Shelves of library books
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Martin Center column explores liberal arts and what we don’t know

Patrick Gray writes for the Martin Center about important questions surrounding a liberal education.

What is the value of a liberal arts education? At a time when parents are wary of taking on loads of debt to finance their children’s college degrees, it was inevitable that the language of the market would become more pronounced, especially during a pandemic.

For my money, the cleverest answer came from a former student in an address to the assembled faculty at the college where I teach. The value of a liberal arts education, he deadpanned, is that it teaches you the value of a liberal arts education.

One could hardly ask for a more perfect skewering of the rhetoric students imbibe from professors and administrators, a strong cocktail of self-congratulation and self-interest. Given that my livelihood is at stake, it would be unwise for me to protest too much. But in inquiring after the value of a liberal arts education, we must be prepared for a counterintuitive answer.

Its true value resides not in what it delivers, in terms of knowledge or skills, but in what it reveals: namely, our ignorance.

Plato can help me explain. In the Apology, he relates Socrates’ bewilderment at hearing that the oracle at Delphi had identified him as the wisest of men. Socrates suspects some hidden meaning in the riddle-like pronouncement because he doesn’t think he is wise at all.

To disprove the oracle, he goes around to those whom he believes to possess great wisdom—politicians, poets, craftsmen—but in each case, Socrates comes away convinced that he is in fact the wiser. …

… Liberal arts colleges frequently highlight their capacity to make their students well-rounded individuals who know about many subjects. This is not exactly false advertising. But, in some ways, it places the accent on the wrong syllable. Ideally, by exposing students to a wide range of texts and topics, students come to discover the limits of their knowledge to a greater degree than they might if they focused on one field of study.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...