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September 04, 2013

In Boston we may well be at the epicenter of the debate over the value of a liberal education. The "culture wars,” “the crisis in liberal arts education or the humanities”- these phrases are commonplace.

Today’s students arrive at college having been encouraged, because of our admissions processes, to be well-rounded as the highest of values. I hope my students will learn to explore, to follow their own intellectual pathways, and to discover their passions – rendering them sharp.

The well-rounded student, after the rigors of a broadly based liberal education, emerges after graduation prepared to forge ahead as an individual and citizen in our global, complex, ever-changing, and imperiled world with a sharp focus on the implications for people and societies.

In Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark Roche consistently reminds us that a liberal education includes mathematics and the natural sciences in addition to psychology, the social sciences, history, creative arts, language and literature, and philosophy. Citing studies in which 50 percent of employers found business majors “to be lacking in communication skills,” he makes many pragmatic arguments for the fundamental value and skill each discipline offers to students in an era when today’s cutting-edge technical skills may quickly be rendered irrelevant by the next disruptive technology.

While our national leadership discusses the United States' shortcomings in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, much of the national debate focuses on the role of humanities in daily life. In an information-rich society where summaries of works from Dostoevsky to David Copperfield are available in seconds to anyone with a mobile device, deep analysis may seem passé.

This spring at Brandeis University The New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier succinctly asked, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

He went on to suggest that “the machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised,” and offered the analogy that “knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch.”

He concluded: “There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. . . So keep your heads. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. . . . From this day forward, act as though you are indispensable to your society, because whether it knows it or not you are."

Wieseltier’s is the rhetoric of a commencement address, but perhaps in defending our liberal arts curricula, we should take some of that rhetoric and passion to heart, as well as consistent research results that demonstrate that students who choose a liberal arts education have higher earning power than those who do not.

While Wieseltier has had decades to think about these issues, his perspective was echoed by a member of the millennial generation- one of the several students who I asked to provide their perspective on liberal education.

“Students come away from [liberal arts] majors with sharper analytical skills, task-management strategies, stronger oral and written communication, and a sense, however framed, of the scope of history . . . Liberal education not only teaches skills that are widely applicable to a variety of working situations, but also habituates students to the emotional experience of encountering and adjusting to change . . .

The task of empathizing with worldviews radically different than one’s own is challenging and time-consuming, and it requires guidance—the sort that professors of the liberal arts are well-versed in giving. In an increasingly global world, where matters of religion and social inequality are ever more the source of dissent and violence, the ability to encounter opposing worldviews rationally and humanely is a precious one. It may not be an occupation—that is, no one is employed as a humane citizen of the globe—but it just might save the world.”

I submit we all would do well in these debates to listen to our students.

Robin Feuer Miller is the Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University and a 2013-2014 Guggenheim Fellow.

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