Liberal arts education provides students keys to true knowledge



According to Princeton University, the liberal arts are defined as a “humanistic discipline: studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills).”

The parenthetical is perhaps the most important part of this definition. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to impart upon the learner intellectual skills—skills that broaden one’s mind and expand one’s tastes; the purpose of the liberal arts is most assuredly not the same as the narrow (if necessary) purpose of technical schools.

It is of course important to bear in mind the practicality of what one learns from one’s university experience.  However, the pragmatic implications of a degree in terms of post-graduation income, job placement and other factors, is not the most important part of a well-rounded education.

I have been repeatedly asked since my sophomore year, when I changed my major to history (from the marginally more “practical” major of political science), why I would dare to do such a thing.

“Why major in history?” these negative ninnies inquire.  “What are you going to do with that degree?”

Or, “Why don’t you major in something practical, like chemistry or engineering? You know your only option to survive in the real world now is to go to law school, right?”

Wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is the implicit obsession with this nebulous concept of “practical education,” or, learning for the explicit purpose of obtaining a job after college.

I was never raised to believe in such a thing.  My parents were quite clear that they were not helping me attend university just because they wanted to ensure that I promptly obtained lucrative employment after graduation; they were willing to help me with obtaining a degree so that I could expand my horizons, broaden the scope of my thinking, and be exposed to political, cultural and social views to which I would likely never be otherwise exposed.

And guess what? It has worked for the most part.

The liberal arts are so important because they grant the recipient of their riches the ticket to intellectual life. This gift is profound in that it is not about filling the brain with information but rather about opening doors on previously invisible worlds.

There are so many worlds of wonder in the intellectual life, and the undergraduate, particularly at a university so obsessed with “research” rather than true education as UK, can scarcely scratch the surface of all the wonders that await one after the flame of intellectual curiosity has been lit.

But my final point is, I believe, the most important, and I yield the floor to a better writer and a better man to make it for me. Mark Twain once commanded young people to not “let school interfere with your education.”

This quote may seem oxymoronic upon first reading, but a kernel of truth so obvious and so liberating exists that it is easily missed. We stroll through our college career obsessed with the chase of the perfect GPA and all the honor tassels we can fit on our cap for the graduation ceremony, all the while forgetting Twain’s admonition. What is important is not how many exams you pass, how many tassels you manage to cram on your cap, or whether your GPA is 3.9 or 4.0.

What is important is whether your experience at the University of Kentucky led you to explore new subjects, new areas of study, new cultures, new languages, new worlds to which you had hitherto been unexposed.

Do not think I am urging a complete eschewal of practical experience, for I am not. But I do hope for the sake of our nation and our world’s intellectual future that you have succeeded in obtaining a liberal arts education, because without a thirst for knowledge, the human spirit begins to wither and die.

And with the withering of the human spirit comes the withering of civilization, a horror to which we should all hope not to become acquainted.