Without liberal arts and sciences, America's foundation crumbles
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Two hundred and forty years ago this Monday, in the midst of the American Revolution, five college students at William & Mary met at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Va., and founded The Phi Beta Kappa Society. They were driven by a pursuit of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor through liberal education and intellectual fellowship.

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These five students believed that the colonies needed new institutions, cultural as well as political, to make their nascent country great. For them, the liberal arts and sciences  — the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences, and humanities — served as both a grounding force and an elevating influence in turbulent times.

 

Today, there are those who have challenged the liberal arts and sciences as a pathway to the American ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity. The pursuit of knowledge grounded in free inquiry is either dismissed as “elitist” or as "nice for those who can afford it.”

On the contrary, the literacy and intellectual sophistication that underpinned the founding of our country remains essential to our future. They enable both America's external impact on the world and the internal functioning of our economy and our democracy.

America is the strongest nation in the world not just because we have had the most disciplined military and the most robust economy. We gained our position in the world from our drive to innovate, our ability to generate path-breaking ideas, and our freedom to create. The source of our creativity and innovation is an educational model justly recognized throughout the world for its excellence, openness and breadth.

Our colleges and universities receive applications from the most talented and promising students around the world. Last year our campuses educated over a million international students.

The case for studying the arts and sciences is compelling.

The arts and sciences prepare people for a lifetime of success by developing inventive employees and thoughtful, engaged citizens.

Students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences see bigger increases in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” than those in other majors, as noted in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s “Academically Adrift.” These are skills that are essential for all productive members of a modern economy, from entry level employees to the highest levels of management.

The CEOs of American Express, Bank of America, General Dynamics Corp., Logitech, Pinterest, Slack Technologies, and YouTube, among many others, all have an arts and sciences education.

An arts and sciences education also inspires students to know themselves and the world around them. This cultural and global awareness is increasingly important as our world grows more interconnected. Technological advancements will not solve our most pressing problems without a strong base of human understanding behind them.

Presenting one’s own rational claims, based on provable truths, as well as being prepared to listen thoughtfully to those of others, is the hallmark of a liberal education.

As Benjamin Franklin correctly noted, ours is a republic, if we can keep it. Actively engaged citizens are a requirement for an effectively functioning democratic republic.

An engaged citizen must weigh the actual merits of an argument, not merely its emotional appeal, and take part in reasoned debate with others. With a background in the arts and sciences, people are better prepared to contribute to society, participate in our democracy, and effect positive change. Higher education increases volunteerism, political knowledge and participation, electoral turnout, and democratic attitudes.

As we undertake a consideration of investment in American infrastructure, there is no more significant investment that could be made than in our colleges and universities to further their teaching and research missions in the liberal arts and sciences.

Our first president understood the need for this investment. Almost 20 years to the day after Phi Beta Kappa’s founding, in his 1796 address to Congress, President George Washington underscored the importance of the liberal arts and sciences to the country:

“The assembly to which I address myself is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.”

As a country we must re-commit ourselves to President Washington’s vision, and to the values embraced by those who gathered in Williamsburg 240 years ago today: pursuit of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor through liberal education and intellectual fellowship.

Frederick M. Lawrence is the Secretary/CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and is the former president of Brandeis University. He is also a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.