Social Justice & the Liberal Arts

By Aja Storm Kennedy

When questioned about the practicality of their education, liberal arts students speak to the same line of defense: “My skills are broad, so I can adapt to multiple professions.” While this retort is certainly true, it attempts to measure the pragmatism of a liberal arts education against one geared towards a specific profession, and so it is inadequate in relating the intellectual gifts a liberal arts education bestows upon the student. It fails to account for the way liberal studies manages to deconstruct the world and reimagine it simultaneously; the way it exposes the smallest level of thought while expanding the mind who thinks it; the way it unravels culture, reveals the intricacies of society, and lays the world bare yet still indescribably complex. 

Liberal arts students do not share these secrets because to say “It tells us who, why, and what we are” is not considered a practical answer, but it is the most important one. In a world that values how much money is to be made, students of the liberal arts often forget the knowledge they have is not strictly for professional purposes, but also well suited for a higher moral purpose. With instances of racism and prejudice occurring daily in America, the discussion should no longer focus on which students can create the newest smartphone, but on which students can reverse racist ideology that has oppressed certain minority groups for centuries. This can only be done by uncovering who, why, and what we are, and for that we need the liberal arts.

In “The Liberal Arts and the End of Education,” Kathleen Haney writes: “If one were to master the liberal arts, then one would master human nature.” The expanded worldview that one receives from a liberal education is essential in understanding why and how certain racial attitudes function in society and the impact these attitudes have had on social institutions. By uncovering the thought patterns that create the misguided stereotypes that fuel racism and prejudice, one can learn how to destroy them. According to Haney, the liberal arts “free humankind from its worst enemies, ignorance and prejudice.” 

Thomas A. Foster suppports this notion in “Cuts to Liberal Arts Education Threaten Our Future and Our Past,” where he implores liberal arts schools to stop cutting Black Studies and Women and Gender Studies programs because of their social value. Classes that examined racial hierarchies and feminist politics not only gave Foster a new understanding of the struggles that Black Americans, women, and black women face in society, but inspired him to continue to explore these inequalities and pass on the knowledge to the next uninformed generation. Foster writes: “The courses that I took in college changed me, not only in the ways that they boldly portrayed histories previously unknown to me, but also by inspiring me to explore. By their example, they drew me toward my own research armed with new questions about race, gender, and sexuality.” 

While classes specifically directed towards race and gender studies help provide a framework for the oppression minorities face, all disciplines of the liberal arts help cultivate the critical thinking and societal awareness that foster a deeper understanding of the issues and help resolve them. In “Using the Power of the Liberal Arts to Address the Problems of Our Time,” Michael Zimmerman shows how essays entered in a liberal arts writing contest to demonstrate that liberal arts students understand the way “complex problems necessitate creative, interdisciplinary solutions.” The contestants were asked to discuss how liberal arts might help solve a state issue, to which many expressed that a combination of all liberal arts disciplines is necessary. Concerning a solution to homelessness, one contestant wrote: “‘We must approach it with well-developed critical thinking skills and a comprehensive world view. Sociology, economics, psychology, history, biology, and political science all factor in to understanding homelessness…’” The same interdisciplinary cooperation applies to solving issues of racism and prejudice. 

Anthropologists like Robert Wald Sussman, author of The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, locate the origins of the issue; journals like Critical Philosophy of Race explore the dimensions of the issue; psychologists like Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, tell us how to get the conversation started; political scientists like Tim Wise actively raise awareness regardless of the backlash they endure for their unpopular truths. 

All disciplines of the liberal arts are useful in combatting racism because all areas of liberal study force the student to explore the nuances of the subject and confront multiple views on it; traveling beyond the surface is essential to success in any liberal arts field. In “Educators Need to Get Off the Sidelines in Race Debate…,” Tuajuanda C. Jordan writes: “A college campus, particularly a liberal arts institution, is the ideal place to develop and enhance the skills and experiences that foster the type of problem-solving that will be needed to address and mitigate these challenges.” 

The Solidarity March held at Oregon State University last year shows that today’s liberal arts students have already acknowledged their roles as leaders of social change. After racist graffiti was found on bathroom walls and hate speech was directed towards women, students of all backgrounds marched across campus in solidarity against racism and discrimination. Mimi Benafel, who studies public health, stated that in starting the dialogue the students could create change. Sociology major Kian McConnell said that she wanted to “show support for the people of color [on campus], and send a message that racist acts and comments are not what we want at OSU.” 

And even when liberal arts students forget their roles as progressive leaders of social change and become perpetuators of racist ideology and perpetrators of racist acts, liberal arts schools stand out in how quickly and thoroughly they address these issues and how dedicated they are in resolving them. While many schools take either the lenient approach of temporary suspension or the more no-nonsense approach of permanent expulsion, liberal arts colleges place more emphasis on open discussion in addition to punishment. An expulsion is less likely to change opinions than an honest conversation. In response to racist graffiti written on bathroom walls and racist comments about the situation in Gaza, Connecticut College, a private liberal arts school, canceled classes in favor of a “campus-wide conversation about racism, equity and inclusion.” 

The responsibility liberal arts schools take in creating forward-thinking, socially aware, and culturally sensitive members of society is why a liberal arts education is the key to social change. To reference Jordan once again, the liberal arts “help students translate the theoretical presented within the classroom to the application of real-world experiences.” Liberal arts students do not take a narrow approach to difficult issues, but confront them critically and from multiple perspectives. Liberal arts students are not taught to work within a set construct, but rather how to break it open and transform it. Therefore, liberal arts students should not feel threatened by the question of how their education will afford them the corner office, but should focus more on how they will use their knowledge to change the world.

Photo by Flickr member Dread Scott. Demonstration against no indictment of Darren Wilson, policeman who murderd Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Demonstration in New York on Friday November 28, 2014 “Black Lives Matter Friday” in New York City.

Aja Storm Kennedy is a junior at Howard University majoring in English and minoring in sociology. Howard University is home to the Gamma of The District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.