed out what they believed were the defaults in the character of these students, infantilizing them by saying that they were simply too young to understand the intricacies of higher education. (Of course, the board, which included members who never attended college, did not have enough logical sense to recognize the fallacious ad hominem form of their own argument; the students did, however.) They failed to recognize that these students had become exactly what the school had been advertising: well-rounded citizens who could read critically and communicate effectively—self-reliant young adults who took the lead. Sadly, the students did not fall into the category of leaders as narrowly conceived by those at the top. And the inaction of such dictators extended beyond silencing dissent to removing it, which included finding the most insidious ways to target the few courageous professors who, like their students, sought to expose the corruption within the institution.   

 In my lower-division US History course, students read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, the story of Douglass’s life as a slave and his successful journey to freedom. The key skill utilized by Douglass to attain his freedom was learning how to read—a dangerous skill in antebellum America. In many southern states at the time, teaching a slave how to read was banned by law. Why? Slave owners knew exactly the answer to that question. Literacy, Douglass’s owner said, “would forever unfit [Douglass] to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Literacy would threaten the power that whites held over blacks. Douglass understood that the important skills of reading and writing could serve as “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Literacy gave Douglas the ability not simply to understand himself (his status as a slave) and the world around him (the evils of slavery), but also to transform himself and his world.    

Again, the idea here is that the liberal arts offer the freedom to be, to act, to contribute to the flourishing of self and world. In order to get to that point, students need to harness their own critical and creative skills. The critical begins with reading, seeing, and listening to our life situations. Reading, a skill in which many are woefully deficient these days, requires more than understanding the “letter.” Higher-level reading enables us to make more intricate connections so that we develop a deeper understanding of reality and, ideally, incorporate into our own lives the life-enhancing words and deeds of those we study, the heroes of the past whom we make relevant to the present. It also includes paying attention to the needs of the world. In Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth writes, “Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.” Humans are made to connect with the moods, feelings, and thoughts of others. The creative skills developed through the liberal arts enhance our ability to communicate and act on our empathy for the world. An important learning outcome is to sensitize students to the plight of the marginalized, the neglected, and the oppressed. Thoughtful leaders recognize abuses of power in order to find creative ways to confront them.

Another aspect of leadership is commitment. A true leader who has his or her priorities straight is more committed to the power of principle than to power over others. Through sustained reading and thinking, a liberal arts student has many opportunities to engage with principles. A liberal arts education challenges students to learn to live with themselves, accepting who they are and may become. It lays a foundation for students who seek to live principled lives rather than being persuaded by power or the herd in order to achieve recognition or ephemeral happiness. A potential danger of aspiring to leadership is the temptation to put aside principle—to spin the narrative to maintain constituent allegiances, to compromise integrity, to cut corners in order to get to the top, to cover things up. Self-reliant individuals will choose the right course even if it means moving down the corporate ladder or falling completely off. True leaders like Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and 1960s activist Mario Savio demonstrate by example to young people how to face incredible opposition in the pursuit of principled living. These leaders had a type of character that made them different from and unwelcome by leaders who sought to sustain the status quo.

These historically self-reliant individuals believed that principle was more important than social respectability, professionalism, education, even their own lives. Yet their commitments did not make them stubborn dogmatists. Principled persons demonstrate an awareness of reality and may be convinced to change their minds. They may be blatantly wrong, yet they are capable of developing a better way of seeing the world. They are always ready to alter a perspective for the sake of growing in wisdom, in the kind of knowledge that is truly life-affirming. They are not interested in dissimulating to give the appearance of consistency, for to do so, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, would reflect a small and troubled mind. To be “great,” Emerson says, “is to be misunderstood.” Try incorporating that into a marketing campaign.

Student Activism

The college campus should be a kind of gymnasium where students can exercise their principled living—a space to ask questions about self and world, a place where they can apply their critical and creative skills. And it’s also one of the places where they are introduced to a new kind of power—a taste of the bureaucratic corporate world they’ll become more familiar with after college. Student activism tends to make administrators saliently uncomfortable, which often activates a reflex of suppression to control such activism. Too often I’ve seen administrators keep students from pursuing the truth. This is a manifestation of the corporate corruption of higher education. Loyalty to the “company” (the institution) and the “shareholders” (trustees) takes priority over those who make up the company, the faculty and the student body—protect the company at all costs, the welfare of the worker and consumer be damned. Administrators would do well to recognize the college setting as a place for student dissent, a place for students to voice their concerns—no matter how uncomfortable or messy—about issues that affect their lives directly. They should view student activism as an instructor would a student essay. Students need instruction when it comes to writing papers, for instance. They need the same when it comes to dissent. No well-intentioned faculty member would dismiss students from class or make them feel like failures for not writing stellar papers, nor should administrators try to silence student dissent. Academics offer instruction on how to be and become both inside and outside the classroom. Mistakes will be made in whatever activity, to be sure, but students need guidance and a space to succeed and fail.

Of course, I can hear the duplicitous administrator say, “Oh, yes, we value student dissent. Student opinion and activism are important.” Sure, they encourage student involvement, but only on the administration’s limited terms—terms that are often creatively repressive. I’m reminded of the eloquent words of Mario Savio during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964: “Students are permitted to talk all they want so long as their speech has no consequences. . . . Because speech does often have consequences which might alter this perversion of higher education, the university must put itself in a position of censorship. It can permit two kinds of speech: speech which encourages continuation of the status quo, and speech which advocates changes in it so radical as to be irrelevant in the foreseeable future.” But is this how dissent works? Dr. King did not battle the immorality of segregation by following the guidelines laid out by Birmingham authorities. This, of course, does not mean that compromise is off the table. There is always compromise, like in the case of Selma in 1965, between the powerful elite and those who confront power. Each side of a social justice movement needs to recognize this. Yet incumbent power is often the last to compromise. “Power,” Frederick Douglass wrote, “concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and never will.” Regardless of the extent of compromise, direct action movements are uncomfortable for everyone. Social justice is a messy endeavor, but it’s essential to social change. Dr. King’s strategy was to create a crisis before a solution could be put in place, but it was all done for the well-being of society. I’m not putting the activism of students on college campuses today on an equal footing with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, but I am saying that the civil rights movement provides guidelines for how to deal with injustices big and small. And liberal arts students should have the opportunity to practice what an institution preaches.

Liberal arts institutions are the incubators of critical and creative activism. They should also be the guardians of true tolerance, allowing students to voice their ideas without the pressure to conform nor fear of backlash. Anyone participating in dialogue should exhibit not only patience (and admittedly patience can run out at times) but also respect—respect for others in the course of debate, especially those with whom we may disagree while tolerating them at the same time. Respect does not demand agreement, but it should be the deciding factor in determining healthy from unhealthy speech activity. There are actions that must not take place, like initiating a verbal threat or committing hateful acts against certain social groups. But what we come to consider healthy or unhealthy will become apparent within the course of debate itself. The classroom—really, the entire campus—should be the place for open yet respectful discussion, a space for students to consider freely their principled concerns. The critical and creative should come together to make wise citizens. Wisdom manifests itself in the decisions we make within a social context. And the heart of wisdom is the kind of respect that is life-enriching. “The function of the university,” W. E. B. Du Bois believed, “is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment that forms the secret of civilization.”

Ryan C. McIlhenny is professor of liberal arts at Geneva College (Shanghai). He is the author of the forthcoming book Reforming the Liberal Arts. His e-mail address is [email protected].