The idea that components of one’s education are boxes to be checked seems most fitting if higher education is simply a series of training modules preparing students for the workforce. But higher education must be so much more than this. As Michael S. Roth recently recounted in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2014), American luminaries from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Nussbaum have conceived of liberal learning in college as necessary to prepare students for the messy unknown that is life, not simply the specific requirements of a job. As Roth argues, a narrowly practical approach to higher education will do nothing less than “impoverish us.”Last Saturday a colleague and I were discussing how society has lost sight of education as a public good. In higher education, so-called "general education" has been the chief casualty, its erosion hastened by budgetary challenges and--more importantly--by the hesitation of its professed proponents to accept the challenge of asserting its relevance.
We in the humanities, arts, and social sciences need to accept that challenge. We may not see ourselves as agents of "workforce preparation" as such, and we are certainly not just that. But let's not shy away from it either. We know that in the "messy unknown that is life" our future leaders--including those sitting in our classrooms next week--will need to make decisions drawing not only on their own experiences but on an unpredictable collection of facts, ideas, and dreams to which we introduce them, the experiences of historical figures and of those who never existed outside the pages of a novel. In response to challenges we cannot even imagine, they will need to exercise the creativity that was nurtured and challenged on our stages and in our classrooms and studios. They will need to apply the intellectual rigor they sharpened against scientific and abstract philosophical concepts as well as the compassion that comes from understanding the plights of others.
The future depends on it.