Liberal arts institutions are the incubators of critical and creative activism. They should also be the guardians of true tolerance, allowing students to voice their ideas without the pressure to conform nor fear of backlash. Anyone participating in dialogue should exhibit not only patience (and admittedly patience can run out at times) but also respect—respect for others in the course of debate, especially those with whom we may disagree while tolerating them at the same time. Respect does not demand agreement, but it should be the deciding factor in determining healthy from unhealthy speech activity.
The number of essays extolling the importance of a liberal arts education has grown over the last few years. Writers argue that the skills acquired through such an education cultivate within students an ability to provide innovative solutions to challenges in the workplace. These well-trained individuals think outside the textbook, so to speak, and beyond the narrow confines of a specific major. Because of such critical-thinking skills, liberal arts graduates are highly valuable—especially to those in the corporate world. Yet there is something that most of these laudatory pieces overlook: the threat that such an education poses to established power, including corporate power. The liberal arts provide students the theoretical and practical tools needed to contribute to making the world a better place, which often begins by uncovering and confronting abuses of power. For this reason, these writers may need to rethink what exactly they value so highly.
Skills-oriented learning of the type provided by a liberal education has the potential to undermine one of the promises made by pie-in-the-sky proponents of the liberal arts: to create a generation of leaders. Learning how to become a stand-alone world changer is a common trope in the marketing campaigns of consumer-driven institutions. While truth is rarely the objective of such manipulative advertising, assume for a moment that schools are in fact able to deliver on their promise, to churn out a plethora of leaders. These marketing claims immediately face a twofold problem. First, the claims collapse under the weight of their own contradiction. Packing the market with leaders would create a leadership deficit. By definition, leaders form an elite group. Second, there is often very little explication, during the period between a student’s matriculation and graduation, of what constitutes a leader.
A leader, we might say, is someone who rallies and organizes others for the end goal of doing what’s right, to initiate direct action for the well-being of society. But those in power, including leaders, are not always interested in doing what is right. The sad reality is that many, particularly those under the influence of corporate power, rarely support leaders who seek the betterment of the world, since it can threaten their power. Would those at the top, for instance, really celebrate a liberal arts student who creatively exposes the unethical activities of a multinational corporation? Would a young student at a college or university run by corporate-minded administrators be considered a leader for trying to get at the truth—for example, through activism or articles in the campus newspaper criticizing the administration—despite the efforts of management to shut such a person up? Would they heed the critical and creative insights of an individual who confronts systems of oppression? The meaning of leadership today is quite restricted. It means, all too often, abiding by the dictates of the corporate world.
Many institutions have forgotten the telos of a liberal arts education: to train students not how to be but how to become. The word liberal in liberal arts comes from liber, meaning “free” or “to be free.” What has been lost in education is the belief that one must work to acquire that freedom. Too many educators simply hand students good grades or are pressured to do so by students themselves or dictatorial administrators. Contemporary educators face the overwhelming—and seemingly unstoppable—tidal wave of grade inflation. In many institutions, students receive As with minimal effort (sometimes from instructors who expend little effort). Freedom, however, must be worked for and, when achieved, maintained. The artes in liberal arts refer to the skills a student needs to reach that freedom. The question that one may ask is “What do we mean by freedom?” It is a freedom that is both from and to—freedom from our individual ignorance and from systems of power that benefit from ignorance as well as the freedom to pursue truth. Education makes powerful agents—agents dedicated to the preservation of truth.
But, again, those in power are not always interested in preserving truth. At a college where I once worked and had helped to build, the entire board and administration (that is, the formal leadership of the school) were unwilling to consider the constructive observations made by representatives of the student body at an official board meeting in the fall of 2016, a year of tremendous financial and social strain. The students respectfully articulated their concerns related to the leadership’s implementation of austerity measures that inequitably targeted the faculty, lack of overall honesty regarding the state of the college, and unwillingness to address the culture of intimidation created by the new president. Instead of responding to the issues brought by the students, board members and administrators pointed out what they believed were the defaults in the character of these students, infantilizing them by saying that they were simply too young to understand the intricacies of higher education. (Of course, the board, which included members who never attended college, did not have enough logical sense to recognize the fallacious ad hominem form of their own argument; the students did, however.) They failed to recognize that these students had become exactly what the school had been advertising: well-rounded citizens who could read critically and communicate effectively—self-reliant young adults who took the lead. Sadly, the students did not fall into the category of leaders as narrowly conceived by those at the top. And the inaction of such dictators extended beyond silencing dissent to removing it, which included finding the most insidious ways to target the few courageous professors who, like their students, sought to expose the corruption within the institution.
In my lower-division US History course, students read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, the story of Douglass’s life as a slave and his successful journey to freedom. The key skill utilized by Douglass to attain his freedom was learning how to read—a dangerous skill in antebellum America. In many southern states at the time, teaching a slave how to read was banned by law. Why? Slave owners knew exactly the answer to that question. Literacy, Douglass’s owner said, “would forever unfit [Douglass] to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Literacy would threaten the power that whites held over blacks. Douglass understood that the important skills of reading and writing could serve as “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Literacy gave Douglas the ability not simply to understand himself (his status as a slave) and the world around him (the evils of slavery), but also to transform himself and his world.