Most of us knew what we were signing up for when we applied to a liberal arts school: an education focused on self-improvement through a broad field of study. Liberal arts students are told that by expanding their horizons they will become engaged global citizens, or that they will “learn how to think.” This seems, by its nature, like an educational choice intended to be practical.
Yet it seems to be the case that a liberal arts education is considered increasingly less practical by society as a whole. Any English or philosophy major is intimately familiar with a breadth of jokes at their expense, expounding upon their poor job prospects and the likelihood of their future poverty. Even STEM-focused liberal arts students catch flak for choosing a liberal arts education over a technical one. Meanwhile the popularity and prestige of specialized engineering and medical studies seem to be skyrocketing. This leads one to wonder: Have the liberal arts become no more than purely academic?
As cynical as this question may seem, it may have some merit to it. Philosophy is now so specialized that its practitioners have difficulty discussing any recent work with untrained individuals. There are also great divides in English, music and artistic fields between what many see as “popular media” and “artistic media.” For some, it may seem like the liberal arts have become irrelevant. It is then easy to view a liberal arts education as suitable only for a pretentious intelligentsia rather than thepopulation at large.
Though it may not come as a surprise, as a Kenyon student, I argue that no, the liberal arts are not purely academic. While there are flaws in how some fields present themselves to the public, I am of the firm conviction that learning how to engage with the world broadly is critical in the modern age. Specialized educations are and always have been necessary, but so too are generalized ones. Problem solving and adaptation require a breadth of perspectives that are unlikely to come from a narrowly specialized education.
In its goal-driven mindset, society has seemingly decided that the importance of an education is not what you learn or who you become, but what you can do with it at the end. Success is attributed only to a handful of careers, while everyone else is quietly ignored. But this view fails to account for the fact that many liberal arts students not only go on to have successful careers, but are also prized for their soft skills, problem solving and ability to work with others.
Those liberal art students who stay in academia will continue to struggle with some of the “big questions” we address here at Kenyon. Their specialization is necessitated by the complexity of the important and long-lasting questions of human life. What would the world be like if we were suddenly content to not think about the nature of humanity, art, science and society?
So no, the liberal arts are not a purely academic pursuit. Even within today’s specialized world, the broad study of human experience and the growth fostered by a liberal arts education are critically important.
Henry Terhune is a sophomore undeclared major from Waterville, Maine. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.