“What the world needs now is” . . . thought

by James W. Wagner, President of Emory University

Recently a well-educated, bright, and articulate woman with a successful and highly visible professional career posed to me this question: What is the practical value of the liberal arts these days, especially at the prices private colleges and universities charge? In other words, how do you, as a university president—and one with an engineering background no less—justify the kind of education that does not necessarily put students on a clear path to wealth or guarantee them a competitive edge in the job market after graduation?

These questions assume two things, neither one of which is true. First, they assume that the purpose of an education is to make money. And, second, they assume that liberal arts graduates don't make much. On both counts the mission of Emory is one worth defending.

Regarding the second assumption, my colleagues in the philosophy department might point out that philosophy majors are highly sought by law schools and medical schools, and some graduates in philosophy move on to success in entrepreneurial business. The English department might recall a recent New York Times report that US companies spend more than $3 billion annually to teach their employees how to write. This sounds like job assurance for English majors.

Colleagues in Emory's School of Medicine and Goizueta Business School might note that their professions value mental nimbleness and the capacity for effective human interaction as well as ingrained (maybe inflexible) training. The professions of medicine, law, business, and ministry all value quality of mind as well as specific skills.

Of course engineers, medical professionals, and technical experts continue to learn as they make progress against disease, hunger, and the barriers of time and space. And we can all be grateful for the highly developed expertise they bring to their vocations. In good doctors, trustworthy lawyers. faithful clergy, and ethical business leaders we want not only men and women of good judgment but also professionals who know what they're doing.

But however much our technology might be an aid to civilization, it is not the thing itself. Our civilization was developed by minds driven to know what is “other,” what is different. And that kind of knowing comes from the liberal arts.

And that takes us back to that first assumption, about the purpose of education.

When we look at what happened on September 11, 2001, we see the most technologically advanced nation in history humbled, not by technology but by human inventiveness at the service of ideology. In the days following that terrible event, the most pressing question was not about our technology but about “why they hate us.” At Emory we found that suddenly our experts in Islam, Arabic, and Middle Eastern history and culture were in great demand. We gave thanks that Emory and other universities offered an intellectual home for scholars in history, religion, literature, philosophy, and other liberal arts, for the sake of our civilization. Where would we be if, in the interest of offering only what promised a short-term pay-off, we had not maintained a home for such scholars?

Higher education should make it possible for men and women to lead better lives. But a better life includes not only—and maybe not even especially—greater employability and material comfort. A better life is one freed from ignorance and freed into the life of the mind, to do the work of the world. The true purpose of higher education is to lead us out of our self-centered universe to a place where we can perceive the world from other perspectives and bring understanding and moral imagination to bear on our communities. Higher education should empower us to make a positive impact on society.   Higher education is as much about gaining insight as it is about gaining information; as much about seeking wisdom as it is about seeking knowledge.  

Through the intellectual and emotional—hence, the moral—interaction fostered by true higher education, we bump into each other's universe and can, for a brief moment, be jostled from our comfortable centers. So, if a “decentering” of one's life is the goal of higher education, it is indeed an education about the higher things and about understanding each other.

Viewed in this light, the life of the mind will always be essential to our civilization. Our personal experiences and “data base” are incomplete until we deeply understand the history, religion, sociology, and literatures of others. By strengthening understanding among us, the life of the mind weakens the forces that pull us apart.

The arts and humanities do not simply entertain us through story, image, music, and dance. They open us up to the mind, heart, and soul of each other. This freedom is worth a high price indeed.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the December 30, 2004 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.





© 2005 Emory University