Join the Free

Our guest blogger today is Benjamin Wassell, a New Hope Senior who wrote this paper, “Join the Free”, for his Junior-year American Literature class with Mr. Westrate. In it, he argues that the liberal arts must not be eclipsed by skills-based education.

Join the Free

What do we consider to be the best education? In our current era, education attempts to fit what appear to be the needs of society.  A common message is that what we need are men and women who have studied and specialized in certain skills. While this educational system has produced jobs, advancements in technology and medicine, and economic wealth for some, it is debatable if it has succeeded in producing a society geared toward the common good.  Whether it’s the opioid crisis, sexual scandal in Hollywood, public fraud and fake news, or a population addicted to smartphones, a skills-based education does not seek to combat any of these problems. It just so happens that the educational solution to so many cultural ailments has been around for centuries. It is, in short, the liberal arts.We cannot let the liberal arts be eclipsed by skills-based education, for while a skills system does create effective workers, it does not bring those workers to a life driven by truth, beauty, and concern for the common good, which is actual freedom.   

People with a less comprehensive view of the liberal arts tend to look down on them.  Some think this type of education is based purely on art and literature and ‘critical thinking.’  Another part of the confusion is that liberal in today’s sense means a very different thing from what it used to.  In regards to the liberal arts, it means freedom. The objective of a liberal arts education is to free the mind from false opinion, errors, and the flux of culture.  It seeks to grant men and women the ability to find truth and to free them from the slavery of the potentially false ideas and opinions of others. Through this they will gain self knowledge and self mastery, and discover the actual source and truth of great ideas.  

How does this make the liberal arts better than our current standard education system, which is increasingly focused on skills? Currently our education system mass produces specialized human tools that each fit into a certain slot in the grand machine that is today’s global economy. A great example of this is technology. Skill-based learning has taken technology farther than anyone one hundred and fifty years ago ever thought possible.  But without a strong liberal arts foundation, this “progress” is simply innovation for the sake of innovation. For example, CRSPR genome editing is now possible, but does having the ability to tamper with genetic makeup justify its use? Do the incredible scientists who found a way to accomplish this also have the skills to reason out a logical and moral end to their innovations? C. S. Lewis said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive” (Lewis 36). It is the liberal arts that teaches people to ask whether or not they progress on the right road toward the common good. Today’s skill based education teaches how to do things, not whether they should be done.

A liberal arts education takes a totally different approach.  Its object is to create a ‘bigness of personhood’ which could also be called a magnanimous soul. Thomas Aquinas describes this education as a “stretching forth of the mind to great things” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 129, Art. 1).  A liberal arts education gives students not only the tools to ask the most important questions, but also to ascertain which answers are true, while connecting them to the Great Conversation about truth throughout human history.  “The liberal arts are a golden thread that comes from the Greeks, from Pythagoras and his successors both Islamic and Christian, especially St. Augustine; a thread that weaves its way through the history of our civilization. These arts are intended for the cultivation of freedom and the raising of our humanity to its highest possible level” (Caldecott 9).  We should not take the liberal arts as a substitute for skill-based learning, but rather a necessary parallel so that our skills may be informed by truth.  This is the best part of a liberal arts education: it does not just prepare the tool for the job, but brings each individual to meaning and truth in both work and leisure.

The liberal arts seek to give each the capacity to live in truth, free from all types of slavery.  Skill-based learning by itself is destructive in that it sets individuals up to be wage slaves: people whose only purpose is their job, and whose satisfaction is only derived from being good tools.  When skills are paired with a liberal arts education, service to society is wed to the fundamental drive of humanity to seek truth. As Frederick Douglass said, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” This knowledge of which he speaks is knowledge of truth. No one can know the truth and still enslave themselves to only meaningless work.  Likewise, no one can know the truth and serve only themselves. Peace is never founded on any kind of slavery. If we wish to progress to a state of peace and common good then we must pair all skills-based learning with the foundation of a liberal arts education.