Nannerl Keohane, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School, on the value of a liberal arts education

Wednesday, Apr 9, 2014

Nannerl Keohane, senior scholar the Woodrow Wilson School and former president of both Wellesley College and Duke University, argues that a liberal arts education is extremely useful—especially for those in the learned professions.Much debate in recent years has surrounded the value of higher education and, more specifically, liberal arts education. Policy makers, educators, students and the public have questioned the role of higher education: Is it a place to develop inquisitive, curious minds? Or should higher education be focused solely on gaining the skills needed for a well-paying career?

Nannerl Keohane, senior scholar the Woodrow Wilson School and former president of both Wellesley College and Duke University, argues that a liberal arts education is extremely useful—especially for those in the learned professions. She says that such an education can provide open and thoughtful students with rich rewards during their college years and beyond.

A speech Keohane presented to the Council of Independent Colleges Presidential Institute was featured in the Carnegie Reporter's Winter 2014 issue, which focuses on the future of higher education. Published twice a year, the Carnegie Reporter is produced by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

We sat down with Keohane to discuss a few of the ideas she presented.

Q. How does a liberal arts education equip those in the learned professions – like law, medicine and teaching – for successful careers?

Keohane: A liberal arts education prepares students by teaching them how to find material to answer new questions through assigned research papers on a range of topics. This crucial skill helps protect them against the obsolescence that inevitably attends a narrow pre-professional curriculum. Such an education also broadens their horizons so they can see their profession in the context of its past development and other ways of life. By providing students with exposure to several difference disciplines, a liberal arts education also helps them make wiser choices about their profession because they will have understood something about the intellectual foundations on which some of the alternative professions rest.

Q. How does a liberal arts education shape and mold the mind?

Keohane: A liberal arts education molds and shapes the mind by honing critical skills through intensive seminar discussions of many topics, and by responding to complex essay questions. Such an education also develops and rewards intellectual curiosity, which is one of the most important aspects of an interesting and supple mind. A liberal arts education gives a sense of the excitement of discovery, in various parts of life, and thus encourages students to continue to want to learn throughout their lives.

Q. Why is a liberal arts education so necessary in a democracy like our own? How does it make our communities better?

Keohane: A liberal arts education provides useful knowledge that helps citizens assess policy proposals; by honing critical skills it also prepares students to be more thoughtful judges of potential candidates. By giving them the opportunity to work with other students of diverse backgrounds, and to share extracurricular pursuits and, often, residential life, as well as academic encounters, a liberal arts education can also alert future citizens to the contributions made by many different types of people to the life of a community. By providing examples in history, literature, art and the social and natural sciences of individuals who have made essential contributions to their communities, thereby enriching both their own lives and those of others around them, a liberal arts education can also lift the sights of citizens about the contributions they can themselves make to the common good.

Of course a liberal arts education doesn’t always accomplish all these things for any individual; but it provides the opportunities for these things to happen, and richly rewards attentive, open and thoughtful students, both during their college years and for the rest of their lives.

This article was originally published by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.