, Salem, MA


February 16, 2013

Shribman: What is knowledge worth?


Six years ago, Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth College, which once rejected my petition to create my own American civilization major because the faculty committee knew I was drawn to journalism and thought my proposal too career-oriented. In his address, Paulson, a onetime English major who went on to run the investment firm Goldman Sachs, said:

“And to you parents out there who wonder about your sons and daughters graduating today with English majors — I like to hire English majors. ... Seriously, as an employer, I have long believed in a liberal arts education from a U.S. college or university. I believe that Shakespeare, Socrates and the Peloponnesian Wars are great preparation for successful careers.”

How much bang in today’s marketplace do you suppose you get from the Peloponnesian War?

Obama — no Dwight Eisenhower, whose Cabinet once was described as nine millionaires and a plumber — is offering his college initiative at a time of great peril to the liberal arts.

In 1990, David W. Breneman, who had just completed six years as president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, identified 212 institutions as liberal arts colleges. Two decades later, the number had dropped to 130.

An evaluation of the state of liberal education prepared late last year by three respected specialists — no romantics, as one of them is an Ernst & Young accountant — warned that “American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal arts colleges continues to decline.”

Where the president has gone wrong — along with those college trustees contributing to the 39 percent decline in the number of liberal arts institutions — is in assuming that Americans need to be trained for a living rather than educated for life. This is more than a semantic distinction. It is the difference between reading Shakespeare in college and mastering accounting.

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