College of Arts and Sciences

"Can the Liberal Arts Save Democracy"

by Keith Boeckelman, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Political Science

As John noted in his introduction, throughout the years a pervasive theme of this lecture series, including the first, is that the liberal arts are under attack and need to be defended.  This idea has bled into the broader culture.  This recent book by Fareed Zakaria “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” carries this message.  Slide.  Zakaria argues that the skills you learn in the liberal arts disciplines are actually more beneficial on the job market than many believe.  He quotes Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard who argues that a liberal arts education prepares you for your sixth job, not your first. 

More recently a study by Google analyzed hiring, firing, and promotion data for its employees.  It found that skills associated with liberal arts majors were better at predicting employee success than technical expertise.  Slide. These included communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, having empathy, being a good critical thinker and problem solver, making connections across complex ideas.   Other defenders of the liberal arts emphasize how they contribute to the quality of one’s life in a broader sense, making it richer. The late Earl Shorris developed a program, the Clemente Course, named after the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and philanthropist to teach low income people liberal arts subjects, especially the humanities.  He argued that the liberal arts enriches people both materially and socio-culturally.  Slide. He quotes a student who took the program in a prison.  She said that people are poor because “they don’t have the moral life of downtown -- plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”  Shorris himself added, “Society has already denied them access to the very works and ideas that bring people legitimate power in a democracy.  That is why they are poor, why their parents are poor.” Read more