Liberal Education: Not a Bad Thing at All

The ironies of modern life in the United States, and our need to make sense of them, or alter them, to me, are among the best reasons why college-level, liberal education is vital to virtually all Americans. By “liberal” I do not mean left-wing; I mean education that includes exposure to philosophy, ethics, history, the arts, language, literature – collectively known as the humanities.

Education geared to a specific career is important, but in this day and age, career opportunities and sometimes entire fields of knowledge, advance or lose importance. One the other hand, it has been known, since the founding of this republic, that well-rounded education, which to me includes the ability to think both creatively and analytically and understand others’ points of view, has enduring value for the individual, the community, and the nation.


Yet today, too many decision and opinion makers are inclined to constrict the value of the college experience by reducing it to the transfer of knowledge necessary to land individuals a good paying position in a given job market. There are such market pressures not just inside but outside academe according to Boston College president J. Donald Monan in an essay last year, who noted that there are constrictive “pressures upward from high schools” and “pressures downward from a growingly professionalized and differentiated society.”

As Americans in the 21st century, we are encountering an unprecedented era, full of possibility, full of irony, full of concerns. Meanwhile our understanding and appreciation of the idea of “the common good” is in jeopardy. For example:

  • We have made ourselves able to communicate globally, almost instantly, across our planet and can physically transport ourselves to most parts of the world in a matter of hours or days. Yet, we often cling desperately to our parochial perspectives.
  • We know more than ever before about endless outer space and infinitesimal inner spaces. Yet we have lost a too much of our curiosity about what remains to be discovered.
  • We have more different kinds of resources, technological devices and “stuff” than ever before. But we often miss what the Amish have known all along: how such material things can leave us feeling empty and hamper our community life and our spiritual development.
  • We devalue workers while we put consumer loyalty on a pedestal, a trend starkly portrayed in the hit movie “Up in the Air”
  • Awash in labor saving devices, we seem to have less time to be mindful, relaxed or creative than ever. Many of us have opted to eliminate for our children the very thing that gave us greatest joy when we were young: free play.
  • We are militarily the strongest nation today and yet we fail to fully grasp how people in other nations see us, and that lack of understanding could be the greatest security weakness in a war against acts of terror that are often rooted in religion and ideology.
  • We have led in breaking barriers of discrimination against minorities, women, and gays, and yet many of us, who can choose to, flee to cloistered communities where people “like ourselves” live.
  • We have fantastic instruments for mass communication and education in television and various vehicles for accessing and sending data, text, and images but we spend much of our time with such machinery pursuing banal fare.

Beyond preparing individuals for a livelihood, colleges offering liberal education can help individuals better understand and cope with the world as it is in the 21st century and find joy, meaning and fulfillment within the human community.

Liberal education is essential in helping the United States remain a beacon of democracy. In an essay in defense of the humanities recently, English professor John Crisp posed this question “Is it too much to hope that voters with a better grasp of history, philosophy and literature would elect better leaders?” I think we have long known the answer to his question.

There are awesome challenges before us now, and on the horizon, that we must answer as individuals, as communities, and as citizens of a state, a nation and a global village. Liberal education is desperately needed to aid in this effort. Let’s not undervalue it.

Paul R. Shelly, MSW, is director of communications and marketing for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. He serves on the board of Greater Trenton Behavioral HealthCare and is active in the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry CROP Walk and Jersey Shore Chapter of Surfrider Foundation. He resides in Ewing, NJ.

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