Jon Meacham: Why Liberal Arts Matter

It is fun and encouraging to watch so many academics, students, writers, pundits, and journalists (myself included) coming to the defense of the liberal arts. Our economic crisis has forced those of us who teach the liberal arts to think hard about why we do what we do. Perhaps never before in American history has a liberal arts education needed to be defended in this way. My hope is that the liberal arts will come out of this economic downturn stronger than ever.

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the latest pundit to defend liberal learning. Meacham reflects affectionately on his experience as a student at Sewanee, The University of the South, a rural Episcopalian liberal arts college in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Belief in liberal-arts colleges like Sewanee, however, is about more than sentiment. As I sat listening to McCardell accept his election, I thought, not for the first time, about the difficulty of making the case for something so expensive and so seemingly archaic—an undergraduate liberal education—in an economic and cultural climate that favors efficiency and tangibility. It is inarguably hard to monetize a familiarity with Homer or an intimacy with Shakespeare.

It is just possible, though, that the traditional understanding of the liberal arts may help us in our search for new innovation and new competitiveness. The next chapter of the nation’s economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected. As Alan Brinkley, the historian and former provost of Columbia, has argued in our pages, liberal education is a crucial element in the creation of wealth, jobs, and, one hopes, a fairer and more just nation.