Value education in liberal arts

Posted on April 14, 2015 in Education Debates – Technology/Op-ed
April 13, 2015.   By John D. Whyte, The Starphoenix

John D. Whyte is professor emeritus, political and international studies and policy fellow at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School at the University of Regina.

The commitment of Canadian universities to the liberal arts – the humanities and social sciences – is in decline. While university programs outside the liberal arts, such as professional and training courses, are both challenging and valuable, the weakening of liberal arts education is a serious impediment to the development of national capacity and society’s long-term well-being.

Liberal arts education promotes reflection, critical thought, conceptualization and deep understanding. It develops intellectual practices that lead to questioning and to discoveries and reforms that ground social progress.

When Canadian author Robertson Davies was making the transition from newspaper editor to Master of Massey College years ago, he came to the University of Toronto to teach a course on drama. I took this course. It was a cornucopia of insights into human relations and experiences.

Studying King Lear revealed that the love behind nurturing relationships often produces obligation, expectation and disappointment. Although deep, this love is overlaid by emotional complexities and can be marred by resentment. In studying the plays of John Millington Synge, I came to see that both our humanity and wisdom fade when cultural wisdom, mystery, myth and folklore are expelled from our search for the meaning of things.

This was just one course and only one form of expression, but it helped dispel my sense of certainty, challenged facile conclusions, and rebuked cynicism. It encouraged intellectual openness. What does this memory say to us about the value of university education today? The question of educational value is important for students as they make decisions about what to study. It is also central to the decisions of governments and corporations as they decide which education to fund.

We often say that students, families, governments and businesses make decisions about what sort of education to invest in. The metaphor of investment suggests returns and, when we think in terms of education’s returns, students think of careers and incomes, governments think of enabling economic growth, and business considers what sort of training serves its needs.

These ways of seeing the value of universities have been internalized by universities themselves and have led to shifts in priorities. But there is another, and truer, conception of the purpose of university education – one that is less tied to specific economic and corporate purposes, less utilitarian and less related to specific futures and specific functions.

Liberal arts education (like pure sciences education) values exploration and discovery, critical assessment, curiosity and the search for the meaning of all that we observe. Its core methods are seeking the wisdom and understanding that lies in our inherited cultures and our inherited knowledge and, then, being ready to discover the even deeper truths and meanings of what we have experienced.

This part of university education focuses on enquiry that helps us grasp the richness of life through examining all of its elements – its purposes, justice, culture and art, idealism, criticism, striving, mercy, humanism and invention.

Liberal arts education comes from humankind’s gift of critical inquiry – deciding what it is we can honestly say we know and claim to understand. Nothing serves humanity more than, first, the intellectual rigour to discern – at least for now – what can be known and, second, the critical insight to discard claims of knowledge that are grounded on limited knowledge and entrenched beliefs.

The world has always been dynamic, and so must be our knowledge of it. Learning conventional truth does not prepare us to handle the changes in nature, in markets, in human relations and in science. Inquiry, adaptation and invention are the skills on which society depends. This is education’s purpose – to gain the capacity to make a better world and discover the possibilities of more fulfilling lives for everyone.

Liberal arts education opens up the complexities and the truths that lurk in experience when we learn to be reflective, imaginative and critical. It teaches students to be brave enough to doubt, seek wisdom and adopt a rich vision of life.

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One Response to “Value education in liberal arts”

  1. Thank you for posting such an important political statement, so eloquently expressed. I have never regretted my degree in English literature. Those four years spent reading deeply and widely, and figuring out my relationship to the ideas presented has informed all the work that I’ve done over the course of an interesting career, and enriched my own life story in more ways than I can count.
    Great progress only happens at times and places where the arts are allowed to thrive. We are a poorer society for gutting the humanities in our universities, and urging our children down alternate, less interesting paths. A just and inclusive society needs all of the critical thinking and creative spirit we can nurture… I think I’ll go and revisit King Lear!


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