The Liberal Arts vs. The Resume Arts: The Lost Purpose of Education
I remember distinctly the first time I heard about the liberal arts. I was in high school, but it didn’t come up as part of my formal education. It was during a conversation with a friend about our plans after high school. When I enquired what his major would be in college, he responded with, “Liberal Arts.” Having never heard the term before, I assumed it had something to do with political liberalism. As a self-described conservative, I wondered why anyone would want to study the art of being a liberal. But after a brief moment of reflection I quickly realized it must have meant something else. So I asked, “What are the liberal arts?”
“It’s for people who don’t know what they want to major in,” came his response. Although I was relieved that my understanding was wrong, I still felt something was missing in his as well.
Why did my friend view the liberal arts as a purgatory for undecided college majors? Because he had been conditioned to think that the sole purpose of education was to prepare us to be future employees. Our education was not concerned with the cultivation of the Liberal Arts, but instead was dedicated to the pursuit of the resume arts. So we spent our years accumulating the certificates, achievements, and experiences that would “look good” on our resume--the instrument by which colleges and employers would determine our usefulness to their institutions. Allan Bloom, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, wrote, “Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise...Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.”
But is this the goal of education? It certainly hasn’t always been. The term liberal arts comes from the Latin liber, which means “free,” and Liberales Artes were the arts of learning embodied in the education of freemen and citizens who were engaged in the civic affairs of government and leadership. A classical education in the liberal arts sought to cultivate wisdom, eloquence, and virtue--qualities essential for liberty. This was in contrast to the lower classes who were trained in the Servile Arts, vocational training that prepared them to be employees and servants of others
Have you ever wondered why we have so few leaders in our country who embody wisdom, eloquence, and virtue? The American novelist and classicist John Gardner noted, “At the time this nation was formed, our population stood at around 3 million. And we produced out of that three million people perhaps six leaders of world class--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Today, our population stands at 245 million, so we might expect at least 80 times as many world-class leaders--480 Jeffersons, Madisons, Adams, Washingtons, Hamiltons, and Franklins. Where are they?” Another question is, “What has changed since then?” We have replaced a classical education in the liberal arts with training in the servile arts.
One might object that the world has changed, and the liberal arts are not practically useful today. What we need is highly specialized training in the skills required to succeed in a modern economy. This approach proves to be too narrow. As Gardner notes again, “We don’t even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead...We must train our young people in the fundamental fields of knowledge, and equip them to understand and cope with change. We must give them the critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot not even predict.”
Training students in the fundamental fields of knowledge, developing critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character is the essence of a classical education. This is because the primary goal of education is to prepare students for life as Christian men and women who are leaders in their homes, churches, communities, and the world. Preparation for a job is part of that, but at the end of one’s education, if all we’ve done is prepared him for a job, then we have not prepared him for life.
So what are your highest aspirations for your child’s education?