Liberal Education in the Modern World

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently made headlines by suggesting that public universities in Kentucky cut programs that do lead to high-paying jobs. Bevin argued that degrees in the liberal arts do not produce the same tangible skills as engineering degrees and therefore have no place in our modern economy. This opinion is shared by many well-meaning yet short sighted Americans.

Bevin’s mistake is caused by a misunderstanding of the purpose of education. Like many 21st century Americans, Bevin treats education as a means to a high-paying job. If that was the case his position seems reasonable. However, by reducing education as a means to an end, we greatly impoverish our society and culture. Bevin mentioned “interpretive dance” as a useless subject that would not lead to employment. This might be true, however, Americans should ask ourselves if we want to live in a country where no one studies dance, music, or literature. Today the American economy is one of the best in the world. We have many engineers, doctors, and scientists who got good jobs with their immensely practical degrees. Although it is tempting to use this as evidence against the liberal arts it is important to consider what these people do in their free time. They read books, attend plays, and watch movies. In order to be worthwhile, all of these forms of entertainments need to be produce by people who both understand human nature and appreciate beauty. Furthermore, the person consuming this media will get much more out of it if they also understand human nature and appreciate beauty. These qualities are developed, not by a “practical” technical training, but rather by a “useless” liberal arts education.

An education should prepare students for much more than a job. It should prepare them to live happy, fulfilling lives. A liberal education does a much better job of this because it prepares them to do much more than just work. Few people, if any, find their happiness and fulfillment entirely from their career. An education, therefore, should prepare students to do more than work. This is why a good liberal education teaches students things that will not necessarily earn them money; such as an appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty. This might seem frivolous in a culture focused on immediate results and instant gratification but provides a happiness and satisfaction that that culture cannot.

This is not to say that we should not educate people to be doctors or engineers. These jobs are necessary for the functioning of our society. The liberal arts, however, are necessary for the happiness of our society and should remain an integral part of any education.