The Nature of College by James Farrell


Education and Practicality

In an era of budget cuts, many state governments are increasing funding for college departments that prepare students for today’s corporate employers (especially the STEM disciplines), forgetting the tradition of liberal arts in higher education. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, responds here. My own take on practicality, written as a part of St. Olaf’s mission statement, is here:

Indeed, one of the main practicalities of the liberal arts at institutions like St. Olaf is to show some of the impracticalities of the so-called “real world.”  Too often in modern societies, the push for practicality is a call to conform to the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be.  The practical world sometimes accomplishes so much because it encompasses so little, setting aside whole dimensions of the human person–aesthetic, spiritual, ethical, and sometimes even political. The liberal arts reject this narrow definition of practicality, and remind us of the fullness of our humanity.  By keeping our minds critically engaged with the world’s presumed practicality, they free us to wonder how, practically, we might become as good as we could be.  At St. Olaf, therefore, when we teach students practical skills and knowledge, we also teach them ways of evaluating their use in the world.

It is practical to get a job, but that’s not the only practicality in a world of human beings, who are more than employees and consumers.