Schenectady County

Union College Founders Day talk focuses on value of liberal education

University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum said a liberal arts education has a place in an a


University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum said a liberal arts education has a place in an age when people are focused on the high tech jobs of the future.

Liberal arts education is being downsized or eliminated at colleges and schools across the globe and right here in the Capital Region, with the University at Albany’s announcement last fall that it was deactivating some classics and languages majors because of a declining enrollment.

“They are seen as useless frills at a time when nations must cut away all needless things to stay competitive in a global marketplace,” Nussbaum said Thursday at Union College’s Founders Day celebration.

However, to do so would run the risk that people becoming automatons, incapable of challenging conventional thinking. This undermines democracy, according to Nussbaum, whose latest book is titled “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.”

“Democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves, rather than simply deferring to fashion or authority,” she said.

A liberal arts education is crucial to help develop people’s imagination and prepare them for life. “People can’t just get by with a set of skills learned by rote,” she said. The workplace does not want a bunch of “yes people,” who do not challenge authority and think critically.

In an age of declining newspaper circulation and political discourse defined by sound bites on radio, society needs intelligent discourse more than ever, she said. Liberal arts helps people understand those from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and with different points of view — also a sorely needed skill today.

“In a world so marred by religious conflict and misunderstanding, knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior,” she said.

She encouraged students and faculty to lobby local school boards and state and national representatives to make sure the humanities are not lost. “If we don’t insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away because they don’t make a profit.”

Nussbaum was the keynote speaker at Thursday’s event, which celebrated the 216th anniversary of the college receiving its charter from the New York Board of Regents.

President Stephen C. Ainlay said Union is among a very elite group of schools founded in the 18th century. In 1795, George Washington was president, Schenectady had not been incorporated as a city and Ludwig van Beethoven debuted as a pianist in Vienna.

“These few glimpses of history should remind us of how truly old we are,” he said.

It is also the 40th anniversary of when the school became coeducational.

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