Liberal Education's Positive Role in Society

Every once in a while insight comes from surprising corners and when it does it can be all the more powerful because of its unexpected presence. Two high school seniors have eloquently debunked a growing but terribly informed popular meme while, at the same time, providing hope for the political process in the United States. Let me explain.

The two students, Shelby Gordon from Walla Walla High School and Jake Vasilj from Mead Senior High School in Spokane, were the first and second prize winners in a statewide essay contest sponsored by the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA). WaCLA, an organization of more than 30 public and private, two- and four-year institutions in Washington State created to promote the value of a liberal arts education to the people and communities of Washington, asked high school seniors to reflect on the relationship between the liberal arts and American democracy. Shelby and Jake¸ winners of $3,000 and $2,000 college scholarships, respectively, did just that creatively and powerfully.

At a time when many are looking to institutions of higher education to provide credentialing that will lead to a first job rather than for an education that will enable students to become community leaders, productive workers and thoroughly engaged citizens, Shelby and Jake each articulated a far more holistic perspective. Similarly, at a time when the liberal arts are under attack for being elitist and useless, both Shelby and Jake demonstrated just how misguided and short sighted that perspective is.

Building on the writings of Aristotle, Shelby made the case that "the goal of education is not to teach what virtue is, but to mold students into virtuous individuals." She went on to assert that if "people are virtuous, democratic government thrives and the best interests of the nation are served. If the people are not shaped by virtue, the nation crumbles under the corrupt self-serving rule."

Interestingly, Jake, too, looked to the liberal arts as a way to minimize the possibility of corruption in government. "Training of the mind and the exposure to an array of ideas instills the kind of tolerance, civility, and creativity needed in the active citizens of a democracy; without these essential ingredients, it is all too easy for corruption to take root."

What both of these students recognize is that the broad values inherent in a liberal arts education are critically important for both the individual and for society. As Shelby noted, this type of education allows students to go beyond the quotidian and make use of "application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation enabling them to formulate creative solutions to problems."

Implicit in all that they have written is the belief that integrated knowledge is more valuable than compartmentalized information. When we have the tools to examine a problem from multiple perspectives we are far more likely to arrive at a meaningful solution. Different ways of knowing can yield significant insight and should be embraced if we are to achieve our full human potential.

Unfortunately, today, as in the past, this is not always the case. For example, in Part II of his 1819 poem, Lamia, John Keats laments how some knowledge can remove awe from the world:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

He then goes on to pen one of his most evocative phrases, arguing how Isaac Newton's work on prisms led him to "unweave the rainbow." In fact, though, science and art can come together to create understanding without diminishing wonder. Even as we comprehend how light is refracted by raindrops, we are able to revel in the beauty of a multi-colored rainbow.

The full reach of the liberal arts allows us to make use of all that humans have discovered. As Shelby and Jake, and so many others who participated in WaCLA's essay contest, have demonstrated, doing so is as valuable for individuals as it is for society.

At a time when our political process seems to be unraveling and politicians are attacking various liberal arts majors, it is both refreshing and reassuring to see that some of our high school students have a more nuanced, and far more optimistic, view of education.