Choice and a Liberal Education



By 09/03/2014

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Some people may be wondering why a researcher like me, who has always been interested in school choice, would develop an interest in studying how the arts and humanities affect students.  What do art museums or Shakespeare have to do with school choice?

It’s true that I spent much of the last few years working on a large-scale experiment in which we assigned by lottery nearly 11,000 students to tour an art museum or serve in the control group to identify what students learn from field trips to art museums.  And that work has been published in Education Next, the New York Times, Educational ResearcherSociology of Education, and in another piece currently under review.  It’s also true that I have been conducting experiments on how the performing arts affect students, including this piece on a musical performance, and a forthcoming piece in Education Next about an experiment in which students were assigned by lottery to see Hamlet and A Christmas Carol or to serve in the control to identify what students learn from seeing live theater.

Given how much I have worked on school choice and care about that issue, why have I been spending the bulk of my time over the last few years studying how students are affected by the arts and humanities?  The simple answer is that the arts and humanities are how people try to understand the human condition and to pursue the good life given that condition.  But because our understanding is necessarily limited, we will differ on what constitutes the human condition and living the good life.  This is why we have liberty — to give people the freedom over their conscience, religion, tastes, etc.. so they can pursue the good as they see best.  Freedom over education is just another aspect of liberty that allows people to prepare their children for the pursuit of the good as they think best.

The arts and humanities, however, are suffering because of two views of education that are not only antithetical to the liberal arts but also to educational choice.  The first views education primarily as preparation for one’s future life as a worker.  This utilitarian view of education has little use for the arts and humanities because they simply distract the education system from vocational training.  People whose mantras are “21st Century Skills” and even “College and Career Ready” may not readily admit it, but deep down they are vocational education people.  In their view there is a path to being educated (how else can they report if one is on track or not?) and that path ends in students becoming workers.  This view might tolerate choice, but only choice among providers who are moving students along the same pre-employment path.  You might even call this approach tight-loose.

The other view superficially embraces the arts and humanities but has little appreciation for educational freedom and therefore fails to really understand the arts and humanities.  These are the folks who think they know what should constitute a liberal education and are perfectly happy to impose it on everyone else.  In their view choice is either irrelevant or a hindrance, since people would too often choose to stray from their correct vision of a liberal education.  Let’s just get everyone to teach what I know is best and in the way I think it should be done.  But these liberal arts authoritarians clearly lack an understanding of a central feature of the human condition — that we are all imperfect.  They don’t know the correct content of a liberal education.  And any system they build to impose and maintain the correct vision will inevitably be hijacked for other purposes.  Truth and goodness are best protected by liberty.  If they are not aware of their own corruptability and the corruptability of any system they would build, then they obviously have learned little from art and the humanities.

So, I am interested in the arts and humanities because I am interested in education including some understanding of the human condition.  But I am also interested in choice because that’s how I believe the humanities are most likely to be pursued and effectively promoted.  The real argument for choice is to be found in the arts and the humanities, so that is why I have been devoting the last few years to this line of research.

– Jay P. Greene




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