The Liberal Arts and Triangular Citizenship

By Jeffrey Scheuer



Given the obvious importance of STEM learning and vocational education, why should anyone bother to study the liberal arts? The argument, as I suggest in an article in the current issue of Academe, “Critical Thinking and the Liberal Arts,” is pretty straightforward – it just takes some explaining.

It’s not a sentimental attachment to the Greeks, Renaissance humanism, or the Enlightenment. It’s much more “practical,” to use a tired term of which we Americans are over-fond. It’s all about citizenship; liberal learning makes us better citizens. Now for the explanations.

Let’s start with the terms “liberal arts,” “critical thinking,” and “citizenship.” All three are ambiguous and require further definition. The first, in particular, is clumsy and archaic – yet it seems there’s no getting rid of it.

But then, the liberal arts are all about language: when to broaden it, narrow it, alter it, or take it as it comes. That’s because the liberal arts are all about thinking, and (pace the visual and lively arts) we think mainly with words.

We need to be critical thinkers to be citizens, because we need to communicate clearly and argue reasonably.  That’s simple enough, but way too general. “Critical thinking” presents its own problems, as I suggest in the essay; for now, though, I want to talk about citizenship. Citizenship is the apex of the triangle, because critical thinking and liberal learning are instrumental to it. And citizenship itself is a triangle of sorts.


What I mean is this: citizenship refers to what we do in organized communities – not what we do in privacy among consenting adults, or on lonely forest paths. We are educated to live in communities. (There are exceptions, but you won’t find a lot of college courses on hunting or gathering skills.)  And living in communities has several facets, three of which strike me as pre-eminent: the civic or political dimension, the economic, and the cultural. Citizenship is triadic.

We’re political citizens when we vote, speak in public, organize, or otherwise act or communicate about keeping or changing the law or lawmakers. We are economic citizens when we produce, consume, exchange, or communicate about material value. And we are cultural citizens when we participate in any of the various conversations that bind us (or at times, define our differences).

As cultural citizens, we feed our spirit by sharing stories, images, values, and ideas. We do it in opera houses, museums ballparks, places of worship, wherever communities share their spiritual resources. And we also go to college to be citizens in this third way.

Admittedly, this triadic model of citizenship is a bit simplified. We can also talk about moral citizenship (helping someone cross the street), community citizenship (giving blood, volunteering), environmental, or global citizenship. Arguably science and technology deserve a niche of their own:  STEM citizenship, if you will.

It’s also important to note that the basic forms of citizenship are interrelated and causally connected.  For example, political activity affects economic activity through laws, regulations, and policies, while the economic realm affects the political through lobbying and campaign finance regimes (which in turn are politically determined).

Similarly, the economic and cultural spheres are linked through foundation grants, gifts, and endowments, and – in the reverse direction – by the arts as a stimulus to job-creation and economic growth. My hometown of New York is a case in point.

The civic and cultural spheres are linked, e.g., insofar as the arts provide social commentary and form part of the political climate; and in all the ways that public spending supports the cultural commons.

In sum, the triangular model of citizenship may need some tweaking, but it identifies the basic ways in which we live together. And it explains why the liberal arts are so important: they are the trifecta of education for  citizenship.

Every society needs a wide range of skills and skill levels. Robots can’t care for our children or our elderly; computers can’t make wise intuitive judgments. Humans need machines, which encode and reproduce practical human knowledge; but humans also need humans.

Likewise, the STEM disciplines are crucial engines for diffusing specialized knowledge. But we all need to be citizens – preferably in all three senses. Liberal education is how we get there.