Skip to main content

Outcomes of a liberal arts education

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, which provides a strong liberal arts education that grounds itself in the Common Core, a set of classes (or, increasingly, categories of classes) that all students take to ensure that they can think carefully and broadly [1]. I teach at Grinnell college, which provides a strong liberal arts education this grounds itself in the individually mentored curriculum, an approach that suggests that each student needs to design his, her, hir, or their own approach to the liberal arts. Both approaches can and do succeed. Although I admit some fondness for the common readings inherent in the Common Core [2], as a faculty member, I very much appreciate that the only students in one of my classes are there because they want to learn the material, and not because they have to check off a box [3].

But why have a liberal arts education and what should you expect to gain from it? Many people smarter and more articulate than I have written about this subject. I particularly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity, Robert Hutchins’ Education for Freedom [5], and William Cronon’s Only Connect. Grinnell College’s Mission Statement also describes these goals well. While there are many goals, I find it important that a strong liberal arts education makes you a contributing citizen, a careful thinker, and a capable communicator. It also helps you better understand the other.

However, when I’m talking to students, I often use a very different phrase to describe this kind of education.

The ultimate outcome of a successful liberal arts education is the ability to bullshit clearly and convincingly about almost any topic [7].

I realize that sounds a bit low-minded, but I’m serious in the statement. A liberal arts education should help you quickly analyze a topic from multiple perspectives, formulate some ideas about the topic, and communicate those ideas. I think bullshit is a reasonable term for that combination of skills. To analyze and communicate, one needs to draw upon a wide variety of fields: You may have to think about or incorporate literature; you may have to consider societal issues; you may have to think formally or interpret or use quantitative evidence; you may have to think about how you’d test a hypothesis. Now, many folks can bullshit in a few areas close to their core areas of knowledge. But liberal arts graduates not only understand a broad range of areas, they also know how to quickly get up to speed on others. I think that’s a laudable outcome.

However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that in some cases, bullshit clearly and convincingly may be close to mansplaining. As I noted above, a good liberal arts education helps you understand the other and your effect on the other [8]. I had hoped that convincingly would suggest that need to understand the other, since it’s hard to speak convincingly without understanding and addressing other perspectives. And perhaps it does. But a good liberal arts graduate also knows that there are times when it is appropriate to bullshit and times when it is not. So it is perhaps time for me to revise that statement.

The ultimate outcome of a successful liberal arts education is the ability to bullshit clearly, convincingly, and appropriately about any topic.

I don’t like that statement quite as much, in part because I’ve lost the alliteration in clearly and convincingly, but I can’t think of a synonym for appropriately that begins with a c [9,10]. I do think the additional adverb adds an important context, though. I’ll see how students react when I next use it.

[1] I realize that Chicago has repeatedly gutted the Common Core. The Core still serves an important role, or at least did when I was an undergraduate.

[2] Or at least the Common Core of my generation or my parents’.

[3] Students appreciate it too. There are few things more annoying than a student who has been forced to take a class, is unhappy to be there, and decides to take their unhappiness out on others [4].

[4] I feel like we had very few such students at Chicago. I expect that it’s because when you choose The College, you choose to embrace The Core.

[5] I really need to reread Hutchins [6].

[6] I also need to reread Dewey, particularly in the contexts in which Dewey and Hutchins debated issues. But I’m also finding that I need to reflect more on the intellectual roots of the kind of workshop-style teaching I do in CSC 151. I phrase it as constructivist, but it strikes me that there’s not a lot of the work on what is personally interesting aspect of constructivist education, except in the project. I probably need to reread Papert and some of his intellectual offspring.

[7] Ironically, the Hemingway app tells me that this statement is very hard to read.

[8] Okay, I really said that it allows you to understand the other. But if you understand the other, and your can introspect, you should understand your effect on the other. If you’ve learned well, you care about that effect.

[9] compassionately begins with a c, and I would expect that a strong liberal arts education would breed compassion.

[10] I also thought about introspectively rather than appropriately, but bullshit introspectively is, well, bullshit.

Version 1.0 of 2017-03-04.