The Value(s) of the Liberal Arts

By Rachel Lewis

On September 26, 2013, the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Elon University in North Carolina hosted a panel on The Value(s) of the Liberal Arts discussing current critiques of the liberal arts and its roleor lack thereofin contemporary society, especially with regard to employment post-graduation.

Elizabeth Minnich, Senior Scholar with the Association of American Colleges & Universities Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives, and Mary Gowan, the current Dean of the College of Business at James Madison University, sat on the panel and represented unique standpoints on the subject. Moderated by Jason Kirk, Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies at Elon University, the discussion sought to encourage its listeners to think about their own understanding of the liberal arts, and how liberal arts education functions at Elon and beyond in institutions of higher learning.

The panel was far-reaching in its topics. “This [was] not an Elon University discussionthis [discussion] is about the value of the liberal arts in our society more broadly, in American society and perhaps global society,” Kirk observed.

What is the value of the liberal arts today? How can we, as learners of the liberal arts, keep it relevant to contemporary society? In her definition of the liberal arts Minnich stated that the liberal arts are “premised on a notion of… freedom of the mind, a kind of autonomy of mind, not subjected society to the tradition of authority, [but] respectful of it, not subjected to it.” It is very much a privilege, Minnich said, that college students are able to sit among each other, talk, and think, and a privilege that many have fought for.

Gowan, former Dean of the Love School of Business at Elon University, argued against the idealistic world of “learning for the sake of learning.” She recognized that college has become quite a financial burden on many students and their families, and they want to see a return on their investment.

Gowan continued on to introduce the idea of reframing what the academy looks like: “[We must] bring down the cost of liberal arts education while keeping the values of a liberal arts education.” 

No matter their standpoint on the connection between the economy and the liberal arts education, both Minnich and Gowan agreed that work benefits from the ethical influence enforced by the liberal artsethics and action should be kept in constant conversation with each other. A liberal arts education teaches students to think, to be critical, to truly enjoy the practice of learning, and to apply it to their own lives.

The discussion ended with the following quote from Pat McCrory, North Carolina Governor (R.): “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it… but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

To view the panel on YouTube, click here.

Rachel Lewis is a junior at Elon University majoring in English with a double concentration in professional writing and rhetoric, and creative writing. Elon University is home to the Eta of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.