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September 4, 2010 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend an essay that defends a liberal education?

I'm teaching college freshman English and I inherited a class and syllabus at the last minute from someone who could no longer do it. So I'm stuck with his assignments, readings, etc. at least for the first few weeks while I get my bearings. We just read some articles about what's wrong with American college education. Can you recommend any glittering defenses of liberal arts?
posted by Buffaload to Education (14 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head: Leo Strauss, "What Is Liberal Education?"
posted by hansbrough at 6:41 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

William Cronon, "Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education"
posted by trampoliningisfun at 6:44 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

David Foster Wallace's now super famous Kenyon Commencement Speech.
posted by jenmess at 6:48 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Earlier this year I heard an interview with a woman named Katharine Brooks of the University of Texas, and some of the things she said about the liberal arts have stuck with me several months later. The entire interview comprises both what's right and wrong with the field, so I wouldn't call it a "glittering defense," but the "pros" section, I think, is right down your alley. This is the portion I though of immediately when I read your question:

"Brooks: ..I liken it to the BASF campaign. BASF talks about -- we make these various chemicals; we don't make the final product. Well, that's liberal arts. We make the product better. We don't make the lawyer, but we make the lawyer better.

Ryssdal: Should we be worried then about a whole generation of lawyers and Wall Street bankers, without art history in their background...

Brooks: To be honest, I would worry about that, because I think that's the value of liberal arts. It enhances the person, it gives you new ways of viewing a situation and I'll tell you, it might have helped if some of our leaders of AIG and Wall Street and elsewhere had had a little classics training in their background."

Maybe a little Googling on Katharine Brooks will yield more along these lines.
posted by celilo at 6:54 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

David Brooks had a nice column on this topic in June.
posted by deadweightloss at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a huge set of books called 'Great Works of the Western World' published by Britannica. It's kind of old, but it includes works by Plato, Dostoevsky, and more. The first book in this set is called 'The Great Conversation', and the author writes a lot to promote the importance of liberal arts. You can read the first chapter online here. The whole book in PDF is here.
posted by some idealist at 7:13 AM on September 4, 2010

For the entertainment of the Harvard School of Education, Chris Nelson, the president of St. John's College Annapolis campus, recently debated with the "president" of the University of Phoenix about the value of liberal arts education. His speech is here.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:17 AM on September 4, 2010

Every year at the University of Chicago, the Aims of Education address is given to the new students. You can find all of them from the last 20 years here. I can only vouch for 2004.
posted by phunniemee at 7:55 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are several essays by Martha Nussbaum on this subject. This one, for example, addresses the importance of a liberal education in a global community. The AACU's resource page on the subject will also point you to interesting defenses from all kinds of perspectives.
posted by beanie at 9:46 AM on September 4, 2010

There's an essay in today's Globe and Mail titled: Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?
posted by trigger at 10:24 AM on September 4, 2010

One thing to try would be to contrast and compare "liberal arts" with "liberal politics" (and possibly with "classical liberal politics").

My own opinion is that both sides are right: college should prepare you for a career with solid training in a particular skill, AND with the standard broad liberal education. Doesn't have to be either or.
posted by gjc at 10:26 AM on September 4, 2010

An article by Michael Roth (Wesleyan president) with links.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:29 AM on September 4, 2010

I second Martha Craven Nussbaum, including her book, "Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education".
posted by simulacra at 10:29 AM on September 4, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. Always impressed when I come here. Thank you all.
posted by Buffaload at 11:11 AM on September 4, 2010

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