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Critical Thinking Liberal Education Journal

Wizard: Why, anybody can have a brain! But they have one thing you don’t have … a diploma! Therefore, by the authority vested in me, I confer upon you the honorary degree of THD.

Scarecrow: What’s THD?

Wizard: Why it’s Doctor of Thinkology!

Scarecrow: The sum of the square root of any two sides of an isosceles triangle equals the square root of the remaining sides! Oh joy, oh rapture! I’ve got a brain! 

There were two competing lists on the wall of the suite where I lived with nine other men during my final year of Harvard College.  Five of us marked the rare times we attended a class. The other five marked another list when they missed.  Twenty-five years later, I can’t correlate the list with success after graduation.  Missing class did afford me the time to get good at beer darts.

I liked college. I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures, which was interesting. I had a great girlfriend. I coasted, and snagged honors anyway. But it all could have been much more intense, and much more effective.  Fareed Zakaria defends all this in his book In Defense of a Liberal Education with the same words I remember my parents using: “A liberal arts education teaches people to think.” But somewhat for me, and definitely for most graduates, liberal arts college failed in all three aspects: the goal of improving “thinking,” the use of “teaching” to do it,  and the ability to impact a lot of “people.”


No one would argue that teaching thinking is a bad idea.  But what exactly is thinking? Analyzing a Chekhov play?  Doing math? Meditating to quiet one’s mind and cultivate a sense of gratitude? Planning a career? Or figuring out how to get honors with least possible effort, horrendous study habits, and a mind uncluttered with facts and formulas three days after the test was passed? Thinking when drunk or sober?

Zakaria vaguely describes his personal definition.  He values writing, speaking, and independent learning.  He then lists out a bunch of other things that a hodgepodge of CEOs, writers, academics care about, like critical thinking and ability to observe, for example.  A lot of us would agree with his points.

The biggest problem I have with this book is Zakaria frames the debate over the goals of education as a choice: liberal arts education versus “skills-based” education.  Liberal arts is in the Platonic tradition – Plato advocated learning as a pure end in and of itself.  In this vein, “Veritas” is Harvard’s motto.  Zakaria defends this view, the liberal arts view, against those that would push aside quixotic subjects in favor of learning of practical skills.  But they are the same.  In fact, learning to learn - learning to seek truth - is the most important and practical skill of all.  If a genie gave me only one wish I’d wish for more wishes.  If I had one thing to teach, it would be a love of learning.  In fact, the ability to learn is the skill that Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of HR, says is his #1 hiring criteria.

In our knowledge-driven world, skills that interested Plato, Zakaria, the Liberal Arts advocates converge with what’s needed to work.:communication, collaboration, learning skills, and even skills like mindfulness. All this stuff applies equally to the pursuit of Greek mythology, philosophy or marketing.  But it works both ways – one can gain these skills while studying computer science or anthropology.  These fundamental thinking skills underpin all practical pursuits.  This gets us through the raging debate about science vs. liberal arts as well – the “two cultures” famously described by CP Snow in 1959 remains a hot topic today.  The fundamental thinking skills I’m talking about unite cultures.  One of my favorite books about education makes the case that this is true even for motorcycle maintenance …

“A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, p. 90.

We need a more rigorous definition of “thinking.”  If we unpacked “thinking” we could define chunks so clear they could be paired with any subject.  College could be set up completely differently. Instead of subjects that fell into the categories of “liberal arts” vs. “practical,” students could pursue virtually any interest.  Educators could focus on helping to improve the underlying thinking skills to help them meet their own goals.  And we have the luxury to do this because we no longer need to rely on the teacher to be the expert in a specific subject–- it is all out there on the Internet.

A more rigorous definition of thinking could be clear enough to be assessable.  That’s one reason why we are all so confused about the value of a formal liberal arts education – there’s no way to measure it. You take the SATs to get into college, but there’s no test to see if you ever got any better at “thinking”.  Colleges differentiate based on vaguely defined brands, not outcomes. Zakaria resists being pinned down into such precision, saying some of these things are “wholly outside the realm of tests and skills” – but I think it is possible, and essential.

This led me to work a bit last year with Charles Fadel and the Center for Curriculum Redesign.  Charles authored a popular book called 21st Century Skills and just published Four-Dimensional Education. He has developed a framework to be a normative list of fundamental thinking skills and character traits.  Zakaria mentions the all-important OECD PISA test that is often used as a way of comparing national education systems.  Charles is working with the OECD to widen the categories they measure from subjects like “reading and math” to include a pretty comprehensive list of skills like creativity or curiosity that most people feel are more important to living a good life in the next century.  Perhaps changing the OECD test and coming up with standards and tests for this stuff will help educators clear up their fuzzy thinking about thinking.

I should say that many other people are moving forward towards this idea.   The KIPP charter schools focus on developing seven traits: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.  The Minerva Project, a new college that finished its freshman class in 2015 and raised one of the largest seed rounds in history, maps 147 habits of mind to their four-year curriculum and continually talks about and measures them.  In Teaching Minds, Roger Schank (who founded the discipline of learning science), offers a framework of 12 basic cognitive processes. And I’m sure there are others, and that some colleges are more rigorous in this regard than others.  But Zakaria’s defense leaves things all too vague for me.  These other efforts make sense – if thinking is the goal, let’s define it, explain it to students, and measure it.


We all know that very few faculty in our research Universities are concerned with teaching, particularly teaching undergraduates.  Student success – at learning thinking or anything else – is not a big goal, and doesn’t relate to faculty pay or status. In fact, their teaching load is often less than a course per semester.

But even if they did, “teaching” as a model is backwards.  Learning is what works.  Socrates new this, Maria Montessori knew this, and recently a whole battery of “learning scientists” have rediscovered it.  Minerva founder Ben Nelson has a great bit that sums up the point.  He did a one-week wine exploration of Argentina guided by an expert, and a similar one-week tour of Chile that he had to research and organize himself.  Two years later, Ben remembers barrels about Chilean wine and only drops about Argentinian.  If learning is the objective, we can do much better than the lectures, exams, and even subjects that constitute teaching today.  Humans mistake the pleasurable sensation of understanding for actual learning that will stick. Learning means rewiring the brain, which takes active engagement.

So I disagree with Zakaria that we just need more of the same.  He writes, “The solution is not that people need to major in marketing in college, but that their liberal education should be more structured and demanding.”  The whole thing: subjects, tests, grades, classrooms, professors, tenure, even the practice of going to college for four years from ages 18-22 should be overhauled.  This topic – the “how” people learn – deserves more exposition.  Fortunately many people are working on this, too.

But it is not time to throw molotov cocktails into college quads to start a revolution.  I like a lot of the features of 4-year liberal arts colleges.  First, it is fun.  As I said above in my genie example, if college did nothing more than connect learning with fun for people, I’d take it.  The Charles Eliot innovation in the late 19th century that Zakaria points out – giving students wide choice of academic subjects – is also the right idea.  I’d keep the abundance of extra-curricular choices as well.  Let students have time to find out what they are interested in doing.  But let’s marry those pursuits with teaching them to think.  Employers certainly sense that much of the good learning happens outside the classroom.  Let’s be a little more rigorous in making sure the teamwork learned on the pitch can be more easily transferred to work. Also, the very idea of a campus works for me. I agree with Harvard’s historian Samuel Eliot Morison that you need the proximity and peers to develop character.  And character is what we must develop.

I’d add that probably the biggest innovation of all is in giving high school graduates time to go out into the world, reflect, and to discover themselves.  I’d go farther.  We don’t do that enough later on.  Of course, I’m preaching from Barcelona, in the middle of what I’d call the third major “sabbatical” I’ve taken in my career, not counting college.  My first was graduate school.  And for many, indulging in four years and a racking up huge debt before their career even starts precludes them from taking a break from work later, once they have some life experience to really fuel the reflection.


Only about 39% of 18 to 24 year olds go to college.  So the system is not even serving half our kids. That’s a fail for the “people” part of the equation, right there.

Furthermore, the majority of the people that complete a 4-year liberal arts school are dumped into unemployment, underemployment and debt.  We have a widening “skills gap.”

In November 2015, the youth unemployment was 11.20% in the US and 3-4 times that in countries like Spain.  And this doesn’t include many more graduates that are unable to get “good” jobs. Ironically, companies report that it is hard to hire. The US has over a trillion dollars in government-backed student loans that these underemployed kids can’t repay.  Here’s a dramatic 2-minute trailer for a movie about this impending financial shockwave called “Ivory Tower.”  Why isn’t supply and demand working in our labor markets?

The whole thing is a system. It is a (beer) dartboard, on which a Harvard four-year AB degree is the bullseye.  All the colleges that compete & imitate, the high-schools that prepare, the parents raising kids to go, and all the other educational options are part of the game we set up for our youth play. It is pretty tough to reform all the other parts without making changes to the bullseye. For example: Harvard requires subjects like history and algebra, the pursuit of which manages to turn off a large chunk of kids to the whole idea of school before age 13. Maybe Zakaria’s most persuasive argument is that U.S. liberal arts colleges are graduating leaders that are thoughtful, creative, brave, and well-tooled for the modern economy.  These  innovative entrepreneurs are creating valuable companies more often than anyone on the planet.  Zakaria’s argument is that a mark of their aptitude is that they are doing this despite the fact that the broader US workforce is measurably weak in knowledge and skills.

He’s right - the current 4-year liberal arts college system does work for a few.  It worked for Zakaria.  It worked for Mark Zuckerberg.  It worked for me!  Why? The system does work for kids who have interests that happen to coincide with a faculty member, or who discover an extracurricular passion. They go through college engaged, working hard, and reaping rewards.  For some, at 18, the view from the Ivory Tower is thrilling and gripping.  But the quadratic equations and platonic verses that stuff the core curriculum don’t do it for most people.  We only develop skills when we wrestle with ideas, and most of us only do that when something we care about is on the line.

Some of us also get stronger wrestling with the system itself. Regardless of how the system is built, we’ve got to avoid losing that aspect. The idea to take from this is that the learner must be in charge, not the teacher.  Real learning is an exploration of our own insides, and lecture halls are not where this happens best.  And educators should never pack the schedule so full of learning-to-think “stuff” that the students have no time for freethought.  But we shouldn’t keep the system as crappy as it is so we can spawn a few rebels who grow strong by opposing it, and cutting class.

Do we risk dragging down a system that is producing a very effective elite? Maybe we just need something separate and different for “the people?”  First of all, I’m not so sure that liberal arts college is what is producing our great elite.  I’ve met three Thiel Fellows, who have been paid $100,000 by this billionaire that famously hates our college system to start companies and skip college.  They are some of the most well-tooled entrepreneurs I’ve ever met.  Plus, at 19 they have a head-start on their peers and negative debt.  Could it be that these entrepreneurial qualities are more the product of broader US culture than campus culture?

But, still, as Zakaria discusses, the four-year liberal arts colleges, and the whole education system that orbits it, are a major force in producing our culture.  So I guess if you are happy with our culture, leave it be.

But I am not. The rich/poor gap is unacceptable.  The skills gap is unacceptable.  And this system leaves most kids out and turns off most of the ones that are in.  Frustrated young people destabilize political systems.  And not only in the Middle East. David Simon, producer of TV show “The Wire” about Baltimore  sums this point up well in his recent “Two Americas” speech.  If we care about fixing this, we must change the education system.  In his recent mega-hit book about increasing income inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty sums it up, “Over a long period of time,” he writes, the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.”

We can’t hold our people together as a society by giving them a common reading list of great books.  It turns out that only a few will read them, even if they can afford $200,000 and four years off work to do it.  We need a new set of standards for thinking, not standards for what you do with the thinking.  Then we can meet people where they live, where they are interested.  And, I’m guessing, in this place, the key is going to be connecting learning to earning. Thinking is the most practical thing there is, and everyone could get better at learning to learn to do it, if only you can uncouple it from things they see as frustrating and useless.

Let’s overhaul education. There should be no sacred cows, and just because some of us enjoyed our liberal arts degrees, we shouldn’t spare the idea of liberal arts.  Could it be an evolution as Zakaria advocates?  Yale in Singapore? Maybe. I could see how you might couch the changes in the language of the academy.  Let’s return to working on “rhetoric” and using the true “Socratic method.” But college is working for most of the people that are becoming our leaders today, making it even harder to see a change happening from the inside.  This is the trap I fear.  Kids going to college to chase the glory days their parents talked about are already ending up in debt, underemployed, and unprepared for the coming century.

I think most of the innovation will come from the outside.  Zakaria tells the story of how Charles Eliot wrote an article that got him appointed head of Harvard in 1865.  Once there, he made sweeping reforms.  Today, a single article would likely drown in the information tsunami.  So I’m going to build an institution that impacts the system the way that article did.  And I’m happy to be joining alongside many others that are following this same calling.

Warnings about the decline of the liberal arts are ubiquitous these days, but they are hardly new. Jacques Barzun, the renowned scholar and dean at Columbia University, pronounced the liberal arts tradition “dead or dying” in 1963. Barzun may have spoken too soon, but by various measures, liberal learning is worse off today than it was then. Liberal arts colleges seem an endangered species as curricula shift toward science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM disciplines. Students want jobs, not debt, and who can blame them?

The conversation around the liberal arts hasn’t changed much. It often sounds like this: “Many students and their parents now seek a clear and early connection between the undergraduate experience and employment. Vocationalism exerts pressure for substantive changes in the curriculum and substitutes a preoccupation with readily marketable skills.” But those words were written by Donald L. Berry in 1977.

The liberal arts ideal still has its eloquent defenders, and there is evidence that good jobs go to liberal arts graduates—eventually. Despite the popularity of business and technology courses, students are not abandoning the liberal arts in droves. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, degrees in the humanities, in proportion to all bachelor’s degrees, declined just 0.1 percent from 1980 to 2010, from 17.1 percent to 17.0 percent.

While defending liberal learning, however, educators might also ask some more basic questions: What do we mean by the “liberal arts,” and why should one study them at all? Why do we rely on two standard answers—critical thinking and citizenship? What exactly do those terms mean (if they mean anything “exactly”) and how are they related?

What Are the Liberal Arts?

The idea of the liberal arts has a nearly two-thousand-year history, dating to Latin writers of late antiquity, but the underlying questions about mankind, nature, and knowledge go back to the Greeks. Over the past century and a half, America has emerged as a superpower while adhering to a predominantly liberal arts model of higher education. But liberal arts is also a complicated and antiquated term, yoking together two words that don’t obviously belong in harness and may not be ideally suited for hauling their intellectual load into the twenty-first century.

Liberal comes from the notion of freeing the mind; there’s nothing wrong with that. As classics scholar Katie Billotte writes on Salon, “The Latin ars liberalis refers to the skills required of a free man—that is the skills of a citizen.” But arts, in the Greek and Roman world, had a different connotation: the Greek term techne meant skill or applied knowledge and had nothing to do with aesthetics as we know it.

Originally there were seven liberal arts: the trivium of classical antiquity, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, combined with the medieval quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. As early as the twelfth-century renaissance, when universities emerged from the monastic and cathedral schools of Italy and France, those “arts” were supplemented in the curriculum by philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and medicine.

Clearly, the model has evolved since then. Neither liberal nor arts is an essential or complete descriptor of what we consider a liberal education. Linguistic conventions have limited malleability, and avoiding the term liberal arts may not be feasible. Questioning such terms, however—and paying careful attention to language in general—are quintessential liberal arts practices.

There are at least three nested, and largely tacit, conceptions of the liberal arts in common usage. One, typified by America’s liberal arts colleges, embraces the ideal of the integrated curriculum, encompassing virtually all nonprofessional higher learning, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities and the performing arts. At its best, this comprehensive vision recognizes both the value and the limitations of such categories, along with the consequent need for interdisciplinary learning. In fact, some of the most exciting scholarship is now happening between disciplines, not within them.

Free minds are flexible minds, trained to recognize that many areas of inquiry are interconnected and many disciplinary boundaries are porous. Categories are instrumental and practical: our tools, not our masters. Using them without obscuring the underlying connections is another hallmark of higher-level thinking. Climate change and biodiversity, for example, cannot be fully understood unless seen as both distinct and related phenomena.

In fact, two intertwining assumptions, among others, underlie the modern liberal arts tradition. One is that every academic discipline has unique questions to ask, and thus its own techniques and epistemology. The other is that each discipline is also linked to others through common questions, techniques, and ways of knowing. Critical thinking is a key part of that shared epistemology, a set of skills that apply across the liberal arts curriculum.

A second frequent usage of the term liberal arts implicitly excludes (but doesn’t denigrate) the sciences; and a third, still narrower, sense of the term focuses mainly on the humanities. Each of these implied definitions may be valid in particular contexts, as long as we’re clear about what we mean, but the comprehensive one would seem the most useful overall. “Whatever else a liberal education is,” the philosopher of education Paul H. Hirst writes, “it is not a vocational education, not an exclusively scientific education [and] not a specialist education in any sense.” It is rather “an education based fairly and squarely on the nature of knowledge itself.”

This idea of “the nature of knowledge” right away implicates philosophy, which is largely concerned with knowledge and thinking. However unloved or misunderstood by many Americans, philosophy is the mother of liberal learning. Economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and linguistics are just some of its younger offspring. The various disciplines contain it in their DNA—partly in the form of critical thinking. Those disciplines constitute the system for organizing and understanding the known world— human beings, societies, nature—that we refer to archaically as “the liberal arts.” We isolate the rubrics of natural science, social science, and humanities, and their various subdisciplines, to the extent useful or necessary.

Indeed, a defining feature of any system is the concomitant stability and plasticity of its parts. The liberal arts form such an evolving system, consisting of stable but impermanent fields of inquiry that fuse at some points and fissure at others, adapting to cultural shifts while sharing a common language and assumptions, overlapping knowledge bases, and the core of critical thinking. Thus, we distinguish between psychology and philosophy, or between the scientist’s view of nature and the poet’s, but we also acknowledge the connections. In art, we look for the differences between impressionism and postimpressionism but also for the commonalities and historical continuities.

But however we define the liberal arts, no unique approach and no single method, text, or institution perfectly exemplifies the idea. In fact, it isn’t one value or idea so much as a group of ideas that share what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.” At its best, a liberal education isn’t intended to inculcate practical skills or to dump data into students’ brains, though it may teach a fact or two. Instead, it’s a wellspring of ideas and questions, and a way of promoting flexibility and openness to diverse perspectives.

Why Do We Need the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts have traditionally been defended as instrumental to two key elements of democracy: critical thinking and citizenship. Such arguments are indeed compelling, once it is clear what we mean by those complex notions. (Another feature of the liberal mind is that it doesn’t shrink from complexity.) Citizenship, first of all, isn’t just a political notion in the ordinary sense. Like the term liberal arts, it’s more comprehensive and systemic: a social ecology involving a range of activities symbiotic with democratic communities. Three dimensions of that ecology are easy to identify.

One is the traditional civic dimension, which embraces a range of activities such as voting and jury service, advocacy, volunteering, dialogue and information sharing, and other forms of participation in the public sphere.

A second dimension is economic citizenship, which means being a productive member of a community: doing something useful for oneself and for others, whether in a factory, farm, home, office, garage, or boardroom. It’s also about being a critical consumer and seeing the connections between the political and economic spheres.

A third kind of citizenship (and the particular focus of the humanities) is cultural citizenship, through participation in the various conversations that constitute a culture. This is arguably the most family-friendly of the three. Take your kids to see The Nutcracker, or for that matter to a circus, a house of worship, or a ballgame. The arts, religion, and sports are all potential venues for cultural conversations. It’s no accident that many of our liberal arts colleges were founded by religious sects and host cultural events, sponsor campus organizations, and field sports teams. All are important forms of community.

These three forms of citizenship interrelate in subtle as well as obvious ways, and they are only the most visible bands on a spectrum of possible communal engagement. One could argue for other forms alongside or within them: environmental, informational, moral, or global citizenship, or civic engagement through leadership, mentoring, teaching, or military or other public service. But ultimately, it isn’t about parsing the idea of citizenship. The overall goal is to foster vibrant and prosperous communities with broad and deep participation, in public conversations marked by fairness, inclusion, and (where critical thinking comes in) intellectual rigor.

A liberal education is not about developing professional or entrepreneurial skills, although it may well promote them. Nor is it for everyone; we need pilots, farmers, and hairdressers as well as managers, artists, doctors, and engineers. But we all need to be well-informed, critical citizens. And the liberal arts prepare students for citizenship in all three senses—civic, economic, and cultural.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the intellectual engine of a functional democracy: the set of mental practices that lends breadth, depth, clarity, and consistency to public discourse. It’s what makes thinking in public truly public and sharable. And yet, like the liberal arts and citizenship, critical thinking isn’t monolithic or easy to describe. An initial definition might begin like this: whereas philosophy is about thought in general, critical thinking is about my thinking or yours or someone else’s in the here and now.

Digging deeper, however, we find in critical thinking another web of ideas with a family resemblance rather than a fixed set of shared properties. In fact, there is little agreement in the considerable literature on critical thinking about precisely what critical thinking is or how it is propagated. As education researcher Lisa Tsui notes, “Because critical thinking is a complex skill, any attempt to offer a full and definitive definition of it would be futile.”

Moreover, there tends to be some clumping within the bundle of ideas associated with critical thinking. For example, educators often cite the ability to identify assumptions, draw inferences, distinguish facts from opinions, draw conclusions from data, and judge the authority of arguments and sources. But that’s just one important clump in the bundle. And these are not simply discrete intellectual skills; they are general and overlapping, and they admit of degrees. Assimilating them isn’t like learning the multiplication table.

The rules and guideposts of informal logic help us to make sound arguments, avoid fallacies, and recognize our systemic human propensity for biases and misperceptions. (An excellent catalog of such pitfalls is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly.) Students who are college-ready have already absorbed at least the rudiments of this kind of critical thinking, even without formal training, much as we absorb elementary grammar by reading, listening, and writing.

Critical inquiry within the liberal arts curriculum goes well beyond that. Under the same broad rubric of critical thinking, it involves a suite of more advanced intellectual competencies, which bear the mark of the mother discipline we inherited from the Greeks. In fact, critical inquiry is the bridge between basic critical thinking and philosophy, and it’s where most higher learning takes place.

The advanced skills that form that bridge include thinking independently, an almost self-evident intellectual virtue but a vague one (and no mind is an island); thinking outside the box (likewise crucial but unspecific); grasping the different forms and divisions of knowledge and how they are acquired (but the forms of knowledge and ways of acquiring them evolve); seeing distinctions and connections beyond the obvious; distinguishing reality from appearance; and engaging with complexity, but not for its own sake. We venerate truth, for example, while recognizing that there are different types and degrees of truth, some more elusive or impermanent than others. All of these perspectives have value, but they aren’t reducible to neat formulas. In the end, critical inquiry is not a map or a list of firm rules but a set of navigational skills.

The assimilation of facts, ideas, and conceptual frameworks, and the development of critical minds, are equal parts of a liberal education. Or almost equal: at least outside the hard sciences, the intellectual tools and standards of rigor may have more lasting value than accrued factual knowledge. Precisely because they transcend the knowledge bases of the various disciplines, critical-thinking skills enable students to become lifelong learners and engaged citizens—in all three senses of citizenship—and to adapt to change and to multiple career paths. Thus, as William Deresiewicz observes, “The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think.”

Developing a facility with abstractions is part of the progression toward more sophisticated thinking that a liberal education affords. But that intellectual ascent doesn’t require a leap into the maelstrom of philosophy. This is partly because philosophers deal with a number of issues that are of no particular concern to other students and scholars, and it’s partly because philosophy isn’t a substitute for other forms of knowledge. We still have to conjugate verbs, understand economic cycles, and listen to stories. But there’s another reason we can acknowledge philosophy’s role in the liberal arts without having to study philosophy itself: we are already philosophers in spite of ourselves, simply because we use language.

In our ordinary thought and speech we use abstractions all the time. We form (and qualify) generalizations, commute between the general and the particular, make distinctions and connections, draw analogies, compare classes and categories, employ various types of reasoning, hone definitions and meanings, and analyze words, ideas, and things to resolve or mitigate their ambiguity. These are precisely the skills that a liberal education cultivates. It heightens our abilities to speak, listen, write, and think, making us better learners, communicators, team members, and citizens.

The Importance of Critical Inquiry

The college-level progression toward more sophisticated reasoning isn’t just a matter of analytic thinking as a formal process. It is also reflected in certain organizing concepts that (like critical inquiry itself) transcend the various disciplines and unify the liberal arts curriculum. These concepts include truth, nature, value, causality, complexity, morality, freedom, excellence, and—as Wittgenstein understood—language itself, as the principal medium of thought. Critical inquiry, like philosophy, begins but doesn’t end with careful attention to language.

This is something Wittgenstein failed to recognize. In seeking to bring philosophy to a close, by revealing its problems to be essentially linguistic ones, he paradoxically gave the field an enormous boost of fresh intellectual energy. “Mere” linguistic problems, it turns out, are philosophical problems—they are problems about meaning, knowledge, reality, and our minds, not just about words—and we all have to deal with them, whether as art historians, economists, or biologists. Wittgenstein isn’t considered the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher for having been the last to turn out the lights.

The aforementioned concepts (and arguably some others) pervade virtually all branches of knowledge and reflect their common ancestry in classical Western thought. A slew of other important ideas, such as scientific method, transference, foreshadowing, three-point perspective, opportunity cost, immanent critique, double-blind study, hubris, kinship, or means testing, do not.

Clearly there are no fixed rules governing this conversation; its signature is its openness. The roster of organizing concepts I’ve suggested is partial and contestable; in the end, they may simply be convenient ways of carving reality “at the joints,” as Plato suggests. They are not substitutes for, or shortcuts to, knowledge or understanding. But they form a general roadmap indicating what students can expect to find, and the useful navigational skills they may acquire, if they venture onto the rich intellectual terrain of the liberal arts.

The STEM disciplines are obviously important to economic productivity, but so is the entire rainbow of human knowledge and the ability to think critically. That’s why nations around the world are beginning to embrace the liberal arts idea that American education has done so much to promote, even as we question it. We need skilled thinkers, problem solvers, team workers, and communicators, and not just in the business, scientific, and technology sectors. The liberal arts embody precisely the skills a democracy must cultivate to maintain its vital reservoir of active, thoughtful, humane, and productive citizens.   

Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of two books on media and politics and a work in progress about critical thinking and liberal education. His website is at http://www.jscheuer.com, and his e-mail address is jeffscheuer@gmail.com.

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