Choice and a Liberal Education

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.

8 Responses to Choice and a Liberal Education

  1. manderson says:

    That’s some pretty circuitous thinking there, though intriguing. You might be on firmer ground stating that you pursue these areas of research because you’re interested in them.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    “Tight-loose”? Come on, Jay, no one would be that stupid.

  3. Molly says:

    I think this is an interesting and important connection, because I too am hopeful that school choice will engender the return of schools that teach all that is good, true and beautiful.

    On this latter note, Sean Fitzpatrick has an interesting commentary at Crisis Magazine, where he posits that “The art of education is under a cloud in this country, largely because it is treated as a science. Schools are not research institutions. They are not data mills. They are conservatories of culture.”

    I think he has some points that dovetail nicely with your interests in art museums, Shakespeare and school choice. Although obviously, the problems and solutions of a classical Liberal Arts-based Catholic boarding school will not be identical to a typical day school in Harlem. Nonetheless, there are some nuggets in his essay.

  4. matthewladner says:

    I agree that we ought to allow more choice in order to give people the option of choosing the type of education they want. Hopefully the liberal vs. utilitarian debate can be largely avoided by giving families self-determination. For now the debate seems a bit remote given that a huge percentage of our students fail to read proficiently, which is a prereq for either liberal or vocational training.

    • Yes, we need to improve student ability to read, but we still need to figure out what they should be reading and who will make the decision about what they read. Knowing the purpose of an education is pretty important for figuring out how to educate.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Not only does choice defuse the liberal v. utilitarian debate in the short term, it points the way to resolving it in the long term. As long as the two camps must fight in a zero-sum conflict for influence over the school monopoly, they cannot constructively engage and learn from one another. In an environment where schools are free to pursue models chosen by parents, the schools will experiment with different ways of reconciling or compromising between these imperatives, and eventually a stable center will emerge (though that “stable center” will be the center of a vast constellation of options, not a “common core” to which all must subscribe).

    See here:

  6. Lisa Bernier says:

    As a school choice advocate in Arizona, I have done some cursory research and writing on the dehumanization of public education that I would like to explore further. Although Common Core advocates laud the emphasis on “higher ordered thinking,” it is difficult to facilitate in the classrooms the curriculum requires. Through a study and reflection of the arts perhaps we can recapture the intellectual, creative, and innovative potential inside all of the unique, God-created human beings we are given the duty to educate.

  7. Joy Pullmann says:

    I just wanted to voice my appreciation for you choosing to spend some of your life on something beautiful. Good luck in your work, and thanks for taking us along for the ride.

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