The single best guarantee of ensuring a successful, fulfilling life for a young person is still a rigorous, well-rounded liberal arts education. That is a bit miraculous, given the scale and pace of the current social, economic, and technological changes we are witnessing. But it is true.
A brief rationale: knowledge remains the key to academic and professional success nowadays, but not in its pure form. As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with the knowledge. But that is precisely the goal of a quality liberal arts education: to teach young people “The best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold described the cultural canon, and simultaneously to familiarize them with the ways in which educated people think about, discuss, critique, and generally engage with the ideas and issues that have formed civilization. There can be no greater task and challenge for both educators and students, there is no conceivable cognitive, aesthetic, emotional or social capability or sensibility that a truly excellent liberal arts education cannot provide.
Does the classical paradigm need to be brought into the 21st century? Absolutely. Far more women, people of color, the voices of the common people and dispossessed…all must be put firmly into the core of the canon if the liberal arts are to retain their relevance in modern times. And some heartfelt mea culpas would not be inappropriate either. Just as importantly, the humanities need to explore new ways to respond to the digital age. It very well might be that the age of print is behind us: so what shall lovers of Dickinson and Flaubert do, hide away in libraries waiting for the world to end? Young people today are more in need of the insights and experiences of history’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists than ever before. The question is how to get them interested in slow, subtle and deliberate thinking and feeling when their devices are leading them in precisely the opposite direction.
Above all, we should never forget the shining core and promise of a genuinely deep, broad humanistic education: to ‘educare’ , “lead out”, from every learner, in consonance with the contours of the most profound ideas, art, and language of our civilization, their intellectual and aesthetic best. Education is for eternity, not just to get a job.