The idea of a ‘liberal’ education comes from ancient times when people were given an education suitable for a free person, not a slave. Slaves were taught what they needed to know to do whatever jobs their masters gave them. Knowing anything else was unnecessary. But for free people—people who were citizens—people who participated in the governing of their community—they needed to have the understanding required to be effective citizens—to participate effectively in the governance of their community. So they were given a diverse education—delivering a broad knowledge of all that was known—to enrich their lives and enable them to participate effectively in individual and societal decision-making. They needed to be well- and broadly- informed to do this.
That tradition of education continued for millennia and expanded as knowledge of different subject matters expanded. The societal need for this sort of education expanded profoundly in recent centuries as more and more societies became democracies with virtually all residents as citizens; nearly every adult now participated democratically in the governance of their society. They needed the broad understanding necessary to exercise well-informed judgment in shared societal decision-making.
Recently, there have been powerful forces at work against broadly providing such an education. The amount of knowledge available in various areas has exploded beyond what any one person could know. There is disagreement about what people really need to know to flourish and contribute maximally to their society. And many of the theories propounded in various disciplines have been perceived by many as even dangerous nonsense.
An education came to be perceived primarily as a ticket to employment. It became understood primarily as an economic investment. (And it has, generally, been a very good economic investment; those who receive liberal educations acquire the cognitive and communication skills that help them excel in nearly any enterprise.) But then people began thinking, ‘Why do you need to know that to get a job?’ In fact, perhaps if you just concentrate on what you need to know to do the particular job you’re interested in, you will have a leg up in competing for those jobs and excelling in that economic enterprise. (Never mind having the wherewithal to get promoted up the ladder.)
As a result there has been an expansion of ‘professional’ programs designed to launch specific careers and a reduction in the reputation and delivery of ‘liberal’ education. Even Bachelor of Arts degrees—the quintessential liberal arts degree (though Bachelor of Science degrees also traditionally delivered liberal education)—reduced the amount of liberal—diverse—education they required. They expanded the extent to which students were enabled, and even required, to specialize in one discipline, and reduced the extent to which students were required to acquire a broad education. In fact, expanding specialization made it more difficult to acquire a broad education. By not specifying, requiring, or even recommending to students the most important things they need to know to flourish and become well-informed citizens, students are led to specialize in one or two disciplines, take minimal “distribution requirements”—a vestige of former liberal education—and leave the students to choose to study whatever else interests them. Little is done to ensure that they receive the broad understanding required to exercise well-informed judgment as citizens.
Now, of course, if you are exercising political or economic power and you just want people who will be effective servants in your political or economic machine—if you want workers in your business who will do their jobs effectively and not ask questions—if you want people who will continue voting for you and keep you in power without the wherewithal to question the way you are governing—this is all for the good. Slaves are useful.
But if we want effective citizens, education fit for citizens is required. And that means a broad education—an education providing broad understanding of people and the world, developing broadly their cognitive and communication skills. Because the most difficult problems facing society, and even businesses, are problems requiring knowledge and expertise from a variety of areas and the application of diverse methods, liberal education is what is required to effectively address these problems.
Liberal education—teaching a broad knowledge and basic understanding of diverse methodologies and ways of learning—better prepares an individual to navigate well an incredibly diverse and rapidly changing world.
Of course, there will be much disagreement among academics, and everyone else, about which specific knowledge, skills, and attributes are most important for citizens to possess in order to flourish as individuals and contribute maximally to society. But there is a simple way to address this and make sure that students receive a broad education, while also respecting the academic freedom of the professorate:
1) Each department delivering a particular discipline offers at least one course which it designs to
a. deliver the most important insights from that discipline which it believe people should know even if they never take another course in that discipline, and
b. teaches students the fundamental methodologies of that discipline.
2) Each student is then required to take x number of such courses in x different disciplines.
a. If we make this 10 one-semester (3-hour) courses, this will be one full-time year of study.
3) Require that these x number of courses include a certain number of courses from each of the general areas of study: Natural Science, Social Science, Humanities, Management.
One can receive such an education and a solid foundation for a career.
In this simple way, students will—if the departments and professors are doing their jobs properly—receive an excellent liberal education. They will receive an education suited to citizens—designed to enable them to acquire a broad understanding of people and the world, the best methods of pursuing answers to diverse questions, and an education suited to best help individuals flourish in their lives and participate effectively as citizens.