The Ultimate Utility of Nonutility

Forget trying to measure learning. The greatest value of the liberal arts can be that students start to understand the complexity, confusion, and contradiction at the heart of human experience.
By Lisa Colletta

While every sector of American life has been affected by the difficult financial times, higher education is experiencing a profound crisis that threatens the very foundations of education and the meaning of intellectual endeavor. The impact of the financial downturn has been both economic—in the form of lower enrollments, rising tuition, and disappearing endowments—and philosophical, as various quarters debate the purpose, goals, and value of a college education, given its growing expense.

The liberal arts have been the focus of many of these debates. A host of articles and news stories has questioned the role and utility of a liberal arts degree if it doesn’t immediately lead to a job for the college graduate. And academic administrators and professors have responded with claims about the usefulness of the liberal arts in developing critical thinking, writing, and reading skills in the next generation of workers. In making these assertions, they attempt to carve out a place for the arts based on how the arts complement a professional education, adding dimension to what would otherwise be merely vocational training. However, the basic working assumption—that the arts need to be professionally useful in order to be valuable— rarely seems to be questioned. It is the starting point from which both champions and critics of the liberal arts begin the debate.

Market Values

I have read well-intentioned articles from people who claim that the professional fields—business, management, accounting— and the liberal arts need to work together in order to improve education in both areas: to give professional majors important critical-thinking skills and a cultural context for their endeavors and to give the liberal arts a practical application for philosophical inquiry and abstract thought. The point of departure, and the common ground from which this argument always proceeds, is that we can all agree that liberal arts alone are not “useful” and that they do not prepare students for the “real world.” However, the very reasonableness of the desire to find common ground between professional and liberal education is itself at odds with the critical and intellectual endeavor usually assumed to be the purpose of higher learning, because it assumes only one way of seeing the world, finding value, and making meaning.

Attaching professional value to the liberal arts is deeply troubling, even though on the surface it would appear to defend them. In this context, value is nearly always defined by the market, and the market will always prove the value of its own existence. Claiming a value for the liberal arts through the values of the marketplace guarantees that they will be sidelined and tamed, useful only in terms of job performance. In this debate, the market values are already triumphant, and people who wish to critique the liberal arts as elitist and frivolous need only to point to the “free market” decline in the number of students pursuing liberal arts degrees as proof of their diminishing relevance. In response, most institutions of higher learning have reevaluated their liberal arts programs to integrate them with professional training or simply cut them back to a service role. Sadly, the latter is more common, but both approaches cede all value to the marketplace and do little to challenge the notion that the market alone can prove all utility and value.

Indeed, many faculty members in the liberal arts have been complicit in privileging the idea of utility, though their sense of utility often rests on the idea of moral improvement. Some faculty members claim a politics for the arts that the arts themselves don’t necessarily have, abetting a notion that studying the liberal arts is a politically liberal, elitist endeavor. I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw in the New Yorker, where two young female students are walking on a university quad, and one says to the other about someone she is interested in: “He must come from money, he’s an English major.”

The humanities are not about turning students into liberal elitists but fostering a liberal mind. A liberal mind is one that is independent and disinterested, aware of the history of thought, action, and reaction, and understanding of ambiguity. The liberal arts are not valuable because they are useful politically or vocationally. They are valuable because they are what constitute real knowledge. They are a record of the human desire to understand the world and an account of the ideas and events that brought us to our present historical moment. Because of this, I would claim that real knowledge of the real world is emphatically not the domain of professional fields. The professions teach students skills, skills that may indeed be useful but are too often uninformed by knowledge or thoughtfulness.

The Culture of Assessment

In the last decade or so, colleges and universities themselves seem to have become less sure of their roles. In the past, most were secure in their mission to educate, to inform, to inspire, and to further knowledge. Now, many are more worried about their very survival if they do not focus on training and job preparation for their students. The trend in college marketing strategies is to use buzzwords such as “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and “integration” in the hope of attracting students and their parents’ dollars. Of course, this shift is not only a result of bare-knuckle capitalism; it also reflects a real, if sometimes misguided, desire to address the needs and demands of students and their families. But by focusing on the practical, more and more institutions downplay the hard work and nonutilitarian value of knowledge and distance themselves from the very debate, uncertainty, and contradiction that are the heart of learning and the nature of inquiry. They don’t want students or parents to be confused and anxious, and they attempt to reassure them that every course taken, every paper written, every dollar spent will give students the skills to get ahead in their chosen professions.

The culture of assessment that now has much of academia in its grip reflects this growing emphasis on utility. Assessment reports and grading rubrics have turned classroom activity into an evaluated and scored product, so students will know exactly what they have just bought, as in “Examining the texts of ____ [fill in the blank, because any author will do] will develop students’ skills in reading comprehension and critical thinking; students will be able to make connections and evaluate the role of the individual in a multicultural world,” and so on and so forth. While this sounds reassuring to both students and their parents and places the reading of literature in the “useful” context of critical thinking that appears to make its study worth the expense, it misses the point of what an education really is—not to mention missing the real power of literature. The knowledge that comes from reading deeply cannot be gained quickly, and it is most intellectually transforming when it is learned in the context of literary and intellectual history, not in discrete courses that utilize any text to explore a topic, such as “identity,” or teach a skill, such as reading comprehension.

Assessment in its current form is linked to the idea of utility and accountability. Though professors have always assessed student work—and generally have done it against thoughtful criteria—there has been huge growth in the layer of university administration devoted to outcomes assessment (and some of these new administrators, not surprisingly, are refugees from shrinking literature departments). In order to have quantifiable data about class performance, administrators discourage faculty members from using phrases like “students will learn” or “students will understand” in their syllabi and in course goals and objectives. Learning and understanding refer to experiences that are complicated and cannot be neatly quantified, the results of which may not be evident for months or years. The language of outcomes assessment reflects the language of the marketplace and embraces its values; it inherently leads students, parents, administrators, and even faculty members to see the liberal arts as utilitarian, with the ultimate goal being job training. But confusing skills with knowledge often means that students can score well on a rubric despite not actually knowing much about history, aesthetics, philosophy, or even the ways words relate to each other in a sentence.

Humanistic Values

I would like to make a claim for the liberal arts not being useful, at least when “useful” is defined by utility. Learning goals in the liberal arts might be met exactly because students are confused while reading texts in a literature course, or because the study of philosophy destabilizes everything they once thought, or because a knowledge of history leads them to question their own and others’ ambitions and desires. What if we faculty members were to state unapologetically that aesthetic contemplation and philosophical inquiry are useful precisely because they are not utilitarian and that there are other ways of seeing the world and valuing experience beyond those of the marketplace? What if we were to go back to the idea that the learning goals of a university education are to encourage students to be thoughtful and inquisitive, aware of the history of action and ideas and of their place in that history? These are attributes that construct citizens, not merely workers.

I am not suggesting that all students choose a life of aesthetic or philosophical contemplation, but I am arguing for the importance of a well-educated citizenry—one that is knowledgeable about the causes and effects of historical action, understands the development of cultures, and is aware of the artifacts of aesthetic and intellectual history. On the surface, few in education or industry would argue that these things are not important, so I would also argue that industry and human resource professionals should begin to show a bit more creativity and thoughtfulness in their hiring practices. Instead of complaining about the lack of critical-thinking and writing skills found in recent college graduates, they need to look at whom they are hiring and why. According to Kate Zernike in a recent New York Times article, among employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year institutions, 89 percent said they would like colleges and universities to put more emphasis on “the ability to communicate orally and in writing”; 81 percent said they would like to see “better critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills”; and 70 percent said they were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.” Most entry-level positions in business and industry do not necessarily require a specific skill set, at least not one that a thoughtful, well-educated literature or history major couldn’t learn in a few months. If employers really value the qualities they say they do—knowledge, communication, critical thinking, creativity—they need to hire graduates from fields that foster those qualities, not only from fields that provide practical skills.

At the American University of Rome, where I now teach, I have found that the most important part of student learning is often intangible and difficult to measure. It is not just that students take courses in literature, art, communications, and business, or that they experience another culture firsthand, or that they begin to understand the implications of being part of a global citizenry—though, of course, all of these things do happen. What also begins to happen is that they understand the layers of history and develop a sense of beauty and aesthetics as well as an awareness of the power of art, not in a utilitarian or even moralistic way but in a way that stops them cold on the street and demands that they look beyond themselves. In other words, they become educated individuals. They start to make connections among things that are not at first obvious, and they begin to understand the need to look beyond the surface. Walking around Rome, exploring centuries of human endeavor that had been plowed under and paved over is an important reminder that the activity of the “real world”—what so many in the more practical fields like to call work—is temporary, easily buried under the history of conquest, competing ideologies, and time. What was once all-important becomes the stones beneath one’s feet. Courses in literature, art, history, and film reveal to students the multitude of ways humans have tried to order chaotic experience, to give it form and meaning. The kind of knowledge that comes from humanistic inquiry is unique to each student, and it offers a different model of value from business or professional training. Contradictory and ambivalent, the knowledge gained through the study of the liberal arts is difficult to assess in reports or grading rubrics. Its outcome is incalculable, affording students the opportunity to contemplate and to examine their own value and place in the world and in history. This has little direct correlation to practical job training, but it is essential in preparing students for the ambiguity, confusion, and search for meaning inherent in the real world.

Lisa Colletta is associate professor of English at the American University of Rome and author of Dark Humor and Social Satire in the Modern British Novel, Kathleen and Christopher, and Wild Colonial Girl. Her e-mail address is [email protected].



I have just finished reading "The Ultimate Utility of Nonutility", by Lisa Colletta (Academe magazine, September-October 2010).

In it, she writes the following:

“A liberal mind is one that is independent and disinterested, aware of the history of thought, action, and reaction, and understanding of ambiguity. The liberal arts are not valuable because they are useful politically or vocationally. They are valuable because they are what constitute real knowledge.

…I would claim that real knowledge of the real world is emphatically not the domain of professional fields. The professions teach students skills, skills that may indeed be useful but are too often uninformed by knowledge or thoughtfulness”.

She is not alone in her dismissive attitude towards the sciences and engineering. I have seen similar opinions expressed by David Brooks of The Washington Times, Simon Jenkins of the UK’s The Guardian, several other political commentators, and all too many university professors.

They remind me of the ancient Greek philosophers, debating the virtues of democracy, while surrounded by slaves and servants who do the actual work.

Apparently, her ‘real’ knowledge and grasp of the ephemeral nature of human constructs have failed to make her aware of the frailty of our whole civilization.

Were it not for the excess food and other resources provided by the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, our comfortable lives would not be possible, the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment would be so much empty rhetoric, and democracy as we know it would not exist. In fact, without the relatively small number of technical experts, the best estimates are that 95% of humanity would starve to death within a few months.

Let her ponder that the next time she pontificates to her students.



T.S.N. comments "Apparently, her ‘real’ knowledge and grasp of the ephemeral nature of human constructs have failed to make her aware of the frailty of our whole civilization."

A closer reading might have suggested that our civilization's frailty was, in fact, the entire concern that was so well articulated by the author.  Far from dismissing the "...resources provided by the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions...," the author's effort was to insure that those who educate our generations should recognize the same powerful, essential engine of progress in the development of independent thought, untethered by "practical concerns" and taught for the purpose of developing thinkers and dreamers and innovators, inspired by the transcendental impact of the Liberal Arts - who also toil in the fields of commerce.  And vote.


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