Strict degree requirements do not negate value of liberal arts education

Jerry Green

In a column published on Nov. 3, Noah Horwitz argued that the College of Liberal Arts’ degree requirements are excessive, and he (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) called for government intervention from the state to fix the problem. I’ve enjoyed many of Noah’s columns on politics, and I actually agree with Noah’s claim about degree requirements, but Noah seems to have the right view for the wrong reasons: He conflates COLA’s degree requirements with a liberal arts education in general, and argues against the latter as a way of criticizing the former. As both a graduate student and an instructor in COLA, I worry about this reflexive rejection of breadth in one’s education. Addressing this error can help us see what makes a liberal arts education so important.

So first, Noah is right that COLA’s stringent degree requirements cause some students to take longer than they need to finish their degree, and that can be a costly problem. But there’s a big difference between saying that COLA’s requirements are too strict and saying that undergrads don’t need to take so many courses beyond their major; for instance, requiring a specific course number rather than a comparable course in any department seems unduly burdensome to me (though we should note the irony that Noah’s home department, government, has among the most required courses in COLA’s degree plan).

But that doesn’t mean, as Noah suggests, that one should spend the vast share of one’s time only in major courses. One might learn in a business class that only about 27 percent of students work in their major field. Or one could learn in a psychology class about the law of the instrument, i.e. “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” a bias exacerbated when you have narrow training. An economics class can teach you that higher tuition correlates more with lower state funding and increased building and administration costs rather than with stricter state requirements. A government course might teach you that the kind of heavy-handed regulative approach Noah favors often makes college more expensive, since it requires even more administrative costs to comply. 

I think what underlies this mistaken analysis of degree requirements is the assumption that a liberal arts education’s value lies only in vocational training.  Training in philosophy is especially useful here. For one, philosophers tend to earn more over their lifetimes than other humanities fields and vocational fields such as accounting or marketing, so if you care most about a high-paying job then we’re a good major for you. But philosophy can teach you how to think about what makes something valuable beyond money; for instance, Aristotle persuasively argues that a good life is a well-rounded life that includes both intellectual and practical activity.

Jerry Green is a graduate student and assistant instructor in philosophy.