Liberal arts education has become one of those overused terms like happiness and success that has slowly lost its intentional meaning. A liberal arts degree is often blamed for its impracticality and its bleak future for the graduates. Common conversations mention that liberal arts degrees, such as English and philosophy, prepare their students for nothing but to be a coffee barista at Starbucks. Our culture of specialization, a culture that was heavily molded by the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, is obsessed with practicality and tends to shun everything that does not give us profitable, immediate, and countable results. Of course, it is hard to understand the reasons why people would spend four years of their lives studying the writings of Virginia Wolf or the history of ancient stoicism. The outcomes of learning those topics are hard to measure in any ways. This is not the failing of the choice that one engages, but it is the failing of our culture that does not recognize the deeper value of liberal arts education.
Albert Einstein expressed his disillusionment of the culture of specialization and the forgotten value of liberal arts education through a meaningful essay titled “Education for Independent Thoughts,” which was published in the New York Times on October 5th, 1952. Later in 1954, this essay along with his other essays and speeches on Jewish people, the meaning of life, Germany, contribution to science, government, education, politics, and freedom were meticulously gathered into a book called Ideas and Opinions (Public Library).
Einstein began his essay by offering his reflective thoughts on the danger of specialization:
“It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he–with his specialized knowledge–more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.”
I like this notion of “a well-trained dog” that he coined. It is a harsh concept, but it illustrates precisely the characteristics of people who are afraid to explore outside of their own specialty bubbles. Then the question becomes: what one can do to be less like a “well-trained dog” and more like a “harmoniously developed person”? Einstein wrote:
“He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.”
In the second paragraph, he went on talking about the forgotten value of the humanities as a discipline. Our modern culture despises the humanities because they are impractical and being perceived as an abstract discipline.
“These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not–or at least in the main–through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the “humanities” as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.”
Specialization does make everything more efficient and faster. It has given us some world-changing innovations from science, technology, to medical, and so on. However, behind its special perks, it blinds us to see any other existing ideas other than our own. It limits the way we think when solving a problem because we are only trained to see it from our own point of view. For Einstein, this is a very dangerous model of thinking to be massively glorified. He wrote:
“Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.”
Besides believing that humans must “learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community,” Einstein wholeheartedly believed that the selectivity of information could play a huge role in molding one into a well-developed person. He also argued that overburdening one’s mind with too much useless information would achieve him or her nothing but superficiality. In the last couple of sentences, he wrote:
“It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects. Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”
This sentence that Einstein wrote from the previous excerpt, “. . .a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects.” raised another critical question for me: how much is too much subjects? Is not the whole notion of liberal arts education teaching us to learn from a lot of disciplines ranging from history, literature, sociology, biology, and so on? I sensed a contradiction in what he said about the value of liberal arts education. At the beginning of the essay, he was championing the idea of studying humanities, but later towards the end of the essay, he made a case that though a liberal arts education gives us a permission to be exposed by those multiple disciplines, we need to be very cautious when it comes to deciding what discipline that we choose to learn from.
So much what Einstein wrote reminded me of the convocation speech that David Foster Wallace delivered in Kenyon College, three years prior to the heartbreaking news of his suicide. In it, he talked about many things–those that we always know they are true but we often forget to practice: compassion and kindness, the trap of prestige, and the value of liberal arts education. This topic about the value of liberal arts education spoke to me dearly. In it he wisely said:
“. . .Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ . . .”
If you are curious about the rest of David Foster Wallace’s remarkable speech about the value of liberal arts education, here is the recording of his speech on SoundCloud: