Hello Wendy, Part One: In which we are properly warned not to heed the oligarchs’ call to discount the value of liberal arts degrees.

Or else THIS happens.

First, we have this wonderful statement of principle doubling as a middle finger to oligarchs everywhere.

In Part Two, there’s a look back at what first prompted this specific middle finger to the oligarchs … one that isn’t being decommissioned, any time soon.

Bellarmine professor: Don’t discount the value of liberal arts degrees, by Dr. Justin D. Klassen (Courier Journal)

The liberal arts, and the humanities especially, are under attack these days for their supposed uselessness. Gov. Matt Bevin recently urged universities to cut programs that do not generate obvious economic returns for students, and mentioned “interpretive dance” as one example.

Bevin is not alone in his thinking. In 2015, for instance, Japan’s government urged its national universities to close faculties of humanities and social sciences, ostensibly to prepare students better for competing in a technology-oriented global economy.

Gov. Bevin and the Japanese government are not wrong to seek value for the money we invest in education. Where they are misguided is in their understanding of how to measure the value of education. This, above all, is where we need some clarity. If we take this question seriously, both philosophically and in terms of the data, it becomes clear that the most trustworthy measure of education’s value is breadth, specifically the breadth of subjects and ideas covered.

I understand if this sounds far-fetched at first glance. Even students who choose to attend a liberal arts school tend to see breadth requirements as needless obstacles to what they “really” should be doing.

I know from years of reading course evaluations, however, that many of these same students discover over time that breadth is more tangibly and enduringly valuable than specialization alone. Seeing the world through the lenses of disciplines beyond their major teaches a crucial lesson: that the world is more complex than any one discipline could ever capture.

This discovery is no small or useless thing! Indeed, we should not consider ourselves mature human beings until we can admit and abide the complexity of life, which is precisely what a liberal arts education makes possible. That is to say, a broad education reveals the world’s uncountable nuances, while giving us the tools we need to approach them with confidence. Such an education therefore frees us to be creative where we might otherwise accept the status quo without question. It prepares us to be more compassionate with others, by requiring us to see our fellow human beings beyond easy stereotypes, and thus as possible collaborators and friends.

In a word, a broad education frees us to be reverent. Reverence, says the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor, is “the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.” The liberal arts can teach us this properly human attitude. Honestly, what could be more valuable?
If you are willing to grant that a liberal arts education is transformative and even liberating, yet remain skeptical that knowing something about history or ecology or literature will enhance one’s employability in a specific field, please bear with me just a moment longer.

A friend of mine sells commercial real estate in a booming North American city. He makes a lot of money. He has been at it for a while now and regularly hires entry-level agents, drawing from a growing pool of similarly credentialed applicants. When he interviews people for open positions, he says he can tell immediately who has had a broad undergraduate education and who has not. Knowing that he prefers the former candidates, he spends little time these days looking for specialized credentials alone. Instead, he looks at where applicants went to college, and prioritizes those with liberal arts degrees.

Why is this important to him? Does he spend his days arguing about Plato, or Emily Dickinson? Is he some egghead realtor, with a penchant for “interpretive dance”? No. He spends his time building relationships with clients and prospective clients, and he needs co-workers who know how to relate to people with a wide range of backstories. In other words, he needs people experienced in being humane, in thinking on their feet, in listening and making arguments with sympathy and grace. He can teach them the industry-specific skills they need. But he can’t teach them from scratch to be mature, well-rounded human beings, which he knows is more crucial to their business success than any credential on its own.

My friend is not alone in his understanding of the value of a liberal arts degree.

We must vehemently reject fashionable dismissals of the liberal arts. If we really care about getting value for our education dollars, we can do no better than to demand from our schools and our policymakers a promise to educate our citizenry broadly. And to my colleagues who profess various disciplinary approaches to the truth of our human condition: let us make this promise loudly, and continue in our fidelity to it.

(Dr. Justin D. Klassen is associate professor of theology at Bellarmine) University.