The lasting value of a classical liberal arts education

Getty Images/Brigida_Soriano

By Dan Scoggin

Editor’s note: This essay is a response to Jason Gaulden’s Flypaper article, “America’s anachronistic education system,” as well as Education Week’s recent Special Report, “Schools and the Future of Work.”

Within the last week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak announced the founding of “Woz U,” a digital institute designed to inspire the next generation of innovators. The CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, also proclaimed that the tech giant will invest $1 billion over the next five years to remediate what he sees as an alarming disconnect between how college graduates are prepared and what the job market actually requires. "The nature of work is fundamentally changing,” Pichai said, “and that is shifting the link between education, training, and opportunity. One-third of jobs in 2020 will require skills that aren't common today. It's a big problem."

The tech gods have spoken and are aligned: Our country faces a crisis in educating our children to meet an increasingly complex world. Where does this disconnect leave us educators? We need to develop our graduates’ skills and talents for an evolving twenty-first-century economy, but the goalposts have shifted away from the aim of our current schools, and it is hard to know where to start. What hope do we educators have to design a curriculum, program, and school culture that will actually matter for our students?

We can best do this by returning to a timeless and always applicable approach: a classical liberal arts education.

Before you dismiss this idea as nostalgic blowback, consider that the best hedge against the vicissitudes of fortune will always be the permanent: clear thinking, wisdom, and character, which a classical education is ideally structured to inculcate as a foundation for life-long learning. Indeed, we can’t know what and where jobs will be a few years from now, but history and human nature tell us that thoughtful leadership will be required. In every age of uncertainty, we should double down on the enduring ends of a classical education—the ability to deliberate carefully, see multiple sides of an issue, and exercise sound and decisive judgment. We sometimes call this critical thinking, but the ancients called it wisdom.

At Great Hearts, the classical charter school network I co-founded, we seek to develop wisdom in pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. The medium of this pursuit is earnest conversation regarding, as Matthew Arnold said, “the best that has been thought and said.” All of our high school students have at the center of their day a two-hour Socratic conversation on works of great literature, philosophy, art, and history. Socratic pedagogy is deployed in all subjects, from music to physics.

In these spaces, students use the ideas of great authors, artists, and scientists of the past to understand classmates’ perceptions and premises by asking respectful, relevant questions. They learn to acknowledge ambiguity, respect disagreement, accept doubt, and allow for multiple interpretations to coexist. They escape the tyranny of the present, as well as their own emotions and concerns. And they imagine the permanent aspects of the human condition, both good and bad, and ponder what has been, what is, and what might be possible.

Every generation faces essential questions—and they skip them at their own peril. What does it mean to be a human being? How does a specific idea, pursuit, or product relate to human happiness? What is justice? What is my duty to myself and others? How does one balance freedom with responsibility? These are not coffee shop queries, but first order questions that are more important than ever in the twenty-first century. And a mind and soul well trained to pursue and answer them—and use this training practically in the workplace—will be ready to innovate and effect change for the greater good.

Unfortunately, too much of education today is focused on standardized tests, getting kids into college, and careerism before one’s career. Some of this is understandable; we want students to think ahead and strive to big goals. But many students are tracked without any consideration of their work’s purpose and inherent nobility, and with little concern for the professions in which their unique talents can be useful. A classical liberal arts education, however, instills in young people the joy of learning for learning’s sake, and helps them discover what makes them happy: the link between their character and unique talents, their calling. And when we are happy and grounded, we are more useful to ourselves and others, no matter what life brings our way.

It’s true, of course, that not every graduate is destined for Silicon Valley or an executive suite. We need craftsmen, tradeswomen, and soldiers. But they too deserve a classical liberal arts education. And they ought to be just as well educated as those in boardrooms and ivory towers. Indeed, American democracy, freedom, and ingenuity depend on poet-warriors and philosopher-technicians. This is why we believe at Great Hearts that all of our public school students should receive a classical liberal arts education before they go on to a profession or pick a major in college.

These, moreover, aren’t just my sentiments. There’s a growing body of research that a classical liberal arts education is not some ivy-covered relic and detour to a useless past, but an increasingly important part of the present and future. George Anders and Randall Stross, for example, both argued in recent books that the emotional intelligence, interpretive capacity, and problem-solving skills enabled by a liberal arts education set graduates of these programs apart from their non-program peers. And in The Age of Agility: Education Pathways for the Future of Work, Jason Gaulden and Alan Gottlieb argue that four capacities will emerge as more and more vital in the decades ahead: the ability to abstract deeper meaning; the self-awareness and empathy to have probing conversations with those from different backgrounds; the ability to intuit novel thinking in fluid environments; and the ability to write and codify processes under a desired outcome. While Gaulden and Gottlieb don’t expressly make the connection, these capacities sound like the cumulative outcomes of any classical liberal arts education worth its salt.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said in his commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past spring: “I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers without values or compassion or concern for the consequences…That is what we need you to help us guard against. Because if science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we have been and the danger that lies ahead.”

I hope that in the age of expediency we don’t forget the great value of slowing down, of deep reflection and conversation, and of living in community in the shared search for truth and meaning. Abraham Lincoln said “the best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” When it comes to schooling, trying to predict the future and rush towards it only diminishes the present. The one thing we do know about the future of work is that a well-stocked mind and well-nurtured soul will be the best provisions for the uncertain journey ahead.

Dan Scoggin is the co-founder and chief advancement officer of Great Hearts, serving 15,000 K–12 scholars in Arizona and Texas and growing nationally. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.