Hope for improved discourse in america: bringing back a liberal arts education
may 2020 | essay
          Humans were born community-oriented animals. We craved connectedness and unity, and our society and education nurtured this. But as our technology advanced and our education adapted to give us comfort in silos and specialties, we became driven by individual success and short-term goals. We ended up in the America we have today: split into two entities that seemingly battle against each other on every issue, with instant negativity at the thought of “the other side” blinding us to any sense of hope for a more unified and productive future. But as a student in the modern education system today, I am witnessing how it is changing to bring back some of the older characteristics of education, and I see hope for improved discourse in America in this application of traditional to modern education.

          For the past 50 years, America has been paralyzed by the distraction of two things: money and technology (Deresiewicz). More specifically, we have been distracted by the combination of these two things: the money that advancement in technology has the potential of bringing us. In the mid-to-late-1900s, society got introduced to the first radios, calculators, printers, and personal computers––we began seeing the possibilities of technology, in terms of their technical capabilities, as well as their potential in the market (Trueman). The long-term impacts of such disruption can rarely be foreseen and are still being uncovered today––one being the influence on liberal arts education and education as a whole.

          A liberal arts education is an umbrella term that can be divided into the humanities (learning about ourselves), social sciences (learning about how we interact with this world), natural sciences (learning about the science behind the lives that we live), and formal sciences (learning about how the world operates) (Haidar). Through this broad education, students find depth in the areas they choose to study within each of these categories, encouraging interdisciplinary study and application of one field to the others.

          In the 1960s, almost consequently to the increase in technology, the number of people pursuing liberal arts degrees decreased dramatically (Deresiewicz). Humanities were not the only fields affected by this newfound attraction to something other than “the traditional.” As technology boomed, traditional liberal arts degrees began shifting into new areas that applied the pure liberal arts fields to what was seen in society in that present moment. English turned into journalism. History turned into political science. Biology turned into biomedical engineering. Math turned into economics. Fine arts turned into design. As William Deresiewicz, an author, literary critic, and English professor puts it, “college sold its soul to the market” (Deresiewicz). By 1970, the number of students pursuing liberal arts fields, including maths and sciences, dropped to 35%. That number has continued to drop, barely reaching 20% by 2016, while the number of students in applied fields has increased by 143% (“Bachelor's”).

          Much of that 143% growth feeds off of the idea that college is no longer seen as a period of time to learn and grow; it is seen as a stepping stone to get to the next part of lives: our careers. If the purpose of college is seen only as a door to a career, everything in college, especially the major of study, will be directed by job opportunity, pay, and career goals. The increase in this mentality has led to the development of fields of study that are more career-focused, skills-based, and practical, rather than theory-based. The world seems so driven by excellence in one field, that an electrical engineering student, for example, may not recognize the need to take classes in humanistic inquiry and social analysis. Their main focus is to go deep into their concentration courses without getting distracted by “unrelated” courses, so that they can acquire an expertise in electrical engineering and land a well-paying internship or job (Waechter).

          But college was not built to just be a stepping stone; it was built to be an opportunity for students to learn about themselves, learn about others, and learn how to think and be a positive player in society. This is the foundation that liberal arts education was built on long before these recent decades of specialization. Since 1636, Harvard University has stood by the mission to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. [They] do this through [their] commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education” (“The Transformative”). Most colleges since then have shared similar sentiments in their foundations, leading to the design of liberal arts curriculums and courses across the country, with the ultimate purpose being to educate students on the fundamental lessons of how to think and how to learn. The University of Southern California (USC), for example, explains that the courses required “provide training in the liberal arts — the critical skills necessary for a free person to function productively in a complex world. This General Education program has been designed to nurture habits of thought essential for professional success and personal development, and to establish a background for lifelong learning” (“USC”).

          The profound impact of a liberal arts education that seems to have been overshadowed by tech-based specialization lies beyond the material learned in the courses; it extends to all aspects of the students’ lives. Reading English literature is not just about the words on the page, it’s about the critical thinking skills that the student learns from reading it. Learning how to think critically in the classroom leads to independent and confident thinkers in the world. These are the people who think for themselves when it comes to formulating their own educated belief systems and voting on them, rather than blindly following what others in their community and political party stand by. The students who learn about and discuss the perspectives different than their own by learning a foreign language or reading books about people with different experiences are the ones who will grow up aware of outside perspectives and be willing to listen and learn about them before making judgements and claiming their own perspective as superior. Those who do scientific research will learn how to ask the right questions when it comes to their own scientific inquiry, but also when it comes to questioning belief systems, traditions, and people, with the intent to learn and form educated opinions. And those who study the interaction between research and humans and learn how to ethically conduct experiments will apply those ethical judgements when innovating and making decisions. This is learning for the sake of being a positively contributing human to our society, not with the purpose of using college as a stepping stone towards a career. This is the type of learning that leads to productive discourse in the world and that results in society moving forward with the intention of benefiting all humans in an equal, empathetic, and ethical manner.

          If the number of students pursuing liberal arts degrees is dropping so drastically, so is the number of people learning how to think critically. According to Deresiewicz, “elite American universities no longer provide their students with a real education, one that addresses them as complete human beings rather than as future specialists — that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or to become a soul” (Deresiewicz). What are the consequences of this? The state of America that we live in today.Today we are experiencing the results of the change in education 50 years ago, from a clear focus on liberal arts, to an attraction towards technology, business, and career-oriented applied fields. The people with loud voices today are often the ones who were educated by the changing system. If they did not explicitly study a liberal arts degree, they simply did not get a liberal arts education. Some may argue that the vast majority of educational institutions still practice the specialized career-oriented approach to teaching today. I do not disagree with this; I don’t see us realistically going back to where we were 50 years ago any time soon, even if that is an ideal that we fantasize for improved discourse within America. But few institutions––who may be more forward-thinking––are evolving to bring back aspects of the more traditional liberal arts education. This is where I see hope for our future: getting a broad liberal arts education even if we are not necessarily studying a liberal arts degree.

          As a student in the Iovine & Young Academy at USC, I am experiencing first-hand how modern education is recognizing and accepting that it has changed over the past 50 years and is bringing aspects of the traditional liberal arts education into applied fields today. The Academy is a six-year-old program that focuses on arts, technology, and business. At first glance, the buzzwords like “disruption,” “entrepreneurship,” and “creative problem solving” that the Academy identifies with give people the image that it simply focuses on teaching students how to start their own businesses and be successful in the changing marketplace (“About”). But as a part of the program, I am observing how, while what we are learning is very new and representative of the world today, how we are learning it and why we are learning it feels very influenced by the mission of the college from 1880, with the liberal arts at its core. The Academy is not about the software we learn or the products we build; these are merely the means of teaching us the fundamental lessons in an engaging way. The mission behind this program is to educate on a new way of problem solving––one in which we look at problems not from a narrow point of view, but from a broad, holistic view, and figure out how we can most effectively collaborate to solve the problem. The Academy breaks down the walls between disciplines, finding the connections between fields that people ten years ago thought were meant to be practiced in silos––emphasizing the power in working at the intersection of radically different studies rather than one alone and learning the language of the other fields so that we can communicate with people who come from different backgrounds than our own. We dive deep into solving problems with the human in the center––not developing technology for the sake of technology, but with the purpose of solving a user’s problem first. In order to do this, we must set aside our own biases and assumptions and ask the user the right questions so that we can truly empathize with them and understand the problem they face as human beings and that we would like to solve. We read case studies of businesses that have failed because they had unethical intentions, and we learn from history’s mistakes so that we don’t make the same unethical choices ourselves. We are told that we have the power to disrupt systems that are not working and change the world for the better. And most of all, we learn how to work together. This is not a learning that comes overnight––it is a way of living and working that is natural to the community-based human race, fundamental to the liberal arts, and seemingly forgotten in the siloed specialization-based education that followed. Collaboration is not just a tool, it is how unified society was built originally and should continue to be built. I am living through a non-liberal arts degree taught in a liberal arts fashion, and I see how this way of learning will impact generations to come, far beyond the classroom. Students who learn to be open-minded, empathetic, questioning, empowered, communicative, and collaborative are the ones who will be willing to engage in difficult conversation at a high level and make positive change in this country. I see the people around me already doing this everyday.

          This new type of liberal-arts-but-not-liberal-arts education is not just present in the Academy. Education in liberal arts institutions around the country are embracing this type of learning. 20 years ago, computer scientists studied computer science, and that was it. Today, my brother is a senior at Harvard where he is studying applied math with a focus in computer science, as well as classical guitar. To fulfill the requirements of the liberal arts college as well as his own interest to expand his knowledge on the world that he is a part of, he has taken a number of courses in areas unrelated to his concentration––for example, philosophy and evolution.

          Will my education in design, technology, and business replace a liberal arts education in fine arts and sciences, and will my brother’s education in computer science replace an education in pure maths? No. But understanding the reality of the pace and focus of the world today, where the common language 30 years from now will be javascript no matter how educated in the liberal arts we are, we must adapt to the changing atmosphere without forgetting the important roots that the founders of education set in place for us.

          The world is changing, and right now it seems like it is going much faster than the education system can keep up with. America is in a state of polarization, with populations saturated with narrow-mindedness and an overall inability and willingness from both sides of the aisle to find common ground. But as we accept this new model of education, bringing aspects of the liberal arts to the masses through non-traditionally liberal arts fields, we can raise a generation of open-minded individuals who are ready to have challenging, yet productive discourse and move the country forward. The students who have learned how to question without assumptions in order to fully empathize, who have learned that perspectives other than their own are just as valid, and who have learned how to work with people who come from different backgrounds are the people who I hope to see as leaders of this country, raising the following generations to do the same.

Works Cited:

“About the Academy.” Jimmy Iovine & Andre Young Academy. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://iovine-young.usc.edu/>.

“Bachelor's degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study.” National Center for Education Statistics. Aug. 2018. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/Search?query=field%20of%20study&query2=field%20of%20study&resultType=all&page=1

Deresiewicz, William. “The Neoliberal Arts.” Harper’s Magazine. Sept. 2015. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/the-neoliberal-arts/>.

Garlock, Stephanie. “Educating “Citizens and Citizen Leaders.” Harvard Magazine. Jul. 2015. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://harvardmagazine.com/2015/07/educating-citizens-and-citizen-leaders>.

Haidar, Hasna. “What is Liberal Arts Education?” TopUniversities. 24 Jan. 2020. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://www.topuniversities.com/blog/what-liberal-arts-education>.

“The Transformative Power of a Liberal Arts and Sciences Education.” Harvard College. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://college.harvard.edu/about/mission-vision-history>.

Trueman, C. N. "Inventions 1900 To 1990." The History Learning Site. 18 Sept. 2018. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/inventions-and-discoveries-of-the-twentieth-century/inventions-1900-to-1990/>.

“USC Schedule of Classes” University of Southern California. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://classes.usc.edu/term-20203/general-education-requirements/ge-requirements-for-students-beginning-college-in-fall-2015-or-later/>.

Waechter, Steven. “Why Liberal Arts Degrees Are Worthless.” LinkedIn. 4 Dec. 2016. 29 Apr. 2020. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-liberal-arts-degrees-worthless-steven-waechter/>.