As a published writer of poetry and fiction and a college professor who has taught literature, creative writing, linguistics, and women’s studies at eight different colleges and universities, I am distressed that some people now denigrate the study of humanities and social sciences. Opponents of the liberal arts argue that these fields do not prepare students for jobs as well as courses in areas like business and medicine. However, education must prepare individuals for all aspects of life, including citizenship and exercise of the imagination.
Many famous writers and educators have explored the connections between a liberal arts education and fitness for citizenship. For example, S. T. Coleridge defends universal education, which was very controversial in the 1800s, because the responsibilities of citizenship in a free country require learning. According to Coleridge, a good education leads to self-realization, concern for other people, and morality. He reminds us that the phrase “liberal education” emphasizes that education produces people who have “mastered all the conditions of freedom” (Letter to James Gillman, Jr., 1826).
Perhaps those who discount teaching humanities and social sciences should read the essay “Universities and Their Function” (1927), in which Alfred North Whitehead defends higher education in this way: “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” An “imaginative” approach to learning includes questioning of the status quo and a concern to represent different perspectives, such as multicultural awareness and gender sensitivity. Good liberal arts courses have always encouraged a proliferation of ideas and creativity, and I believe that they continue to do so.
Originally posted on June 29, 2013