Clark: The Value of a Liberal Education
By Charles Clark, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, October 29, 2012
There are two ways to respond to the argument made by Chandrasekar Ramesh last Thursday (“Overemphasizing the Liberal Arts,” Oct. 25). The first, which helps no one, is to point out that there are many specialized technical institutions for those who want that kind of education. Dartmouth is not one of them (“lest the old traditions fail”). A better response must explain why the liberal arts education has value. What is it good for?
The “liberal” arts are so-called because such was the well-rounded education that the Romans provided for “liberi,” the children of free people, the social elite. Some ancient elites would, of course, acquire extensive technical knowledge, but it was believed that even a scientific genius like Archimedes would benefit from a foundation in poetry and music. This enforced generalism was the stamp of membership in the ruling class. Why?
Every complex society features a division of labor among its members. Farmers who focus on farming can provide enough food for themselves and the non-farmers alike. The division of labor lets farmers focus on farming, builders on building and traders on trading. By cooperating, these various experts free each other up to pursue their individual excellences.
Problems can arise when two specializations collide, because the disciplines themselves cannot arbitrate such disputes. The builder’s craft does not tell him whether a field should be used for new construction or left under cultivation by the farmer. There must be some higher level of organization to appeal to. Coordination problems can only be resolved by those who know enough about each specialization to understand its internal logic, its contribution to the whole social body and its relationship to the other specializations. This is what the liberal arts prepares people to do.
As a liberal arts institution, Dartmouth has an educational agenda. The College does not offer products to be consumed — it is not an intellectual cafeteria. It offers a process with particular rigors and disciplines to create a particular kind of educated person. That process is the liberal education, and its goal is not to produce fulfilled individuals. Society needs liberally educated members at its upper echelons to prioritize between the subordinate specializations and direct the work of the body politick.
Ramesh argues that “solving specialized, narrow problems is incredibly valuable, if not more valuable than solving broad, wide-ranging problems.” But the purpose of the liberal arts is not to train people to solve broad, wide-ranging problems. It is to train them to solve a very particular and important kind of problem — a problem that requires its own kind of expert. Henry David Thoreau spoke of technical excellence as developing “improved means to an unimproved end.” The technical experts suffer from the professional hazard of myopia. An engineer or biologist can endlessly — and perhaps profitably — improve the means of achieving something, but the far more complex task is to determine what ends society ought to pursue. The liberally educated person is an expert on “ends.” The generalists create the blueprint of social progress.
I wholeheartedly agree with Ramesh that a liberal education should not be an economic burden. That the market fails to recognize society’s need for liberally educated leaders is a problem. It is, in fact, precisely the kind of problem that the liberal arts exist to address. The well-rounded are those equipped to critique the experts for missing the forest for the trees. Only those who can see the big picture, not just one little corner of it, can design or implement big changes.
As we rediscover the meaning of the liberal arts, we should also be reminded that our set of skills is different from that of the specialists. They are not as easily turned to personal gain, because they are exercised for the benefit of the whole society. We should use the skill to confer value on society and be rewarded in turn. But even if the rewards are presently small in proportion to our contributions, or the promises of reward are small in proportion to our potential, the liberal arts remain a sacred entrustment.
Charles Clark '11 is a former member staff columnist.