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College rhetoric can marginalize other paths to responsible citizenship

In my last column, I supported my arguments about race, gender and class studies by referencing two “primary goals” of a liberal arts education: to prepare ourselves to make the world a better place and to expose ourselves to a wide variety of perspectives and ideas. According to the undergraduate admissions page, the three main purposes of the Stanford general education curriculum are to expose students to a variety of fields of study, to help students “prepare to become responsible members of society” and to introduce them to “the major social, historical, cultural and intellectual forces that shape the contemporary world.”

These statements, especially the second one, are useful in a general sense, but they merit further interrogation. What exactly do we mean when we say that liberal arts education helps students become more responsible citizens? How exactly do classes – in many ways very divorced from reality – help us become better contributors to the world around us?

Stanford (and most colleges) would respond with the classic college cliché: College teaches you how to think systematically and rigorously and exposes you to a wide variety of ideas and problems to think about. “Who are the people who live in this world, what are their lives like and how do they think?” are questions a liberal arts education teaches us to ask, as we sit pensively in pristinely-maintained seminar rooms. “What are the biggest human problems, and how might we go about fixing them? And what is my role in that massive global project?”

Although I describe this viewpoint with some sarcasm, I do think it has a lot of merit. Liberal arts courses really do help us think more rigorously about important human problems, and they do a good job of humbling us, of making us aware of just how big the world is and how little we really know.

However, it seems more than a little arrogant to claim that those who receive a liberal arts education are somehow better prepared than others to lead responsible lives. Does four years of liberal arts coursework really make someone more likely to treat her neighbor with kindness or to work a job with integrity? Does knowledge of literary theory or of the laws of physics somehow elevate one’s moral stature? Of course not. Liberal arts college graduates are no more moral than their peers. It was these graduates, after all, who caused the financial crisis and who perpetuate a “revolving door” culture of elitist, anti-democratic influence in Washington.

So why does this sentiment exist that a liberal arts education prepares a person for responsible citizenship? And what exactly does it mean to be a responsible member of society, anyways? We can reasonably define “responsible member of society” as someone who, at the end of his or her life, leaves the society in which he or she lived somehow better than it started. The nuance lies here: A good liberal arts education (if properly consumed) prepares its students to exercise certain types of social responsibility. For example, a liberal arts education might provide one good path (there are of course others) for people to become more inclusive policymakers, more insightful philosophers or perhaps even more informed voters. However, a liberal arts education does relatively little to help a restaurant owner delight his patrons, to help a homeless shelter proprietor serve her guests or to help people become better parents, spouses, friends or community members. These roles are all just as important as that of the policymaker or philosopher in promoting societal well-being, and yet they are often dismissed in the college setting.

In the end, I write this column not to disparage liberal arts colleges or the students who attend them, but rather to open up discussion about the role colleges play in the greater picture: that of the development of a responsible citizenry. Obviously, college professors, students and administrators at liberal arts colleges do a lot of good work in preparing the next generation for lives of thoughtful social impact. However, especially in semi-insular (and sometimes self-congratulatory) places like Stanford, it is easy for high-minded liberal arts rhetoric to make students feel superior. In light of this fact, it is important that we (and the colleges we attend) examine our rhetoric about the benefits and purpose of college, which can, intentionally or accidentally, subordinate other, equally valid paths to responsible and ethical citizenship.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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