A World Without Liberal Education?

I published this op-ed in Inside Higher Education this morning. I’ve also been talking about liberal education on the NPR here and here.


“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? Would that really be such a bad thing?”

The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?

Apart from being relieved that he hadn’t included expertise in derivatives training in his list of specializations, I did find his thought experiment interesting. Would there be real advantages to getting students to hunker down early into more specific tracks of learning? In that way they would be “job ready” sooner, contributing more quickly to the enterprises of which they are a part, and acquiring financial independence at the same time. Would that really be such a bad thing?

The debate between those who want students to specialize quickly and those who advocate for a broad, contextual education is as old as America itself. The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Against those arguing for more technical training, he founded the University of Virginia, emphasizing the freedom that students and faculty would exercise there. Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.”

At Mr. Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?

Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life. Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many. However, his conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious and open-ended – and this was reflected in his design for the campus in Charlottesville. He believed that the habits of mind and methods of inquiry characteristic of the modern sciences lent themselves to lifelong learning that would serve one well whether one went on to manage a farm or pursue a professional career. It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.”

His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful. The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds. The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus. The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.

Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity. Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Boger preaches a high tolerance for ambiguity because the contemporary world is so messy, so complex.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in the world, has lamented that many designers “are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.” He calls for a flexible framework that leaves behind static blueprint preparation for “open-ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes.” Like many CEOs across the country, Brown recognizes that more robust and useful outcomes will come from learning that is capacious and open-ended — from liberal education.

At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity.  She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.

In America, liberal education has long been animated by the tension between broad, open-ended learning and the desire to be useful in a changing world. Calls for dissolving this tension in favor of narrow utilitarian training would likely produce just the opposite: specialists unprepared for change who will be skilled in areas that may quickly become obsolete.

So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.

The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.