In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Posted by: Tom Keene on December 8, 2011

Few entry-level jobs in any field necessitate four years of specialized undergraduate study. The same holds true for professional graduate programs: it may seem that medical schools demand biology majors or that law schools want applicants with bachelor’s degrees in economics, political science, or pre-law. But the professional schools themselves, especially the good ones, tell a very different story. They want flexible, adaptable minds, minds exposed to a broad range of knowledge and trained in rigorous critical thinking.

James Engell, Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University

Aristophanes. I was just 17, and you know what I mean. I was clueless. Dean Max Peters, of the fighting Colorado Buffalos, had dictated that I should be “liberal,” and enjoy the Great Books as I ground through quantum mechanics.

My “liberal arts” was blessed and fortunate. Others, too many others, and more so today, are less liberal.

Jerry P. King nails this in the dueling faculty lunch-room scene in his classic The Art of Mathematics. The Nerds talk about the arts, because they often had a broad range of education and wanted to meet girls. The hip liberal arts majors could not and do not speak of math and science.

It is worse, today. Few would know Db from C# if it hit them over the head. (Hint. They are not the same.)

We have bar-belled our way to pure technocrats (job) and ever purer arts majors (no job) who are aggressively anti-math.

I suggest balance. We need arts-types who understand the statics and dynamics of the Calculus (there are 12 in New York City). We need engineers that know Yeats from Keats (I’m guessing 23).

Urgently, we need to defend against the certitude, the inflexible, unadaptable mantra of technocracy as solution and sole path to a job.

Do both! Go on the science/arts, arts/science track. You’ll be a girl and/or guy magnet. And push back always in defense of the liberal arts. Discuss.

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EconoChat captures Tom Keene's thoughts on economics, finance and investment. He is editor-at-large for Bloomberg News and hosts Bloomberg Surveillance and Bloomberg on the Economy on NYC1130, Sirius 129 and XM 130 and Surveillance Midday on Bloomberg Television. His complete interviews are at Tom Keene on Demand. Look for Tom on twitter @tomkeene

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