Importance of Liberal Arts in
Times of Disruptive Change

What is the importance of liberal arts? This question first emerged on a posting board, so I pondered how liberal arts has impacted my life.

To begin, I define liberal arts as the humanities, literature, history, art, music, and social sciences. Over the last two decades, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has overrun liberal arts, esteeming “practical skills” to survive the job market.

According to academic publisher Wiley’s latest State of the Student Survey (2/13/23), of 5,000-plus students and over 2,400 educators, 55% of undergrads and 38% of grad students reported struggling to remain interested in classes they believe don’t teach practical skills.

A Shortsighted Decline …

A New York Times essay (4/2/23) by historian Bret C. Devereaux, Ph.D. details, “the steady disinvestment in the liberal arts risks turning America’s universities into vocational schools narrowly focused on professional training.”

Since the 2008 recession, politicians in both parties have mounted a strident campaign against government funding for the liberal arts. They express a growing disdain for any courses not explicitly tailored to the job market and outright contempt for the role the liberal arts-focused university has played in American society.

Liberal arts provides more than a how-to manual for the job market. It offers much-needed access to the human condition: empathy, imagination, and creativity, to begin with. More importantly, a well-rounded liberal arts education actuates our ability to make meaning, belong in a changing world, appreciate different perspectives, and even sustain citizenship.

From an educational perspective, I am an odd person to speak about liberal arts education. In 1953, my father emigrated from fascist Italy. I lived through his vision and version of the American Dream. He believed that owning a business was the path to controlling his destiny. His vision of the American Dream, albeit materialistic, colored my childhood.

In broken English, Dad would proudly announce how he made it in America without education. All he needed was hard work. He had a spirit that knew what America offered that most born here take for granted. Still, in his America, education was reduced to whatever made sense at work.

No Time for Books

My sister and I grew up without books, not even comic books. We were not exposed to museums, theaters, art, or cultural touchstones. No one ever read to us. Nor did we see anything missing. We didn’t live that kind of life.

In the third grade, I read my first book: Charlotte’s Web. I was amazed that I had read a full book. I was also surprised at how a story could move me to tears. I didn’t want Charlotte to die. As I got close to the end of the last chapter, I kept hoping there were enough pages left for something or someone to save her. Something deep inside told me otherwise.

That initial taste of meaning awakened something deep within, yet it hadn’t matched my lived experiences. I had no one to talk with about it. Mom was mentally ill and illiterate. Dad worked 14-hour days at his Italian restaurant, seemingly unlocking the secret to success. He built two houses for our family during my childhood and purchased a new Lincoln Continental yearly.

As a child, I discovered meaning in music. I played guitar, bass, and percussion to tame my adolescent agonies. Music taught me to value discipline, appreciate being part of an ensemble, and tap into my imagination. As an adult, I adopted my dad’s view of America, dropping out of high school to seek meaning in the material.

The Material World

In my 20s, as a gay activist, embarrassingly, I didn’t appreciate much of the world beyond conventional “material” success. I was now immersed in the language of civil rights, freedom, bigotry, public policy, and civic responsibilities—right at the advent of the AIDS crisis. Without a strong foundation in the humanities, I faced the inhumane without any appreciation of the brutality and oppression of this moment.

Finally, in 1993, I needed more. At 29, I began questioning the American Dream of getting a job or starting a business, acquiring the trappings of success, and achieving status.

I entered college and studied sociology, which expanded my view of reality. After earning two graduate degrees and several certificates in learning and development, I discovered Western and Eastern philosophy, the humanities, social sciences, and some (not enough) history. As a business professor, I began teaching graduate students in business and management.

Beyond the Material Word

By 2001, I was living in New York City when 9/11 shook our foundations as a city, nation, and people. The shock of those events caused me to question even more of my beliefs. Within a few years, I questioned everything from our economic systems, the pace of our technological change, and our willingness to shift educational priorities that seemed driven by marketplace gadgets and innovations. As people, we seemed to be more linked but less connected.

Reflecting daily on my students’ experiences and societal trends, I discovered how students were hungry for meaning but programmed for survival. I also confronted a disappointing reality in education. Once designed to liberate minds, education had come to serve market demands, programming out any active imagination or demands for creativity.

Today’s education system teaches tests, surrenders to skills, and prioritizes practical concerns reinforcing fear-based survival. Ultimately, students learn to conform to market demands, not question or challenge them.

Clever answers best thoughtful questions. Reciting what we know encourages arrogance over admitting ignorance. Probing the past distracts us from tuning into the present moment and recognizing the emerging future.

Marketing author and thinker Seth Godin, a former educator, brings home themes such as the following:

The cost of being wrong in a traditional school is high, so it makes no sense to take on thrilling challenges or to learn by doing, which, in the real world, is the only way we actually learn.

This World of Meaning-Making

Events in my life provoked me to see that education must offer more than survival. To be educated, we must cultivate minds beyond the transactional or practical skills that will become obsolete during our lifetime.

Many of my thoughts are reflected here by journalist, Fareed Zakaria in an impassioned essay about the benefits of a good liberal arts education:

A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross-fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Much like the role music played in my early childhood, liberal arts education taps into different parts of our brains to expand our sense of being. We valorize innovation in our society but fail to realize the necessary conditions to cultivate it.

Today’s education system teaches tests, surrenders to skills, and prioritizes practical concerns reinforcing fear-based survival. Ultimately, students learn to conform to market demands, not question or challenge them.

Without imagination, a rich understanding of the human condition, a grounded historical perspective, and stories to expand our worldview, we will only use technology to control markets, isolate humans, and shrink into our comfortable version of reality.

  • Liberal arts education challenges us as thinkers. We become writers who organize our thoughts, apply critical thinking, and question our assumptions and beliefs to question and evolve our identity.
  • Liberal arts education challenges us as creators. Through the arts, humanities, and literature, we expand our minds, cultivate our imagination, and locate ourselves in the human condition.

Writing, art, and music teach us to process emotions, reflect on life, express ourselves, inspire ideas, invent possibilities, and arrive at new insights.

Liberal Arts: Opening Minds

When we read literature, we learn from different human experiences. We discover that Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance was borne out of freedoms unleashed by Gandhi in India, cultivated in Eastern philosophies and religions. We honor King’s courage, as demonstrated in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, with the humility to probe his own leadership, challenge us as a people, and question why our society exists.

When I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I felt his incisive thoughts penetrate my being. I experience my rage rising as I explore race, religion, and society, tapping into new experiences and recognizing my truth. This happens when an author’s words connect with our imagination.

When we explore Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology, we better appreciate the hero’s journey and human archetypes found in Stars Wars, the Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We overcome strife and turmoil, achieve lessons of destiny and purpose, and struggle with our demons.

When we examine the Pentagon Papers case, we celebrate the gift that is our First Amendment, which underpins our democracy. We learn that dissent is vital to sustaining freedom. Through a vibrant and free press, we organize, assemble, and protest to affirm our principles and preserve our pluralistic religious beliefs.

When we dwell on Ralph Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance,” we transcend reduced notions of self-sufficiency as survival. We discover personal responsibility for one’s truth and that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Liberal Arts: Constituting Citizenship

When we consider Toni Morrison’s work, we learn about forgotten elements of citizenship that shape our culture and society—a word that has nearly evaporated from our lexicon these last 75 years.

Morrison reflects on “being a girl and being called a citizen, and this was important”:

“Sure, I was a second-class citizen, but I was still a citizen. After World War II,” she continued, “we were called American consumers, not American citizens, and we are

now called [American] taxpayers. This means our relationship with our country now is not the same as it used to be when being a good citizen was something important.”

Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants from other places. America is a constructed idea sustained by its citizens, not by a single religion, race, or ethnicity.

However, citizenship demands participation. It demands that we claim responsibility for understanding our history, appreciating different experiences, embodying the values of liberty, and insisting on becoming informed, critical-thinking individuals who rise with the rule of law beyond the force of man.

A quick take at our turmoil today finds Americans increasingly more isolated, alienated, and un/mis/dis-informed. Education must reach beyond mere practical and survival needs. Ours is the task of unlocking the mind from survival-based dependency to a broad-based expansion of human potential.

Education can liberate us and bring us to creative heights. We can become free to cultivate our collective imagination, appreciate our fellow citizens, expand the spirit of what it means to be human, and become a citizen of this idea called America.

Begin Today

A well-rounded education for twenty-first-century living must expand the bounds of human potential to integrate the timely with the timeless, the relevant, and philosophical.

In times of volatile change, humans require more than bread to fill our bellies. We must not only embrace change and technology, but we must also learn to become grounded in the fundamentals of being human. We discern experiences and draw sustenance from what Aristotle termed “the good life.

If, like me, you may feel that your life has lacked sufficient experience with liberal arts, you can take a step today. Read books, fiction, and nonfiction alike. Review poetry, prose, and polemics. Journal your daily reflections. Experience different musical genres. Appreciate art in museums. Venture beyond your culture. Take a class to discover or express your own art.

Expanding our minds, tapping our imaginations, and cultivating the capacity to appreciate differences can only connect us in our increasing world of change and complexity. I am left with Toni Morrison’s words, challenging us to make choices that will ensure our future: to tell the truth, to raise the bar, and “to imagine a world that is truly worthy of life.”

Reading Time: 8.5 min. Digest Time: 11.5 min.

* Item from New York Times was included in the revision of essay on 4/3/23.

To join our Learning Community, CLICK HERE to receive our Wisdom Weekly Digest.

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.