Liberal (Arts) Education


And why it needs challenging.



There was a time when the term “liberal” signified freedom.


A liberal arts education is meant to allow us to freely explore the arts and sciences, while a handful of requirements mandates that we actually do explore. This educational model has served me and many of my fellow students well—I often hear stories of favorite courses people only discovered in pursuit of a general education requirement.


But what about a liberal education? Instead of promoting freedom of inquiry, today’s inescapably liberal higher education stifles debate, kills discourse, and massacres our freedoms. And even when debate and discourse are allowed to exist, many individuals shrink from engaging in them. This is a permutation of liberal that bears little, if any, resemblance to liberty. And yet, it has overtaken our campus in many capacities. Other colleges are not exempt from this phenomenon and some are subject to it in an even greater degree.


In fact, we have seen this phenomenon reported on the national stage, and we see it in our email inboxes nearly every day. We are inundated with messages supporting leftist causes not only by our fellow students, but also by administrators, who too often become unsettlingly partisan actors. This serves to reinforce the existing liberal beliefs of many students, who may conclude that when those in positions of authority proclaim the same beliefs that they themselves hold, this signals that those positions are correct, morally superior, or not subject to debate. By taking these partisan stands, University administrators effectively create a new class of marginalized students: those who dare to disagree.


Some student groups and individuals have taken the initiative to push back against the pervasive tilt to the left by challenging the ideology many students, faculty, and administrators promote with impunity. Sadly, these individuals face criticism and even personal attacks for promoting greater discourse—even as they promote such discourse for the betterment of all students’ education, including left-leaning students’, by allowing for open challenge, questioning, and debate of those who diverge from the norm. This degradation of discourse on campus prevents students from receiving the education we are meant to—an education that requires critical thinking about the ideas we hold, rather than passive reinforcement.


As I’ve devoted much of my time on campus to such discourse, this critical thinking has been the heart of my Harvard experience, and it has ensured that I feel prepared for life after Harvard—life that looks very different from the bubble of our little niche of “the People’s Republic of Cambridge.” I am glad that I have met and spoken with and befriended individuals here who think very differently than I do. I am even more glad that I feel able to challenge the ideas of these individuals through something as mundane as a dhall dinner conversation.


Therefore, it is certainly not always a bad thing that Harvard bears little resemblance to the real world—in fact, I’ve really enjoyed the shelter from reality that my four years here have provided (a truth that is hitting me harder and harder as commencement draws near). But it is shelter from things like electric bills and washing dishes that actually allow students to intellectually flourish, unbound by the realities of life outside academia. After all, that’s the value of a liberal arts education. It comprises four years where we are able to fully explore the disciplines we choose and critically think about these disciplines by exposing ourselves to a breadth of courses as well. This is important—a university that operated entirely like the real world would not serve the unique purpose of a liberal arts institution. However, the shelter that many Harvard students experience, shelter from different—including opposing—points of view, is not something that promotes a rigorous and free academic experience. This shelter instead separates Harvard from the real world in a dangerous way—a way that actually fails to prepare some students for life after college.


Thankfully, I’ve been challenged. Thankfully, I’ve dared to disagree. As a result, I believe that my complex, liberal Harvard education has taught me many of the skills I’ll need when I leave here. I hope that more of my peers will do the same, and I hope that the administration will recognize the importance of promoting students’ engagement with ideas that challenge their preexisting notions—because a liberal institution doesn’t help liberal students learn.



Emily Hall ’18 ( looks forward to fielding disagreement about the message of this piece.