Why Liberal Arts Create a Solid Educational Foundation
Philip Bigler, a humanities teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, was the 1998 National Teacher of the Year. Thomas Jefferson High is proud of its well-deserved reputation for academic excellence. Most of their students are destined for high-powered careers in engineering, science, mathematics, medicine, or technology, but still, the school firmly believes in a solid liberal arts foundation. Thomas Jefferson High requires that all students complete four years of history and English, and they are encouraged to take other Social Studies electives as well because no other foundation prepares them so fully for life. Philip Bigler writes the following to explain why liberals arts are important to all students regardless of their major in college.
I recommend to my students that, in college, they study a wide variety of subjects and use this special experience to explore the realms of knowledge that are unfamiliar to them. College is a unique period in their life where they are free to pursue the mysteries of the world’s great religions and to examine Pre-Columbian archaeology. It is an opportunity to perform Greek drama and to debate the merits of the French Revolution. Abigail Adams, the remarkable wife of our second president, put it succinctly, “Youth is the best season wherein to acquire knowledge. ‘Tis a season when we are freest from care, the mind is then unencumbered and more capable of receiving impressions than in an advanced age – in youth the mind is like a tender twig, which you may bend as you please, but in age like a sturdy oak and hard to move.” Ultimately, we become truly educated in college. In today’s increasingly complex and demanding world, it is imperative that the physicist has read Shakespeare and that the musician understands computers.
A solid liberal arts education provides texture to our existence, while the knowledge that is obtained provides judgment in time of crisis; solace in periods of despair; perspective on occasions of joy; and in daily life, contentment. Moreover, no government, no economic condition, no person can ever deprive an educated person of his mind or of knowledge. Life is unpredictable and our own education is a continuous, lifelong process. No one can accurately predict what the future holds or what lessons taught in school or gleaned from reading a book will ultimately prove relevant.
Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett once observed that while in college, students are engaged in the important business of accumulating their own intellectual capital. They are challenged by their professors to read a wide variety of books, write scholarly papers, conduct meaningful research, and perfect the disciplines necessary to complete complex projects. These skills are useful to all employers regardless of vocation, and that is why so many liberal arts majors excel in a wide variety of work environments.
Later in life, time becomes a cherished commodity. Jobs, families, and other obligations take their toll and as a result, few adults will spend their free evenings reading the classics, studying philosophy, or learning a new foreign language. The truly educated person has established a solid liberal arts foundation to draw upon. This is why I believe in education for education’s sake.
Why Study the Liberal Arts?
Leon Botstein, President, Bard College writes the following to explain the benefits of a liberal arts education.
Simply put, the studying of liberal arts teaches critical thinking and self-expression; they nurture independence and self-confidence and strengthen the capacity for tolerant criticism. Most of all, they engender curiosity. They convey the pleasure and delight that all learning and discovery should inspire. Students in the liberals arts find out how to learn on their own, to teach themselves, and to find answers to complex questions. These habits stay with graduates long after college. For more details about the liberal arts, we recommend Why Choose the Liberal Arts?