The Value of Liberal (arts)

David Brooks in today’s NYTimes argues the case on behalf of the value of history, literature, and the traditional liberal arts education. In a time when technology oftens appears to be de-linked from humanity, his case has merit. Read Brooks’ column here, and consider subscribing to the NYT if you appreciate the writing.

One Response to The Value of Liberal (arts)

  1. Andrew says:

    I was actually extremely disappointed by Brooks’ column. He picked a great topic and then proceeded to offer the most self-defeating argument possible.

    Here’s the crux of his argument: “Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.”

    The problem is that he’s on the right side of the liberal arts argument, but has the wrong reasons. The first three topics he mentions are social sciences and they have all suffered because they have presented overly simplistic models of human behavior, relying on what can be charitably called “folk psychology.” “Common sense.” “Gut feelings.” That is, they were based on feelings, rather than data.

    Take economics for example. Prior to 2008 the classical model reigned; markets and individuals were thought to be rational. Predictably, they aren’t. Since the financial collapse behavioral economics, which draws on the research done in psychology and biology, has come to the fore. I know I’ve heard the economic historian Niall Ferguson proclaim the death of classical economics. I hope he’s right.

    Brooks’ argument seems to stem from a school of thought known as post-modernism. This is the argument that there are many ways of viewing and interpreting reality, with science being just one. Economics is given equal weight. As is history. As is literature.

    This is not the nature of modern academics though. The neuroscientists are reaching out to the literary scholars to incorporate literature into our understanding of the human mind. And if literature can be encompassed by biology, I have a hard time seeing any other of the humanities staying separate.

    Brooks’ entire argument rests on folk psychology: the humanities can tell us things about the human condition that science is just not capable of answering. It’s a bold assertion and one that fails when the evidence is examined; there’s simply no evidence to back up his claim and plenty to show that it is wrong. The humanities certainly inform science, but they are not separate from it as Brooks asserts.

    A liberal arts education is absolutely vital for success. It does you no good to learn material by rote memorization; you have to learn to think critically. That being said, there’s no reason you can’t have both a liberal arts education and achieve fluency in the sciences. All of the major problems facing us today will be answered by science: climate change, energy, too little food, too little water. Knowing the basic language of science is extremely important for engaging with these problems. And a proper liberal arts education will give you the tools to actually solve these problems with your scientific knowledge.