College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Learning How To Think Never Has Been Worth More

By Michael Zimmerman

When the U.S. Department of Education opened for business in 1980 it selected as its motto "Learning Never Ends." Those of us who believe in the importance and vibrancy of the liberal arts would endorse that sentiment wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, a liberal arts education sometimes is the most misunderstood, under-appreciated and undervalued form of education in existence today.

There are not many among us who will doubt the importance of plumbing or an aircraft maintenance course. Similarly, questions rarely are asked about the value of a nursing degree. But most people encountering a student studying philosophy will wonder, "What good is that?"

In fact, most of the subjects comprising the liberal arts, from geography to Japanese, from music to mathematics, and from archaeology to zoology, literally from A to Z, engender the same sort of questions. Recognizing that all forms of education are wonderful, it is worth pointing out what makes the liberal arts unique.

Those of us who live and teach the liberal arts believe it is incredibly valuable to study the classics, an English sonnet, an arcane philosopher or the language of a culture other than our own. We believe that it is valuable to do all of those things, and many more like them, even if not a soul ever could point to any one of those activities and say you will be better off monetarily because of them.

That is one of the biggest differences between professional and vocational schools on one hand and liberal arts colleges on the other. While the former train students for a profession, the latter train them for life.

A good liberal arts college will not necessarily teach students anything terribly useful, unless you consider thinking to be a useful skill.

A good liberal arts college will focus on three broad areas: critical thinking, writing and oral communication.

A good liberal arts college will force students to ask questions rather than provide them with answers. If you're interested in answers, you're better off watching Jeopardy than going to a good liberal arts college.

One of the things a good liberal arts college ought to do is make students very uncomfortable from the very first day they arrive on campus. Professors and fellow students ought to be forcing every student to examine her or his most deeply held beliefs. They should be encouraging students to re-examine the basic assumptions that are so central to who they are that they take them for granted.

Now don't get me wrong. No one should be forcing a student to change any of those beliefs. No, professors and fellow students should be forcing each and every student to look closely at those beliefs and to defend them logically and articulately. If a student can't do that, if she or he can't defend those beliefs intellectually, then perhaps it is time to reassess and redefine what is believed.

When students are able to defend heart-felt beliefs in a rational and articulate way, they have learned an enormous amount about those beliefs and, more importantly, about themselves.

But make no mistake about it. It is scary to have to think deeply about things you've "known" all of your life. It is scary to have all of your ideas impugned without feeling that you yourself are being impugned.

A good liberal arts college should be a place where ideas are challenged, or even attacked, but where people always are valued. All open and honest debate should be revered while all attacks on individuals or groups of people should be condemned.

Because of just this sort of open debate, a good college or university probably will make some local citizens uncomfortable. Voices on campus should be espousing unpopular views, questioning some aspects of the dominant system of values or just plain asking difficult questions. Debate and dialogue of this sort usually reflect a lively intellectual community.

Because "learning never ends," we must recognize that one of the most valuable skills to learn is the ability to learn. The ability to acquire new knowledge and the ability to synthesize discrepant pieces of information is the real mark of the educated person. It doesn't take intelligence to memorize pieces of information, but it sure does to put those pieces together to form an interesting whole.

And just in case that's not enough for you, educational research repeatedly has shown that liberal arts graduates, regardless of major, are in great demand in almost every field precisely because they bring these skills to the workplace. Employers are willing to pay handsomely for them; in purely monetary terms, a liberal arts degree never has been worth more.

Published in the Oshkosh Northwestern 10-3-00