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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Squash the condescension: In defense of the liberal arts


The humanities provide skills vital to a well-rounded, functioning society

“This is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head….”

So said David Foster Wallace, the author of “Infinite Jest,” in “This is Water.” His attempt at justifying the liberal arts shows just how ingrained criticisms of the discipline have become. As many literature, history and philosophy majors will attest, one of the most persistent questions thrown at them is this: What do you plan to do with it?

College is awash with various major and minor degree programs. The problem is some garner more respect than others — based on perceived employability or earning potential.

It wasn’t too long ago that Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, argued in an interview that the liberal arts would make a comeback after decades of overhype surrounding STEM majors. He reasoned that, as future jobs become increasingly automated, there will be less room for technical jobs and more room for workers with alternative forms of training — those with liberal arts degrees, for example.

Cuban praised the critical thinking skills cultivated by a liberal arts education, citing organizations like Americorps, which use these skills to great effect in grassroots communities.

Cuban argues from an economic standpoint, but a business-focused approach isn’t the only way to see the liberal arts in a positive light. Society is weakened if we ignore the benefits of a well-rounded liberal arts education.

Such an education generally involves reading, writing, discussing and a lot of critical thinking. These are skills vital to an educated public, through which creative ideas flow continuously.

STEM and the liberal arts represent two sides of the same coin: while STEM fields provide a means of figuring out how the world works using empirical data, the liberal arts offer a way to communicate that knowledge to others.

If the sciences rely on discovering truth to create a better world, the liberal arts provide a means of creativity and questioning that becomes necessary when the world has no truthful answers to give. Where STEM gives us data and ostensible solutions, the liberal arts give us ethics. Where STEM gives us roads and vaccines, the liberal arts give us culture and meaning.

Meaning is subjective, of course, but it plays an important role in balancing a world where the objective truth gets center stage. Musical performances and stories can provide meaning or analysis in their purest forms. A landscape painting or a documentary that offers unique interpretations of war can elicit certain emotions that transcend the objectivity of science. These are all rooted in the liberal arts.

Of course, the world needs science and technology. Scientific discoveries have generally made the world a better place to live. But we need the flipside as well. A world without literature, language or logic lacks the creative spirit vital to bridging differences and enhancing our way of life beyond the reach of science.

Diplomacy, as well as the world’s legal codes and systems of government, traces its foundation to the thought processes inherent to the liberal arts. In an otherwise disorderly society, the disciplines of creative thought and rhetoric can help keep things in check.

The sciences and the humanities are complementary, a sort of yin and yang that falters when one takes precedence over the other. If Cuban is right — that the liberal arts will experience a resurgence in the coming years — perhaps not all is lost. The flight path will correct itself, if you will, and the “no-bullshit” view of the liberal arts will once again receive proper recognition. It’s the best way forward.


Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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