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
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
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
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
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