I read in a book review in America recently that “the aim of a rigorous liberal arts education is to follow the classical Delphic maxim, know thyself. This goal concerns not merely information, but transformation. From Plato to Heisenberg and from Augustine to Mahler, we are seductively lured to conceptualize not in order to remain in the metaphysical clouds but to return to the concrete self more clarified. We are urged to analyze critically, question pointedly and weigh competing arguments to secure our own humble place with the history of ideas.”
That was certainly my experience as an undergraduate taking a liberal arts curriculum at Georgetown in the 1970s. I took courses in theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, very few of which I took with an eye toward preparing me for law school or a career as a lawyer. Instead, they helped me grow.
There seems to be increasing demands that college be about job training or about (as author of book review put it) “inflat[ion of] accomplishments to please future employers, placate parents and repair fragile egos.”
On the one hand, I understand concerns about the cost of higher education, and the difficulty of college graduates in finding jobs upon graduation. On the other hand, I think there is cause to be concerned by market research I recently read in Forbes finding that 88% of college-bound teens place career prep and future success “over more nebulous goals like personal growth and pursuing their passion.”
If because of financial inability to pay or concerns about securing employment, college is no longer about providing a broad liberal arts education to our young people (or providing it to a narrower and narrower population), we need to ask ourselves how are we replacing that loss. How are we helping our young people get what a liberal arts education has to offer? Helping are we teaching them to understand themselves and their place in the world?. How to understand what it means to live a meaningful life? What are we doing to help transform them from students into adults with an understanding of, and commitment to, what is right….what is just…what is good?
How to do that is our challenge, not theirs. And it is our responsibility.