Liberal vs. Practical Education

Provide for the esoteric, exotic, and impractical in the curriculum; the practical and pedestrian will take care of itself. If it does not, you have not lost much anyway; so I think the impractical things are the most practical and important in the long run. (Herman Wells, 1980)

Herman Wells was president of Indiana University and one of the great educational leaders of the twentieth century. His father was a banker, and Wells himself studied business administration and served as dean of the IU business school before becoming the university’s president. However, he had a deep appreciation for music, theater, history, and other liberal arts.

Today, and thanks entirely to Wells, Indiana University is one of the nation’s best public universities. It has the top university music school as well as many outstanding science and technology programs. Every administrator in higher education should follow the example of Herman Wells in supporting the liberal arts, even when it is difficult to explain what the practical benefit of the arts and humanities is.

Follow Wells, I say–but only to a certain point! That is the surprising point I wish to offer you as a history professor. Since Wells declared his important message in 1980, the academy has changed. Professors in the liberal arts are much more specialized than they used to be. They are also much more focused on their research projects as opposed to offering students a broad and stimulating introduction to what Wells called “the esoteric, exotic, and impractical.” As a result, the language of the liberal arts has become not merely impractical but irrelevant. Impractical means that a subject offers no immediate material benefit. Irrelevant means that a subject never engages the challenges of living outside the academy.

In addition, the pressure to publish books in order to get tenure is so intense, that liberal arts professors frequently (not all the time but frequently) are more focused on their own careers than in the future of their students. Thus, while business and engineering schools typically track what happens to their alumni in order to measure the success of their programs, liberal arts departments typically do not—maybe the faculty don’t want to know what the fate of liberal arts students is?

The ideal education combines practical and liberal elements. Developing fine writing skills, a sense of aesthetics, a sense of the past, an understanding of world religions—these are not merely frills but are the foundation of mature conversation and ethical decision-making. At the same time, the ideal university would also require students to do all or most of the following:

• A professional or political internship outside of the university, or a course on leadership
• A course in accounting, economic theory, or entrepreneurship
• An advanced class in information technology or computer science
• A workshop in career counseling

A great liberal arts student will always find a way to network himself or herself into the professional world after graduation. But most history, most English students are just average, if that. They are not going to become professional scholars or journalists. In fact, liberal arts majors are increasingly becoming the default majors of mediocre and sub-par students. There is a serious risk that these students will neither humanistic nor professional skills.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, there are a variety of good opportunities for a student to receive a balanced education, that is, a practical liberal education. An anthropology student can do a minor in Information Technology, or participate in the Entrepreneurship Initiative. There are also a variety of interdisciplinary programs, like the Bachelor’s Degree With Individual Concentration, in which students can use their imagination to combine courses from across the university into a coherent major that is both intellectually and professionally acute.

The resources are there for the optimal development of the young person, and we only need to exhort students more systematically: humanities students should cultivate practical knowledge while pre-professional students should add liberal accomplishments to their resumes.


Information Technology Minor

Entrepreneurship Initiative

Bachelor’s Degree With Individual Concentration

Author: Dan Gordon

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