In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hunter Rawlings III, offered insights into key components of a liberal-arts education and why these characteristics mean we should “Stop Defending the Liberal Arts” (as the article’s title commands, because these curricula can very well defend themselves.
One of the key qualities of the liberal arts Rawlings highlights is “irreverance.” Rawlings writes that, “A liberal education is not always grave or solemn. It should be sharp, funny, curious, joyous.” For Rawlings, the irreverance of the liberal arts stems not only from the content but also from the inquisitive pedagogies associated with this curricula: “Though we have literary canons, scientific laws, mathematical axioms, landmark events in history, and other such foundational aspects of our disciplines, if we are inspiring teachers, we will try to instill knowledge of and respect for these meaningful matters, but not a stultifying reverence for them.”
Rawlings suggests that a good liberal arts education encourages students to ask questions: “A good liberal education encourages students to engage with foundational concepts in an imaginative way, not just absorbing but questioning . . . Why are we here, after all?” The act of questioning can be pleasurable, Rawlings suggests, “And yet intellectual and aesthetic pleasure is an essential goal of higher education, one we omit at great cost and peril.”
For Rawlings, a liberal education is also provocative: “it does not invite the syrupy satisfactions of agreeing with each other all the time, but the rougher, more granular process of thinking for ourselves. A liberal education demands that you decide — agree or disagree? Find the nuances in the issue and voice them. Challenge authority. Argue forcefully — and with wit and reason. Write clearly and persuasively about your research, ideas, conclusions, interpretations. Students will not learn to appreciate the qualities of things, to discriminate, to challenge, to argue persuasively, in an environment condescendingly signposted with hedges and cushioned with caveats.”
Rawlings concludes that, “To teach students that it is a pleasure to use one’s mind and to encourage critical thought and intellectual opposition are our most important tasks as educators” and I believe, given the characteristics Rawlings lays out here, that the liberal arts is the best way to instill this open-mindedness in our students.