In defense of liberal-arts education: a message to the regents

The state Board of Regents’ recent selection of a businessman with marginal academic experience to head the University of Iowa stems from its perception of a “crisis” in American education that needs to be rescued and turned around. Such perception is misguided.

While a vocational college serves to produce workers for society’s immediate needs, a liberal-arts university such the UI aims to produce a better person to build a harmonious society. James Freeman, the late president of the UI (1982-1987) who later went on to head Dartmouth College, stated the following: “Liberal education opens our eyes to what life is principally about. Life is unpredictable and full of disappointment, the breakup of marriages, death of loved ones, enduring illness. A liberal education is the most effective protection against the contingencies of life, and it anchors us most securely in the ocean of fate. When it comes to getting a job, the knowledge and flexibility provided by a well-rounded education is a major advantage.” (Liberal Education and the Public Interest, UI Press, 2003.) More importantly, when facing the bigger social issues, such as random shootings in schools, and the multilateral mass killings stemmed from religious bigotry, liberal-arts education brings back a sense of civility and responsibility. Sure enough, liberal-arts education does not make Iowa’s corn grow faster or the pigs get fatter, but it certainly will make Iowans better citizens, and the state and the world a better place to live.

First-time visitors to the UI are surprised to see such a well-rounded, comprehensive educational institution standing tall in the middle of Iowa cornfields. With more than 200 areas of study among 11 colleges, the university offers opportunities to pursue such diverse subjects as nursing, orthopedics, dental surgery, actuarial science, mechanical engineering, environmental study, music composition, Western philosophy, and Eastern religion. There are countless sporting events to participate in and more than 400 musical and theatrical performances per year to attend. Walking in the streets, one can easily rub shoulders with Pulitzer Prize-winners, MacArthur Prize winners, and even Nobel Prize winners without even knowing it. And in case you have not been told, Iowa City is designated one of a handful of Cities of Literature by the UNESCO, all because of its long tradition of literary achievements.

A university has three main missions: to preserve knowledge, to transmit knowledge, and to create knowledge. The UI pursues all of these. In its liberal-arts environment, knowledge is created by questioning, debating, accommodating, and finally compromising. Truth is obtained by extracting secrets from nature, from the human mind, and from society. Over the years, presidents of the university cherish and safeguard this tradition. They are highly regarded as role models for leaders of American education. In fact, many of its past presidents were lured away to lead highly prestigious universities.

Unlike a business establishment whose benefit goes to the stockholders and the management, a university’s return goes to the society and its members. Like other cultural institutions — a museum, a symphony orchestra, or an opera company — a university is always in financial deficit, always in need of donations and governmental funding. But this perceived “failure” from the business standpoint translates into long-term gain for the society, slowly and inconspicuously.

Thus, by perceiving a fictitious crisis, the regents’ action has created a real crisis for the university. Nearly 2,414 years ago, Socrates, one of the earliest advocates of liberal-arts education, was condemned to death for “corrupting the youth” of Athens by encouraging them to think and ask questions. Today, as the UI goes through a similar trial, I just hope it will survive the hemlock.

Ramon Lim is a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Iowa

Facebook Comments