The success or failure of a liberal education, or an undergraduate major, depends far more on how the educational process influences students’ passion for learning than it does on what specifically they learn. A successful liberal education creates a lifelong learner, and classroom instruction is as much a catalyst for education as it is the education itself. Because passion for learning carries over to other fields and areas, the catalyst function of education does not depend on content.
Academic departments tend to focus on both the need for depth in the field and the need for specialized training as a component of liberal education. The push for depth over breadth by disciplinary scholars is to be expected. Just as a Shakespeare scholar is unlikely to be passionate about teaching freshman composition, a scholar of classical game theory is unlikely to be passionate about teaching general economic principles within the context of an interdisciplinary consideration of broad themes. Because breadth is not usually associated with research passion by disciplinary specialists, and because a college is a collection of disciplinary specialists, breadth often gets shortchanged; it is interpreted as “superficial.”
But in reality, breadth pertains to the nature of the questions asked. It involves asking questions that are unlikely to have definitive answers—“big-think” questions that challenge the foundations of disciplinary analysis. By contrast, depth involves asking smaller questions that can be answered—“little-think” questions that, too often, involve an uncritical acceptance of the assumptions upon which research is built.
Questions and areas of study have two dimensions: a research dimension and a teaching dimension. The disciplinary nature of both graduate education and undergraduate college faculties leads to an emphasis on “research questions,” which tend to be narrow and in-depth, and a de-emphasis on “teaching questions,” which tend to involve greater breadth. Economics has its own distinctive set of teaching questions: Is capitalism preferable to socialism? What is the appropriate structure of an economy? Does the market alienate individuals from their true selves? Is consumer sovereignty acceptable? Do statistical significance tests appropriately measure significance? It is worthwhile to teach such “big-think” questions, but because they do not fit the disciplinary research focus of the profession, they tend not to be included in the economics major. This is regrettable, since struggling with “big-think” questions helps provoke a passion for learning in students and, hence, can be a catalyst for deeper student learning.
It is similarly worthwhile to expose students to longstanding debates within the field. For example, Marx considered the alienation created by the market to be a central problem of western societies; Hayek argued that the market was necessary to preserve individual freedom; and Alfred Marshall argued that activities determine wants and, thus, wants cannot be considered as primitives in economic analysis. Such debates are highly relevant for students to consider as they study economics within the context of a liberal education. But these kinds of debates are not actively engaged as part of cutting-edge research, which instead tends to focus either on narrow questions that can be resolved through statistical analysis or on highly theoretical questions that exceed the level of undergraduate students.
General education and the major
College education was once divided between general education, which was provided in the first two years, and the major, which was the focus of the last two years. The importance of the major has increased significantly, however, and this division is no longer reflected in the structure of undergraduate education today. Many students are now required to start their majors in the first year of college or, at the latest, in the second year. And too many faculty members are not directly concerned with achieving the overall goals of a liberal education, which they view as tangential to the disciplinary major. Few, if any, professors are devoted to teaching general education courses exclusively. Instead, these courses are provided by departments and often seen as a draw on the teaching resources of the major.
Instead of serving to strengthen liberal education by providing depth in one area, the undergraduate major has become more vocational. Viewed as preparation for graduate school, the disciplinary major channels passion for learning to a small group of future researchers and professors. Providing a liberal education and instilling a passion for learning in undergraduate students who do not wish to go on to graduate school is a secondary goal of teaching, and it is incorporated only to the degree that it fits the needs of the departmental major.
As the power bases for individual disciplines have been reinforced by faculty training and institutional structures, the power base for general education has shrunk. And as disciplinary majors have become more deeply entrenched, the disconnect between the major and the goals of liberal education has widened. The result is that often students with generalist interests are not provided with the catalyst for further learning and engagement, despite continual attempts by colleges and universities to achieve that end.
The freshman seminar, for example, was designed to achieve greater focus on communication and integrative skills as well as to provide students with more intimate contact with faculty early on. Math, science, and economics professors have little training in general writing and communication skills, yet they are expected to teach these skills in freshman seminars. If economics professors succeed in instilling a passion for learning during the freshman seminar, it is due to their individual commitment to the ideals of such courses and their ability to draw on training beyond what they received in graduate school.
The role of graduate education
All this is not to say that undergraduate programs are devoid of professors committed to the ideals of liberal education. Just as study in the major is only a part of an undergraduate student’s education, so too is graduate training only a part of a graduate student’s education. Students with broad interests make it into graduate school, and some make it through; others develop broad interests afterwards. But those who are most passionate about undergraduate teaching are unlikely to make it into a top graduate program in economics. In part, this is because the training offered by top graduate programs is unattractive to these potential graduate students. But even more, it is because these are not the type of students that graduate programs are looking for; training students to be good teachers is not what graduate programs in economics see as their goal. In lower-ranked graduate programs, the focus on training researchers as opposed to teachers is less pronounced, but it still exists—in part, because these programs are staffed by graduates of the top programs.
The problem of the relationship between the major and liberal education does not derive solely from the structure of the major or the specific courses included as part of that structure. The specialized, disciplinary structure of graduate education in the United States also contributes to the problem. Graduate education is designed to produce cutting-edge researchers who may teach undergraduates as a sidelight. As graduate programs become more specialized and more focused on preparing researchers rather than teachers, and as research outlets also become more specialized, the research and teaching focuses of the professoriate pull even harder in different directions.
The economics major and liberal education
The economics major includes technical aspects drawn from mathematics and the natural sciences as well as humanistic aspects related to history, philosophy, literature, political science, and public policy. Thus, in some ways, the problem of the relationship between liberal education and the economics major is a microcosm of the problem of the relationship between liberal education and the undergraduate curriculum as a whole.
Economics today neglects to foster certain liberal education outcomes on which it could, and once did, focus. Moral reasoning, for example, was once part of economics education but is no longer a focus of the discipline today. A recent survey of undergraduate economics majors found that only 21 percent believe that economics is highly successful at teaching moral reasoning (Jones et al. 2010). Similarly, teaching students about “living with diversity” and, depending on how it is interpreted, providing “breadth of interest,” are not specific goals of the economics major.
The same holds true for the development of other skills associated with a liberal education. Economists are trained in specialized forms of critical thinking that focus on technical issues and analytics rather than on how to arrive at a reasoned judgment by considering all aspects of a problem. Economists are not especially known for their communication skills, and they receive little training in writing or communication while in graduate school. It is, therefore, unlikely that the economics major will be effective in teaching these skills. And indeed, in the survey cited above, only 28 percent of majors said that economics is highly successful in teaching communication skills.
An influential report on the purpose and structure of the undergraduate economics major helped establish, or at least codify, the general structure of the undergraduate economics major that almost all economics departments currently follow (Siegfried et al. 1991). The central goal of the major, according to the report, is to teach students to “think like an economist.” This goal—which encompasses deductive reasoning skills, decision-making techniques, understanding complex relationships, creativity, acquiring and using knowledge that cuts across disciplinary boundaries—overlaps significantly with the outcomes of a liberal education.
Teaching students to “think like an economist” is a relatively uncontroversial goal insofar as it allows each professor to think of the training they provide as, essentially, getting the student to think like him or herself. But the goal has been pushed further by some who favor teaching a particular set of proficiencies. For example, Hansen (2010) argues that the goal of the economics major should be to teach students to act like economists: “instructors want students to be able to demonstrate at various levels their ability to perform the various proficiencies, culminating at graduation with their ability to demonstrate mastery of every one of the proficiencies.” Almost everyone would agree that proficiencies should ground what is taught; the disagreement centers on how broadly or narrowly the proficiencies are defined. Should they be reflective of liberal education goals—for example, the ability to read, critically analyze, and write effectively—or should they instead be reflective of narrower skills that are more directly relevant to the field of economics, such as the ability to understanding opportunity cost, to run regressions and interpret “t” statistics, and to explain the connection between money supply and inflation?
Precisely what it means to “think like an economist” changes over time, mirroring changes in the training of economists. Through the 1960s, both graduate and undergraduate training was focused on broad-based skills that integrated critical thinking, historical knowledge, and statistical analysis. Since then, graduate training has become more technical, more reliant on mathematics and statistics. Initially there were debates within the field about this change, but technical mathematics and statistical training have won out. The reality today is that economics is a highly technical field, and anyone who is not comfortable with high-level mathematics and statistics is not advised to pursue graduate work in the field. The focus on general economic problem solving within a broad setting—a focus that characterized economics training through the 1960s—is now greatly diminished. Economics professors today are more prepared to make important technical inputs into policy analysis than to develop policy questions within a broader framework. Graduate training is intended to develop technical expertise, not to focus on policy design or on the moral or ethical aspects of economic policy. Graduate students learn to translate problems into formal models and to study those problems empirically by using high-level statistical techniques.
The fact that “thinking like an economist” is now associated with the narrower, more technical proficiencies of the modern approach to the field does not mean that the economics major no longer contributes to the liberal education of students. It simply means that the economics major now contributes in a slightly different way. The typical economics professor is not well trained to guide students through moral reasoning or civic engagement activities, for example. His or her interests are likely to center on problems that are susceptible to formal modeling and statistical testing, rather than on policy questions that involve complicated ethical or moral issues. As a result, undergraduate education in economics now contributes more directly to the development of quantitative literacy. The role of the economics major is becoming more like the role currently played by mathematics and the sciences. Students round out their skill development through other components of their education.
The increasingly technical and specialized nature of the economics major needs to be kept in perspective. Relative to history, English, or the other social sciences, economics is indeed technical and specialized. But the same pressures for specialization are at work within those other fields as well. Relative to the undergraduate science majors, the economics major is nontechnical and general. The economics major also typically has far fewer required courses than the science majors and, unlike most natural science majors, it is still designed for students who do not intend to continue their formal education beyond graduation.
Two distinct constituencies
Largely because of its connections to business, the undergraduate economics major has to satisfy two constituencies. The first is the very small group of students who intend to pursue graduate study in economics; professors of economics are well trained to teach these students. The second, much larger constituency is comprised of students who view the economics major either as a stepping stone to business and public policy, or simply as a foundation for a strong liberal education. Integrating the needs of these two distinct groups is a major problem for undergraduate economics faculty, and the decisions they make regarding how best to meet the needs of both constituencies will significantly influence the nature of the economics major in the future.
Students who perceive the economics major as a stepping stone and do not plan to pursue further study in the field—the second constituency—comprise the larger group. While 10 percent of economics majors consider going on to graduate school (Jones et al. 2010), the reality is that less than 2 percent actually do so—and an even smaller percentage complete it. Nonetheless, professors are often led by their own interests and research focus to teach to the much smaller group. Current graduate training in economics is focused on preparing researchers who have a narrow focus and who avoid asking “big-think” questions. These graduates will determine the future of the economics profession, and their natural tendency will be to train majors in the same way in which they were themselves trained. It is likely that they will continue to design the major around, and focus their passion on, courses that prepare undergraduates for graduate school, rather than devote their time and passion to “generalist” courses.
Some undergraduate programs address the dual constituency by creating two separate tracks within the major. The mathematical or economic-science track is appropriate for those students intending to go on to graduate school in economics and for those interested in using economics to develop a quantitative foundation within the liberal arts. This group comprises approximately 20 to 40 percent of current economics majors. The general economics track is more relevant to applied policy and provides a combined humanistic and quantitative liberal arts foundation. Other programs leave the two constituencies integrated, and attempt to design a single approach to the major that caters to both groups of students. Regardless of the program format, however, the major curriculum is being populated with an increasing number of technical course offerings as younger, more technically trained economists replace older, more generally trained economists. In short, the economics major is becoming less appropriate for students interested either in business and public policy or in a combined humanistic and quantitative liberal arts foundation.
Economics faculty are teaching students to think like economists, but it is not clear that “thinking like an economist” is the appropriate educational goal for these generalist students. Instead, for them, the goal should to be to develop their ability to use broader reasoning tools in ways that are consistent with the economic way of thinking. Ideally, by the time they graduate, undergraduate economics majors should be familiar with the broad outlines of the economic method and the technical tools used by economists. They should not think that the economic way of thinking is the only right way, however. They should also be familiar with scientific and humanistic ways of thinking, and they should understand how, when combined with these other ways of thinking, the economic way of thinking can lead to a reasoned solution to a problem.
In order to enhance economic education in ways that are consistent with the liberal education perspective, the catalyst function of education needs to be supported more fully. Reports or mandates from above that tell professors to do something different from what they want to do will undermine their passion and, thus, the catalyst function of the education they provide. It is better to teach the “wrong” content passionately than to teach the “right” content perfunctorily. The content of what is taught will, and should, be determined by individual professors and schools. Ideally, of course, the “right” content will be taught passionately. But this is unlikely at present, if the goal is to prepare liberally educated students. The current structure of graduate programs and of colleges and universities themselves ensures that the content taught with passion is driven by narrow research interests rather than by general teaching priorities. Only major institutional change at both the graduate and undergraduate levels can affect that.
In the absence of such major institutional change, marginal improvements can be made by modifying incentives and institutions so that more emphasis is placed on pedagogy and teaching. While there is no one set of “best practices” in economics pedagogy that are especially suitable for a liberal education, there are better and worse practices. Such practices should be an important part of the regular discussion at any college or university.
The bottom line of this report is that if the economics major is to make the best possible contribution to the liberal education of undergraduate students, then much more discussion is needed about the content and focus of the economics major as well as how that content is taught. It is beyond the scope of this report to identify precisely what that “best contribution” may be. Positive change in any discipline does not come from the top down; it comes from the bottom up, and major change builds on the initiatives of individual schools. The goal of this report is to open up a conversation, rather than to generate a set of specific recommendations. There are many ways in which the economics major can contribute to the liberal education of students. Thus, there are many ways in which the major can be structured to promote this objective. But the best economics major will not develop from bottom-up discussion unless departments are sufficiently concerned about the major and have appropriate incentives to ensure it contributes in the best way possible. We hope this report will help generate that concern.
David Colander is Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Economics at Middlebury College, and KimMarie MCGoldrick is professor of economics at the University of Richmond.
Colander, D., and K. McGoldrick. 2009. The economics major as part of a liberal education: The Teagle report. American Economic Review 99 (2).
———, eds. 2010. Educating economists: The Teagle discussion on reevaluating the undergraduate economics major. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishers.
Hansen, W. L. 2010. Reinvigorating liberal education with an expected proficiencies approach to the academic major. In Educating economists: The Teagle discussion on reevaluating the undergraduate economics major, eds. D. Colander and K. McGoldrick. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishers.
Jones, S., E. Hoest, R. Fuld, M. Dahal, and D. Colander. 2010. What do economics majors think about the economics major? In Educating economists: The Teagle discussion on reevaluating the undergraduate economics major, eds. D. Colander and K. McGoldrick. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishers.
Siegfried, J. J., R. L. Bartlett, W. L. Hansen, A. C. Kelley, D. N. McCloskey, and T. H. Tietenberg. 1991. The status and prospects of the economics major. Journal of Economic Education 22 (3): 197–224.
About the Report
The American Economic Association (AEA) does not take formal positions on issues. Instead, members of AEA committees prepare reports that reflect their own positions, rather than those of the AEA itself. This practice allows authors more freedom to be controversial and helps generate discussion. When the AEA received a grant from the Teagle Foundation to investigate how the economics major and economics coursework taken by students in other majors can more effectively support the goals of a liberal education, the association assigned two members of its Committee on Economic Education to do the report; those members are identified here as the authors. The report generated much discussion within the economics profession, some of which is presented in other published versions of the report (Colander and McGoldrick 2009, 2010).
The authors issued a series of specific recommendations for improving the economics major. These can be found in the full report, which is available online at www.teaglefoundation.org/learning/publications.aspx.
Warnings about the decline of the liberal arts are ubiquitous these days, but they are hardly new. Jacques Barzun, the renowned scholar and dean at Columbia University, pronounced the liberal arts tradition “dead or dying” in 1963. Barzun may have spoken too soon, but by various measures, liberal learning is worse off today than it was then. Liberal arts colleges seem an endangered species as curricula shift toward science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM disciplines. Students want jobs, not debt, and who can blame them?
The conversation around the liberal arts hasn’t changed much. It often sounds like this: “Many students and their parents now seek a clear and early connection between the undergraduate experience and employment. Vocationalism exerts pressure for substantive changes in the curriculum and substitutes a preoccupation with readily marketable skills.” But those words were written by Donald L. Berry in 1977.
The liberal arts ideal still has its eloquent defenders, and there is evidence that good jobs go to liberal arts graduates—eventually. Despite the popularity of business and technology courses, students are not abandoning the liberal arts in droves. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, degrees in the humanities, in proportion to all bachelor’s degrees, declined just 0.1 percent from 1980 to 2010, from 17.1 percent to 17.0 percent.
While defending liberal learning, however, educators might also ask some more basic questions: What do we mean by the “liberal arts,” and why should one study them at all? Why do we rely on two standard answers—critical thinking and citizenship? What exactly do those terms mean (if they mean anything “exactly”) and how are they related?
What Are the Liberal Arts?
The idea of the liberal arts has a nearly two-thousand-year history, dating to Latin writers of late antiquity, but the underlying questions about mankind, nature, and knowledge go back to the Greeks. Over the past century and a half, America has emerged as a superpower while adhering to a predominantly liberal arts model of higher education. But liberal arts is also a complicated and antiquated term, yoking together two words that don’t obviously belong in harness and may not be ideally suited for hauling their intellectual load into the twenty-first century.
Liberal comes from the notion of freeing the mind; there’s nothing wrong with that. As classics scholar Katie Billotte writes on Salon, “The Latin ars liberalis refers to the skills required of a free man—that is the skills of a citizen.” But arts, in the Greek and Roman world, had a different connotation: the Greek term techne meant skill or applied knowledge and had nothing to do with aesthetics as we know it.
Originally there were seven liberal arts: the trivium of classical antiquity, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, combined with the medieval quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. As early as the twelfth-century renaissance, when universities emerged from the monastic and cathedral schools of Italy and France, those “arts” were supplemented in the curriculum by philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and medicine.
Clearly, the model has evolved since then. Neither liberal nor arts is an essential or complete descriptor of what we consider a liberal education. Linguistic conventions have limited malleability, and avoiding the term liberal arts may not be feasible. Questioning such terms, however—and paying careful attention to language in general—are quintessential liberal arts practices.
There are at least three nested, and largely tacit, conceptions of the liberal arts in common usage. One, typified by America’s liberal arts colleges, embraces the ideal of the integrated curriculum, encompassing virtually all nonprofessional higher learning, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities and the performing arts. At its best, this comprehensive vision recognizes both the value and the limitations of such categories, along with the consequent need for interdisciplinary learning. In fact, some of the most exciting scholarship is now happening between disciplines, not within them.
Free minds are flexible minds, trained to recognize that many areas of inquiry are interconnected and many disciplinary boundaries are porous. Categories are instrumental and practical: our tools, not our masters. Using them without obscuring the underlying connections is another hallmark of higher-level thinking. Climate change and biodiversity, for example, cannot be fully understood unless seen as both distinct and related phenomena.
In fact, two intertwining assumptions, among others, underlie the modern liberal arts tradition. One is that every academic discipline has unique questions to ask, and thus its own techniques and epistemology. The other is that each discipline is also linked to others through common questions, techniques, and ways of knowing. Critical thinking is a key part of that shared epistemology, a set of skills that apply across the liberal arts curriculum.
A second frequent usage of the term liberal arts implicitly excludes (but doesn’t denigrate) the sciences; and a third, still narrower, sense of the term focuses mainly on the humanities. Each of these implied definitions may be valid in particular contexts, as long as we’re clear about what we mean, but the comprehensive one would seem the most useful overall. “Whatever else a liberal education is,” the philosopher of education Paul H. Hirst writes, “it is not a vocational education, not an exclusively scientific education [and] not a specialist education in any sense.” It is rather “an education based fairly and squarely on the nature of knowledge itself.”
This idea of “the nature of knowledge” right away implicates philosophy, which is largely concerned with knowledge and thinking. However unloved or misunderstood by many Americans, philosophy is the mother of liberal learning. Economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and linguistics are just some of its younger offspring. The various disciplines contain it in their DNA—partly in the form of critical thinking. Those disciplines constitute the system for organizing and understanding the known world— human beings, societies, nature—that we refer to archaically as “the liberal arts.” We isolate the rubrics of natural science, social science, and humanities, and their various subdisciplines, to the extent useful or necessary.
Indeed, a defining feature of any system is the concomitant stability and plasticity of its parts. The liberal arts form such an evolving system, consisting of stable but impermanent fields of inquiry that fuse at some points and fissure at others, adapting to cultural shifts while sharing a common language and assumptions, overlapping knowledge bases, and the core of critical thinking. Thus, we distinguish between psychology and philosophy, or between the scientist’s view of nature and the poet’s, but we also acknowledge the connections. In art, we look for the differences between impressionism and postimpressionism but also for the commonalities and historical continuities.
But however we define the liberal arts, no unique approach and no single method, text, or institution perfectly exemplifies the idea. In fact, it isn’t one value or idea so much as a group of ideas that share what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.” At its best, a liberal education isn’t intended to inculcate practical skills or to dump data into students’ brains, though it may teach a fact or two. Instead, it’s a wellspring of ideas and questions, and a way of promoting flexibility and openness to diverse perspectives.
Why Do We Need the Liberal Arts?
The liberal arts have traditionally been defended as instrumental to two key elements of democracy: critical thinking and citizenship. Such arguments are indeed compelling, once it is clear what we mean by those complex notions. (Another feature of the liberal mind is that it doesn’t shrink from complexity.) Citizenship, first of all, isn’t just a political notion in the ordinary sense. Like the term liberal arts, it’s more comprehensive and systemic: a social ecology involving a range of activities symbiotic with democratic communities. Three dimensions of that ecology are easy to identify.
One is the traditional civic dimension, which embraces a range of activities such as voting and jury service, advocacy, volunteering, dialogue and information sharing, and other forms of participation in the public sphere.
A second dimension is economic citizenship, which means being a productive member of a community: doing something useful for oneself and for others, whether in a factory, farm, home, office, garage, or boardroom. It’s also about being a critical consumer and seeing the connections between the political and economic spheres.
A third kind of citizenship (and the particular focus of the humanities) is cultural citizenship, through participation in the various conversations that constitute a culture. This is arguably the most family-friendly of the three. Take your kids to see The Nutcracker, or for that matter to a circus, a house of worship, or a ballgame. The arts, religion, and sports are all potential venues for cultural conversations. It’s no accident that many of our liberal arts colleges were founded by religious sects and host cultural events, sponsor campus organizations, and field sports teams. All are important forms of community.
These three forms of citizenship interrelate in subtle as well as obvious ways, and they are only the most visible bands on a spectrum of possible communal engagement. One could argue for other forms alongside or within them: environmental, informational, moral, or global citizenship, or civic engagement through leadership, mentoring, teaching, or military or other public service. But ultimately, it isn’t about parsing the idea of citizenship. The overall goal is to foster vibrant and prosperous communities with broad and deep participation, in public conversations marked by fairness, inclusion, and (where critical thinking comes in) intellectual rigor.
A liberal education is not about developing professional or entrepreneurial skills, although it may well promote them. Nor is it for everyone; we need pilots, farmers, and hairdressers as well as managers, artists, doctors, and engineers. But we all need to be well-informed, critical citizens. And the liberal arts prepare students for citizenship in all three senses—civic, economic, and cultural.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the intellectual engine of a functional democracy: the set of mental practices that lends breadth, depth, clarity, and consistency to public discourse. It’s what makes thinking in public truly public and sharable. And yet, like the liberal arts and citizenship, critical thinking isn’t monolithic or easy to describe. An initial definition might begin like this: whereas philosophy is about thought in general, critical thinking is about my thinking or yours or someone else’s in the here and now.
Digging deeper, however, we find in critical thinking another web of ideas with a family resemblance rather than a fixed set of shared properties. In fact, there is little agreement in the considerable literature on critical thinking about precisely what critical thinking is or how it is propagated. As education researcher Lisa Tsui notes, “Because critical thinking is a complex skill, any attempt to offer a full and definitive definition of it would be futile.”
Moreover, there tends to be some clumping within the bundle of ideas associated with critical thinking. For example, educators often cite the ability to identify assumptions, draw inferences, distinguish facts from opinions, draw conclusions from data, and judge the authority of arguments and sources. But that’s just one important clump in the bundle. And these are not simply discrete intellectual skills; they are general and overlapping, and they admit of degrees. Assimilating them isn’t like learning the multiplication table.
The rules and guideposts of informal logic help us to make sound arguments, avoid fallacies, and recognize our systemic human propensity for biases and misperceptions. (An excellent catalog of such pitfalls is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly.) Students who are college-ready have already absorbed at least the rudiments of this kind of critical thinking, even without formal training, much as we absorb elementary grammar by reading, listening, and writing.
Critical inquiry within the liberal arts curriculum goes well beyond that. Under the same broad rubric of critical thinking, it involves a suite of more advanced intellectual competencies, which bear the mark of the mother discipline we inherited from the Greeks. In fact, critical inquiry is the bridge between basic critical thinking and philosophy, and it’s where most higher learning takes place.
The advanced skills that form that bridge include thinking independently, an almost self-evident intellectual virtue but a vague one (and no mind is an island); thinking outside the box (likewise crucial but unspecific); grasping the different forms and divisions of knowledge and how they are acquired (but the forms of knowledge and ways of acquiring them evolve); seeing distinctions and connections beyond the obvious; distinguishing reality from appearance; and engaging with complexity, but not for its own sake. We venerate truth, for example, while recognizing that there are different types and degrees of truth, some more elusive or impermanent than others. All of these perspectives have value, but they aren’t reducible to neat formulas. In the end, critical inquiry is not a map or a list of firm rules but a set of navigational skills.
The assimilation of facts, ideas, and conceptual frameworks, and the development of critical minds, are equal parts of a liberal education. Or almost equal: at least outside the hard sciences, the intellectual tools and standards of rigor may have more lasting value than accrued factual knowledge. Precisely because they transcend the knowledge bases of the various disciplines, critical-thinking skills enable students to become lifelong learners and engaged citizens—in all three senses of citizenship—and to adapt to change and to multiple career paths. Thus, as William Deresiewicz observes, “The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think.”
Developing a facility with abstractions is part of the progression toward more sophisticated thinking that a liberal education affords. But that intellectual ascent doesn’t require a leap into the maelstrom of philosophy. This is partly because philosophers deal with a number of issues that are of no particular concern to other students and scholars, and it’s partly because philosophy isn’t a substitute for other forms of knowledge. We still have to conjugate verbs, understand economic cycles, and listen to stories. But there’s another reason we can acknowledge philosophy’s role in the liberal arts without having to study philosophy itself: we are already philosophers in spite of ourselves, simply because we use language.
In our ordinary thought and speech we use abstractions all the time. We form (and qualify) generalizations, commute between the general and the particular, make distinctions and connections, draw analogies, compare classes and categories, employ various types of reasoning, hone definitions and meanings, and analyze words, ideas, and things to resolve or mitigate their ambiguity. These are precisely the skills that a liberal education cultivates. It heightens our abilities to speak, listen, write, and think, making us better learners, communicators, team members, and citizens.
The Importance of Critical Inquiry
The college-level progression toward more sophisticated reasoning isn’t just a matter of analytic thinking as a formal process. It is also reflected in certain organizing concepts that (like critical inquiry itself) transcend the various disciplines and unify the liberal arts curriculum. These concepts include truth, nature, value, causality, complexity, morality, freedom, excellence, and—as Wittgenstein understood—language itself, as the principal medium of thought. Critical inquiry, like philosophy, begins but doesn’t end with careful attention to language.
This is something Wittgenstein failed to recognize. In seeking to bring philosophy to a close, by revealing its problems to be essentially linguistic ones, he paradoxically gave the field an enormous boost of fresh intellectual energy. “Mere” linguistic problems, it turns out, are philosophical problems—they are problems about meaning, knowledge, reality, and our minds, not just about words—and we all have to deal with them, whether as art historians, economists, or biologists. Wittgenstein isn’t considered the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher for having been the last to turn out the lights.
The aforementioned concepts (and arguably some others) pervade virtually all branches of knowledge and reflect their common ancestry in classical Western thought. A slew of other important ideas, such as scientific method, transference, foreshadowing, three-point perspective, opportunity cost, immanent critique, double-blind study, hubris, kinship, or means testing, do not.
Clearly there are no fixed rules governing this conversation; its signature is its openness. The roster of organizing concepts I’ve suggested is partial and contestable; in the end, they may simply be convenient ways of carving reality “at the joints,” as Plato suggests. They are not substitutes for, or shortcuts to, knowledge or understanding. But they form a general roadmap indicating what students can expect to find, and the useful navigational skills they may acquire, if they venture onto the rich intellectual terrain of the liberal arts.
The STEM disciplines are obviously important to economic productivity, but so is the entire rainbow of human knowledge and the ability to think critically. That’s why nations around the world are beginning to embrace the liberal arts idea that American education has done so much to promote, even as we question it. We need skilled thinkers, problem solvers, team workers, and communicators, and not just in the business, scientific, and technology sectors. The liberal arts embody precisely the skills a democracy must cultivate to maintain its vital reservoir of active, thoughtful, humane, and productive citizens.
Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of two books on media and politics and a work in progress about critical thinking and liberal education. His website is at http://www.jscheuer.com, and his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.