Since 384 BC, the liberal arts have been the prominent way of thinking and educating. Up until the nineteenth century, most scholars and educators studied a broad range of disciplines—math, the sciences, philosophy, languages, and the performing arts (music and theatre). According to classical philosophers Aristotle and Seneca, education is intended to teach citizenship, morality, responsibility, intelligence, and virtue, and all of these qualities should be attained by a multi-disciplinary education. In essence, a liberal arts education teaches critical thinking skills and mindful intellect.
In recent history, there has been a substantial change to the way our society views a “purposeful” education. Education has split into a dichotomy—liberal versus vocational. W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson define vocationalism as “the emphasis of formal schooling on preparation for vocations.” Vocationalism relies more on economic safety than the liberal arts. It emphasizes the “necessary” skills needed to succeed in the workforce of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the economy grew more globalized in the twentieth century, Americans started to worry about competition in the industrial and technological sectors. Thus, proponents of vocational education encouraged schools to move towards teaching the skills for these professions. In other words, they wanted to teach what was “relevant” to the jobs of the time. However, John Dewy makes a great point in observing the paradoxical purpose of vocationalism, saying that “industry at the present time undergoes rapid and abrupt changes through the evolution of new inventions. New industries spring up, and old ones are revolutionized.” Society has come to accept a skewed view towards vocational education, with a declining demand for a liberal arts education. However, many people do not realize the true value of what defines the liberal arts—a broad education that emphasizes open thinking, diversity across all disciplines, and good communication skills. A healthy mix of liberal and vocational education is truly what will help move society forward in the right direction.