A Shout Out for Liberal Education


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Driving to work the other day, I heard a segment on NPR on whether a BA in literature was a waste of money. The talk focused on the practicality of a skill-oriented degree and touched on the fact that liberal degrees, though not useful on their own, open the door for future educational goals. Harrumph. Here’s the thing–liberal education is more than a stepping stone! And I’ll get into why, but when nobody on this NPR program addressed the real value of a liberal education, I literally had to pull over and let out 10 rhythmic, yogic lion-breath screams. A poor pedestrian who happened to walk by my car stopped and politely knocked on my window to check if I was OK. I reassured her that I was doing fine, simply practicing my “Agni” fire breath for my yoga class. (If she wasn’t already a yoga practitioner, I’m not sure my Agni will get her there… unless her curiosity gets the better of her… but I digress…)

Liberal education is not only useful, it’s a prerequisite, the life blood of a healthy society. I am not advocating that we should all have degrees in art history or literature, but I do believe that we should all take courses in philosophy, literature and art. Practical degrees in science, medicine, computer science and vocational trades should have a strong mandatory curriculum in liberal education. Instead, what we have is a constant reduction in arts, music and literature, starting in junior high. We mock and question philosophy and art history degrees, we hear this dialogue from our President and our media. I feel this is a great mistake, like I said, liberal education is the life blood of a healthy society.

Historically when a political power wanted to overtake a minority group, the first thing the leaders did was destroy the minority culture’s literature, art and identity. I fear a future where we are no longer valuing our own heritage.

History helps us understand our past, which is necessary in understanding our present. We live in a global reality, where we need to understand and listen to each other, not only in our school or work environments, not only in our communities and cities, but also nationally, and internationally. Here, we live in a democracy where our votes matter. Where our questions for our leaders can shape the trajectory of where we’re headed. Without a sense of where we come from, how are we possibly able to navigate where we’re going? How are we able to ask deeper, better informed questions?

Literature allows us to see multiple points of view, allows us to explore different national and economic backgrounds, and gives us a deeper understanding of the human condition. Literature allows us to hear stories from other people, other cultures, across time. Ultimately, literature creates empathy for people who aren’t like you. I see the world differently because of Richard Wright’s The Outsider, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth, Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood, Mihail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita… Empathy and understanding can pave the road to peace, both nationally and internationally.

And I’m just scratching the surface. The gift of history and literature is that it brings us closer to the human condition. We are not isolated, and our actions and inactions aren’t unique. Our joys and sorrows, our problems and triumphs, these span the human race, regardless of wealth and nationality. When we begin to see ourselves as utterly human, we find that we are more alike than not.

Psychology, philosophy, and scriptures provide a window to the heart and soul. We see our problems questioned by Aristotle, discussed by Buddha, explained by Confucius, analyzed by C.G. Jung–we’re not alone, and we have a lot to learn from one another. We may be training great engineers or medical workers, but what will these folks do without understanding humanity? How will they respond to their heartaches, disillusionments? How will they relate to patients from different cultures? It’s not our computer skills, or our gadgets, that make us whole. Prozac won’t help us through heartbreak and sorrow.

To have a political system that has value, a communication system that can do more than emoticons, doctors who see more than data, to have marriages last and friendships blossom, to not be afraid of the new, whether that is new immigration or a new job–for this we need our stories, our histories, and the skills necessary to read them, and to respond to them.

It is in this spirit that I teach my 40 Days of Introspection. To reignite our ancient fire for self-searching, questioning, and knowledge. To connect real people with real conversations. To feel our shared humanness.

The question, dear NPR, is not whether or not we need liberal education. The question is how long could we survive without it? I have to admit, I have a double degree in Neurobiology and Art History, and it is Art History that continues to make my life richer.

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