College for the Marketplace

The instrumental or job-producing value of a college education, and the role of colleges and universities as economic drivers in their local and regional communities, has dominated the conversation about the purpose of higher education in recent years.

Fueled by the lingering effects of the great recession of 2008 and the escalating cost of tuition and fees, the remunerative function, or return on investment of a college education, seems uppermost in the minds of families and their college-age students, not to mention their elected political representatives. Graduates need to acquire the professional skills (a saleable commodity) appropriate to a rapidly changing marketplace. Once the degree is in hand, they should begin contributing to the marketplace of goods and services at the heart of an advanced consumer economy.

For most college graduates, these are acceptable obligations and reasonable expectations. There are, after all, loans to be repaid, careers to be established, homes to be purchased, and, for many, families to support. The pattern is familiar to us. College as the locus of job training for entry-level professional careers has always been an implicit part of higher education's mandate. Even the great medieval universities, where the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) served as the core curriculum, played an important role in training men of privilege for in-demand clerical, legal, and medical careers.

Today's graduates are rightly eager to apply their specialized skills in the much wider economic marketplace. But there is, or at least there ought to be, a part of us that cannot be quantified or commodified, or as Scott Samuelson, author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone puts it, a part of us "that is not up for sale."

This second marketplace, what we might call the marketplace of big ideas, reflection and renewal, resides just beyond the horizon of our busy workaday lives and is an equally important part of the training that distinguishes most universities, and liberal arts colleges in particular. At its best, the undergraduate experience at liberal arts colleges affords students the privilege of an extended interval in their lives where they can investigate, debate, and reflect on the big questions and their significance for lives of meaning and larger purpose.

The tools available to us for engaging with the big questions are exercised and refined across the curriculum: reflective reading, careful listening and speaking, numeracy, rational thinking and self-understanding, cultural awareness, judgment and empathy. These skills are practiced in virtually every major, giving the lie to the notion that an unbridgeable gap exists between the liberal arts and the so-called professional disciplines.

The philosopher Mortimer Adler once wisely observed that the liberal arts cannot be tied exclusively to specific disciplines or academic majors, but instead are housed in the component parts of every academic subject that develop our powers of intelligence and imagination, powers required for all walks of professional-- and personal-- life. These powers are as likely to be cultivated in a clinical nursing lab as they are in a history seminar, through a management internship and in a community-based anthropology project.

Put another way, academic discipline is an imprecise measure of exposure to the skills and intellectual dispositions normally associated with the liberal arts, and the marketplace of big ideas. As long as we equate liberal education with training for free humans, for engaged citizens, for reflective producers and consumers, for empathetic caregivers, we must reject the false claim that professional or applied fields ignore these skills. Not at liberal arts colleges, anyway.

To think rationally and speak cogently, discover and weigh evidence objectively, write concisely and clearly, understand and appreciate the limits of human knowledge, interact respectfully and with consideration for the greater good, practice resilience in the face of change and challenge-- these are skills and dispositions essential to both the marketplace of material goods and to the marketplace of big ideas. And no single academic major or cluster of disciplines holds monopoly control over these core features of a liberal arts education.

At the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle invited his readers to consider the ends of each human activity, to aim at some larger good, in order to achieve lives rich in experience, meaning, and purpose. Today we might call this "seeing things whole," setting our practical, applied, or professional activities in a deeper, more inclusive context.

Liberal arts colleges and universities, by virtue of their smaller scale and interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning, view training for the marketplace of goods and services as necessary but not sufficient for the life worth living. Absent a parallel exposure to, and guided engagement with the marketplace of big ideas, our specialized professional careers, irrespective of income, offer us neither compelling purpose nor lasting promise.