The GAO Report: A Liberal Artist’s Anxieties

Opinion by Shelley Gao
March 1, 2010, 12:31 a.m.

This past weekend, thousands of adults descended onto the Farm, participating in the annual ritual known as Parents’ Weekend. Numerous activities including faculty lectures, campus tours, open houses and receptions were scheduled to offer families an insight into the academic and campus lives of Stanford students. Despite the hectic programming schedule, I am sure many parents managed to squeeze in those little chats about “future plans.”

As we approach the end of our time at Stanford, we are faced with increasing pressure from parents and society to define our post graduation trajectory. As students of the liberal arts, particularly those of us majoring in the humanities, we confront a set of unsettling questions. What is the value of a liberal arts education in today’s marketplace? Is there a crisis of confidence in the humanities among college students? Are the humanities legitimate and worthwhile pursuits in a time of growing economic instability and financial insecurity?

The value of the liberal arts is the value of independent thinking. It is about opening the mind and valuing ideas for their own sake. The social sciences, engineering and natural sciences generally attempt to harness information, analyze it, deduce trends and generate models or theories for future application. The humanities grapple with the ambiguities to interpret a complex world. Rather than breaking the universe down into quantifiable elements, the humanities bring a unified wholeness to understanding the phenomena of life.

The humanities are founded on the metaphysical conviction that an education should encourage a thirst for knowledge. There is intrinsic value in pursuing knowledge as an end, not merely as a means. Unfortunately, this belief is becoming less firmly entrenched among today’s students. Since the 1960s, there has been a dramatic shift in the preference of majors pursued by undergraduates in American higher education. There has been a decline in the study of humanities – for example, English, philosophy, foreign languages and history – and a rising entrance into technical and pre-professional fields like business and computer science.

This shift in major selection is reflected by a change in the psyche of American undergraduates. Alexander W. Astin, the director of Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that in the mid 1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen stated that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was their top priority. By 2001, more than 70 percent of students selected “being very well off financially” as their foremost objective of a college education.

However, are finding meaning to existence and attaining financial security mutually exclusive? Lacking the passion to enter academia and driven by strong pragmatic and activist impulses, I face a constant struggle between doing and thinking. Like many other humanities majors at Stanford, I wrestle with the question of whether our conviction that knowledge is a human good in and of itself will translate into “real world” success. Each time, I conclude that a humanities background not only will, but also will matter more in the long term.

Having now received some kind of formal schooling in three continents; I can say that the American higher education system is truly unique in its philosophy and manifestation. From my experience of primary education in China, the focus is on obsessive memorization and rote learning, with almost no room for original thinking. Had I chosen to attend an institution of higher learning in Australia (where I spent a decade) or the United Kingdom, I would have launched into a field of specialization such as law, medicine, or finance immediately after high school. American universities are one of the only places left in the world that still insist on undergraduates receiving a broad and humanistic education.

While there are no “hard skills” gained from liberal arts, it fosters an environment where independent thought and creativity are cultivated. It develops a mindset that challenges conventions and forges new heights. It is responsible for America’s pioneering strides in devising medical breakthroughs, creating new consumer products or making scientific discoveries.

I chose America because it is daring, defiant and downright sexy. Being an intellectual involves a commitment towards social transformation – thinking to realize the good society. But thinking is not enough. America has demonstrated that it does not merely advance ideas, but has the will and power to implement them, using the knowledge for the good of humanity. There is something intoxicatingly thrilling about becoming part of that discourse.

So, here’s an ode to the liberal arts, and to the United States of America.

Shelley Gao ’11 majors in history and writes weekly columns on University governance and campus issues. She is enamored with the idea of intellectual activists. Contact her: [email protected].

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon