As millions of students, including more than 250,000 in the Atlanta area, head to college for a new academic year, it’s a good time to consider the value of the liberal arts and sciences. Now, let me say at the outset that the word “liberal” in this context isn’t political (i.e., the opposite of “conservative,”), but rather refers to education in a variety of disciplines.
As Gerald Greenburg explains, such learning engenders “freedom” rather than “constraint or subjugation,” and “teaches [us] how to think critically, communicate clearly, analyze and solve complex problems, appreciate others, understand the physical world, and be prepared to learn continuously so [we] can work with others and on their own to meet the challenges of the future.”
Yet while most undergraduates experience some exposure to the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that cultivate these attributes, the larger culture doesn’t seem to hold these disciplines in particularly high. Rather, in the last decade or so, STEM curricula—i.e., those that focus on applied science, technology, engineering, and math—have become king. (To extend the analogy in slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion, professional programs such as business and nursing also remain high-ranking members in the royal court of higher education.)
And while plenty of well-informed people argue that liberal education is vital to maintaining a healthy American society— here's a Washington Post piece that very case—many students and parents look at courses in these areas merely as hurdles to be cleared to get to the important stuff.
Even some academics in STEM and professional disciplines feel this way. For example, several years ago, a senior Engineering student in my honors course on Myth and Folklore sheepishly approached me halfway through the semester with a withdrawal slip in hand. He was one of the most engaged, enthusiastic members of the class, but he explained that his Engineering advisor insisted he drop the class to prioritize his major requirements.
I signed the form with a broken heart—not for myself, but for him. Before leaving, he told he’d been inspired to think about things that other courses ever addressed, such as how cultures develop ideas and stories that help them define themselves and the larger world, both for good and ill. Frankenstein, a modern myth that raises questions about science that we still grapple with two hundred years after its publication, was understandably one of his favorite reading assignments.
Muslim students, especially those from immigrant families, also seem susceptible to the idea that liberal education is largely a waste of time. Now, I want to be careful not to over-generalize here—after all, liberal education teaches us to be skeptical of stereotypes—but my 20-year career as a college administrator and professor has provided some pretty compelling evidence of this.,
As just one example, a few years ago, two female Muslim students, one from a family of Turkish immigrants, the other Pakistani, confided that while they loved Humanities courses, they felt pressure from many quarters to limit how many such classes they took. Happily one of them ended up minoring in English. They both went on to medical school.
Recalling these two inquisitive, well-rounded young women brings to mind a quote from an essay in Growing Up Muslim: Muslim College Students Tell Their Life Stories (a collection I highly recommend). In a compelling piece titled “A Muslim Citizen of the Democratic West,” Aly Rahim explains how his Ugandan father and Pakistani mother exposed him to the liberal arts at a young age. “Towers of books have always filled an entire floor of our home,” he writes. “Scanning the spines, you might see Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, a book on Sufi mystical traditions, and a volume of Wordsworth’s poetry all stacked together.” Rahim, who went on to work for the World Bank after graduation, laments that so many of his peers have eschewed engagement with the liberal arts and instead focused solely on so-called practical fields.
I’d like to close by emphasizing that exposure to the liberal arts and sciences isn’t just about being well-rounded and personally fulfilled, though those things are important. Actually, the health of American democracy depends on young people being liberally educated.
The xenophobic, and particularly Islamophobic, the climate in American society—as well as the shockingly widespread lack of respect for facts and evidence—make it more important than ever that Muslims and non-Muslims alike seek out and embrace liberal learning.
I am, of course, particularly keen on the positive effects of reading literature, and recent studies, such as the one discussed in this story from The Guardian, suggest that engagement with imaginative literature strengthens our powers of empathy (or, more precisely, what psychologists call “theory of mind.”) But there are many disciplines, from anthropology to history to sociology to philosophy, that push us to deepen and strengthen both our critical thinking skills and our empathy—two faculties that must exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship if our pluralistic democracy is to survive.
Mark S. Graybill is a Professor of English at Widener University near Philadelphia, PA.