In Praise of the Liberal Arts
President Shirley M. Tilghman
April 6, 2010
Presented at The Lawrenceville School
Moreover, both our curricula are firmly rooted in the liberal arts and an educational tradition stretching back to Greek and Roman times. In those times the seven liberal arts consisted of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The rationale for studying astronomy, by the way, was to prevent public panic during eclipses of the sun and moon. This balance of humanistic and scientific learning continues to exemplify a liberal education, even as the number of subjects it encompasses has multiplied. Our common educational heritage was captured — and defended — a century ago by another president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, when he spoke at Lawrenceville's centennial celebration. "I have heard a great many persons object to certain branches of study because they were not of 'practical' importance," he told his audience. He then went on to refute that view by making the point that "the processes of [a liberal] education ... are intended to put the mind in such training that it can do anything with itself that it pleases." In other words, as I like to tell our students, a liberal education is designed to prepare you not for one profession but for any profession, including those not yet invented.
It was Wilson who, to my mind, described the benefits of a liberal education best when he declared, "What we should seek to impart in our colleges, therefore, is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. ... It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick to the letter of the reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind." Amen to that.
It is worth noting that the tradition Wilson was extolling is far from universal. In fact, just the opposite is true. I went to university in Canada, where the British model of intense concentration in one or a few highly related disciplines was the norm. In my four years of study at Queen's University, I could fit into my academic program only four courses other than mathematics, physics, and chemistry. And to make matters worse, one of the four was a required course in scientific German, where we spent the year reading the papers of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Planck — in German. I found those papers hard enough to understand in English; German made them virtually impenetrable. When I graduated with my Honors degree in chemistry, I was a very well-educated chemist and an ill-prepared citizen of the world. Having experienced both traditions, I am a fervent convert to the American system.
Unfortunately, the critics of an education in the liberal arts have only grown louder in the past 100 years, so much so that just last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education declared in a cover story that "The distress signals are sounding for the liberal arts. Again." — before proceeding to demonstrate, as Mark Twain might have said, that the reports of their death are greatly exaggerated. The fact remains, however, that there are many in this country who wonder whether a grounding in the liberal arts is what our nation — and our children — need in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive global environment. And, in the wake of the "Great Recession," with the prospect of pervasive and persistent unemployment for millions of Americans, there is an understandable temptation on the part of the public and its elected representatives to champion fields of study designed to prepare young men and women for specific professions; for what is often, if misleadingly, described as the "real world." History and anthropology, Russian and Swahili, physics and geology have all been viewed as imprudent diversions from highly focused pre-professional training.
And some of the vocal critics are in positions of considerable influence. Congressman Peter Welch, a member of the House of Representatives from the State of Vermont was recently overhead to say, "when you make payments on a mortgage you end up with a house, whereas when you make payments for college you end up with nothing." An even more apocryphal view was recently offered to a group of Princeton students by a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education. He recently suggested that college should function as remedial education, explaining that students should be administered a standardized test at the end of high school. Those who passed with flying colors should immediately be awarded a college degree; those who needed a little more buffing would be required to do one or two additional years of college, and only those in the direst state of ignorance would go on to a four-year college experience. His rationale? College is too expensive and a big waste of time.
Indeed, some perceive a liberal education as a luxury that only those with time on their hands and money in their pockets can afford to indulge in, implying, as the president of Goucher College, Sanford Ungar, notes "that the rich folks will do the important thinking, and the lower classes will simply carry out their ideas." That view, of course, is antithetical to everything this country has stood for — and if it reflected reality, we would recreate the rigid class system that our founding fathers fought to overthrow 250 years ago. Our great universities have historically been and continue to be today the major forces for social mobility in the U.S., with need-based financial aid the critical tool that they employ to achieve this end. Horatio Alger stories are alive and well in America, thanks to the power of education to change people's lives.
But whether a four-year liberal arts education should remain the model for educating citizens is more than just a question of money or its lack. Parents want their children to thrive in life, and a significant number cannot conceive how a four-year excursion through the liberal arts will enable them to do so. Yes, Shakespeare is good for a quote or two, but he won't put bread on the table; the founding fathers were extraordinary men, no doubt, but they've been dead for centuries; string theory? — don't get me started! So speak the voices of practicality. Are they right? Or, as I would argue, is an undergraduate immersion in the liberal arts the most practical form of education that a student can obtain? As you think about the educational paths before you, it is important that you weigh these contending perspectives, for even if you believe that the liberal arts hold the key to your future wellbeing, your parents — who pay the bills — may not. In my remarks today, I would like to propose a way for you to think about your future educational choices by drawing on the voices of Princeton graduates. What these graduates are doing today bears little resemblance to what they studied at Princeton; yet all credit their education for their success.
Take Rob Kutner '94, who is a writer for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart — which, by the way, qualifies as a dream job for me. Rob studied anthropology at Princeton. Like the vast majority of our anthropology students, he did not arrive at Princeton with a passion for that discipline, but gravitated to it because it allowed him to examine human experience through a variety of lenses. Here's how he describes the impact of his immersion in anthropology: "In anthropology, we were taught not to get too attached to the values or paradigms our own culture constructs around us and projects as 'truth.' That's essential to good comedy, which cuts through the masks and filters and tries to get through to the underlying truth or observed reality. We also learned to practice close observation on rituals for their symbolic meanings. I try to bring the same interpretive sensibility to watching a press conference as Clifford Geertz [one of his professors] did to a Balinese cockfight — though I'm still not sure which is the more dignified spectacle."
My close colleague Chris Eisgruber '83, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs and the Provost at Princeton, arrived on campus torn between politics and physics, two disciplines with seemingly little in common. In the end, he chose to study physics, but because of the flexibility afforded by the liberal arts curriculum, he also managed a good helping of constitutional law and political philosophy. He ultimately went to law school and clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens at the Supreme Court. Here is what he had to say about his decision: "I never regretted my decision to major in physics. For one thing, the analytic skills and intellectual discipline that I learned while studying physics turned out to be fantastic preparation for legal studies. In fact, several leading law professors have science or math backgrounds. One time, a few years after I began teaching law at New York University's law school, I sat down to lunch with two other constitutional law professors who were my contemporaries. We were all a bit surprised to discover that two of us had majored in physics — and the third had majored in chemistry (at Princeton!)."
Robin Epstein '95 took yet another circuitous route to her current career of writing scripts for video games. She arrived on campus, as she describes it, "certain — absolutely 100%-no-doubt-about-it-sure — that I was destined to have a carrel in that big bike rack on Prospect Avenue, the Woodrow Wilson School. My plan was to be a Woody Woo major, then I'd go to a top law school, get a clerkship, do a stint in local politics, log some time in the U.S. Senate ... and then, really, who knew what was possible thereafter? But this grand plan of mine went a bit awry. Arguably horribly awry. And that's something I thank my lucky stars for every day. I sensed things were going off-track once I started taking classes and realized my favorites were always the literature courses. They were cool, inspiring, and didn't even feel like work to me. Okay, that's a lie. They totally felt like work, ... but weirdly, I enjoyed them anyway. Still, I thought picking English as a major seemed soft; a cop out of sorts, like, 'If I'm enjoying this so much, it's not really good for me.' But thankfully, I had a flash of insight at some point ... that there was no reason for me not to pursue something I loved. In fact, I was an idiot if I didn't." Today she looks back on her education as an English major and says: "The whole time I was also learning to think critically about everything I was reading and seeing. Those skills have been invaluable because they've allowed me to find interesting themes, ideas, and stories in places people who majored in other things might not even know to look. Being an English major encouraged me to be flexible and see beyond the standard track, which I've learned is really where the satisfying work and fun begins. ..."
Another example of someone who followed her passion is Lisa Pollock Mann '90, who oversees the global e-mail and IM teams for Yahoo! Her path through Princeton began with a love of languages, and an ambition to learn a new language — Chinese — that would enable her to communicate with over a billion people. She reports: "As I became more proficient in the Chinese language, I became more interested in and passionate about Chinese culture. The two became intertwined and inseparable. I took classes in Asian art, history, politics, religion, and sociology. These ended up being my favorite classes, and I decided to major in East Asian studies." But as graduation approached, she began to ask the inevitable question: What does someone do with a degree in East Asian studies? To her surprise and relief, she found that her degree was viewed by business recruiters as an advantage that set her apart from many of her classmates. Today she says, "I know now that finance, accounting, and economics do not hold the answers to a successful career in management. Flexibility, passion, communication, and listening skills – these are key traits that are not taught in a specific academic discipline but are essential to leadership in the workplace. Majoring in East Asian studies helped me to learn how to place myself in someone else's shoes, and the ultimate communication skill became an understanding of and appreciation for cross-cultural differences in the workplace and in the business world. In sum, majoring in East Asian studies afforded me the opportunity to explore my passions while in college, while securing a solid foundation in the business world."
Let me conclude with David Remnick '81, the editor of The New Yorker, who concentrated in comparative literature at Princeton. When his father heard of his decision, he asked, "Comparative literature? Compared to what?" David describes his experience in this field as follows: "What the department offered then, and offers now, was an unparalleled introduction to, and deep journey into, the greatest, most complex, and enigmatic expressions of human feeling and thought in nearly all imaginable languages from Homer onward." The exploration of Russia and its literature paved the way for his job as the Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post, where he witnessed firsthand the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, as editor of one of America's best literary magazines, he says tongue-in-cheek, "It is not quite accurate that my sole function as editor is to be the world's leading connoisseur of talking-dog cartoons. This is only partly true. Sometimes there are desert-island cartoons, two-drunks-at-a-bar cartoons, and whimpering-employee-officious-boss cartoons. I didn't write a junior paper on the French avant-garde for nothing."
I do not believe that I can make a better case than the one that these five individuals have made for the immense value of spending four years after high school engrossed in the study of what you love, and what fascinates you. In a very real sense, a liberal education is a mirror of and preparation for the world. Under its auspices, students learn that their ideas, interests, and experiences are neither normative nor self-sufficient but must be weighed against others and, in many cases, broadened to include them. They learn to leave behind their comfort zones, the subjects that come easily, and the terrain that served them well in childhood, and through this process, they acquire the ultimate reward of a liberal education: an open and critical mind that is prepared for anything.
So, for example, when someone asks you why on earth you study history at college, tell this skeptic that the past is not an accumulation of dusty dates and facts but a means of understanding our own times better. Had the second Bush administration read more deeply into the unhappy history of the British occupation of Iraq, then known as Mesopotamia, after the First World War, they most surely would have had second thoughts before concluding that this religiously and ethnically divided land was ripe for Western-style democracy promotion. They might have considered more seriously the psychological toll of warfare on both combatants and noncombatants if they had studied Picasso's monumental painting "Guernica" on a study trip to Spain, confirming the artist Paul Klee's dictum that "art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see." It is hard for me to believe that the Americans who support the teaching of creationism in biology classes had a good evolutionary biology class in college, or a course that explored the difference between science and religious faith. And no one who has closely read Toni Morrison's masterpiece "Beloved" could possibly fail to understand the lingering corrosive impact that slavery has had on our country. The glory of a liberal education is that one person could, in four years, acquire all four of those insights.
Please don't get me wrong. I understand that there are limits to the power of a liberal education to generate model citizens; some folk are simply unresponsive to this kind of learning. My point is that no path through college is irrelevant when it comes to dealing with the challenges that face society. And, what is more, employers recognize this. According to a survey conducted last year for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the two collegiate "learning outcomes" most heavily favored by employers are "the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing" and "critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills," both of which lie squarely at the heart of a liberal education. Coupled with the fact that the days of the "company man" are over and that the typical employee can expect to change jobs five to seven times in his or her lifetime, there is every reason to interweave the strengths of many disciplines at college and so prepare oneself for the fluid, fast-paced world of the 21st century.
Only you can decide the educational path that is best for you, but this is what I would do if I were in your place. When the time comes to leave Lawrenceville, sit down with the undergraduate catalog of your college or university of choice and having perused its pages, close your eyes and think about the courses most likely to excite and fascinate you. Think about the subjects you love but also those of which you know next to nothing; come up with combinations and permutations that no one in your school and family has even thought of; above all, do not let your parents and advisers convince you that what you want to study is impractical. If the world is to be your oyster, you must comprehend the world, and nowhere is this more likely to happen than within the context of a liberal education. I thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.