What is knowledge worth? A liberal arts education has enduring value
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How did Barack Obama become, by Oscar Wilde's definition, a cynic?
Last week President Obama boasted in his State of the Union address that his administration was preparing tools so parents and students can "compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck." Part of a national movement to quantify the return on investment students get from college, Mr. Obama's "scorecard" will include information about the jobs and salaries of individual colleges' alumni.
Mr. Obama never had a moment of vocational education until he went to Harvard Law as his trade school at the age of 27. But he apparently didn't encounter Wilde's definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
For there could be no greater act of cynicism than to attach a monetary value to a college education. And by encouraging the notion that higher education is primarily about an economic payoff, the president is undermining a peculiarly American invention, the liberal arts degree.
In his heart, Mr. Obama, who read Nietzsche, Weber, Sartre and Tocqueville at Occidental College and Homer, Cicero and Virgil once he transferred to Columbia, must know that is true.
Every member of his Cabinet holds a liberal-arts degree except Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who graduated from West Point -- but then went and got a master's degree in English from Duke, which is not what you expect from a future chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Mr. Obama's vice president double-majored in history and political science. Indeed, not one person close to the president went to college with the plausible notion of monetizing his degree.
Certainly not Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, valedictorian of her class at Santa Clara University, who got a degree in political science. Nor Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who holds a degree in sociology from Harvard. Nor Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who majored in history at Columbia. Nor Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who graduated from Yale in political science.
Six years ago, Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth College, which once rejected my petition to create my own American Civilization major because the faculty committee knew I was drawn to journalism and thought my proposal too career-oriented. In his address Mr. Paulson, a onetime English major who went on to run the investment firm Goldman Sachs, said:
"And to you parents out there who wonder about your sons and daughters graduating today with English majors -- I like to hire English majors. ... Seriously, as an employer, I have long believed in a liberal arts education from a U.S. college or university. I believe that Shakespeare, Socrates and the Peloponnesian wars are great preparation for successful careers."
How much bang in today's marketplace do you suppose you get from the Peloponnesian War?
Mr. Obama -- no Dwight Eisenhower, whose Cabinet once was described as nine millionaires and a plumber -- is offering his college initiative at a time of great peril to the liberal arts.
In 1990, David W. Breneman, who had just completed six years as president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, identified 212 institutions as liberal arts colleges. Two decades later, the number had dropped to 130.
An evaluation of the state of liberal education prepared late last year by three respected specialists -- no romantics, as one of them is an Ernst & Young accountant -- warned that "American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal arts colleges continues to decline."
Where the president has gone wrong -- along with those college trustees contributing to the 39 percent decline in the number of liberal arts institutions -- is in assuming that Americans need to be trained for a living rather than educated for life. This is more than a semantic distinction. It is the difference between reading Shakespeare in college and mastering accounting.
Seventy-one years ago tomorrow, my uncle, who later died in a PT boat in combat off Guadalcanal, wrote a letter to my father, then a high school senior. He wasn't much for preaching, but in this letter he wrote from the heart:
"If you went to a trade school you'd have one thing you could do & know -- & you'd miss the whole world of beauty," Philip Alvan Shribman wrote from the U.S. Navy transport ship Crescent City somewhere in the Pacific. "In a liberal school you know 'nothing' -- & are 'fitted for nothing' when you get out. Yet, you'll have a fortune of a broad outlook -- of appreciation for people and beauty that money won't buy. You can always learn to be a mechanic or pill mixer etc., but it's only when you're of college age that you can learn that life has beauty & fineness. Afterwards, it's all struggle, war: economic if not actual. Don't give up the idea & ideals of a liberal school. They're too precious, too rare, too important."
In this letter, cherished by three generations of my family, my uncle argues that the liberal arts were what the Allies were fighting for in World War II.
I think he was right, and I think it is a tragedy that this American treasure is under assault from a president who himself was the beneficiary of those values and that outlook -- and from the audacity of hope that led him as a young man to believe that the way to make a difference in his life and in others' was to study Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle, thinkers almost impossible to monetize in today's market.
College debts and rising tuitions are true crises. But if you wonder whether college is worth it -- if you doubt lazy mornings reading Milton and difficult afternoons in the chemistry lab have any value -- don't look at the government's jobs and salary figures. In Virginia, where those figures already are available, the College of William and Mary, which provides one of the most prized diplomas in America, ranks seventh in the state in salaries for recent graduates. I bet those liberal arts alumni of Thomas Jefferson's university do very well in the long run.
Instead, take a look, if you must, at the return-on-investment rankings for alumni 30 years out. Eight of the top 10 colleges specialize in the liberal arts. It turns out that you can get a pretty good bang out of mastering the Peloponnesian War after all. It is, in fact, priceless.
First Published February 17, 2013 12:00 am