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What’s the value of teaching the liberal arts? Ask Adam Smith

I recently had the honor of delivering the keynote address to the Theta of Minnesota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. The Society “celebrates and advocates excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.”

Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 5, 1776. This year is important for another reason. On March 9, 1776, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow named Adam Smith published a book: “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” That book, which we usually refer to simply as “The Wealth of Nations,” is the founding document of my discipline, economics.

So, what is so special about that time that it would produce “The Wealth of Nations” and Phi Beta Kappa?

Like any good economist let me start with a picture…

Source: Charles I. Jones, Macroeconomics, Third Edition. Norton, 2014

I’ll call this the Hockey Stick of Economic Growth. The vertical axis measures income per person, the horizontal axis measures time, and together they chart economic growth across the globe. Notice that the blade curves away from the handle somewhere around 1750 or so.

Let’s take a closer look at the picture, starting at the left side. To the best of our knowledge, average incomes 2000 years ago were pretty much the same all over the planet, and they stayed that way until around 800 years ago. Then, we start to see things change, especially in areas of Europe (England, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy) and east Asia (eastern China, Japan, and Korea). Standards of living started improving in these areas. Population grew as well, both in quantity and in density.

These patterns intensified between 800 and 500 years ago, especially in western Europe. Not all was going well, however. Plagues, infectious diseases, and war regularly wiped out large numbers of people with the result that population and income would grow rapidly, fall, and then grow again. But, starting in the 16th century both standards of living and population started growing, consistently, year after year, in western Europe. This trend intensified and spread in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets labeled this phenomenon Modern Economic Growth and it has led to standards of living beyond anything Adam Smith imagined in 1776. It has also led to income disparities of stunning proportions among the nations of the world.

How did we uncover this vital story? Archeological and anthropological evidence on factors like caloric intake and shelter; written accounts of daily life in various parts of the world; evidence on climate and how it would have affected growing seasons and yields; and economic analysis of wages and prices over time and across countries all contributed to our understanding of this phenomenon. In short, we know this because hundreds of scholars have carefully applied all the tools in the liberal arts toolkit to help us understand standards of living across time and space. It’s been a group effort.

Sources of growth

This leads to another question that has intrigued me for 30 years: How can standards of living be so different in the US, Brazil, China, and Ethiopia? We all live on the same ball of dirt. We’re all made of the same DNA. So, why such startling differences in economic growth?

One answer, associated with the UCLA professor Jared Diamond, is that Europeans got rich because they had “guns, germs, and steel” that allowed them to exploit the human and material resources of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This process made Europeans wealthy and impoverished the rest of the world.

There is a lot of truth to this story. Europeans did commit atrocities, gouge out mineral wealth, and enslave peoples. However, it turns out that the particular Europeans who most relied on this recipe were not the ones who got rich and then kept getting richer. The conquistadors of Spain and Portugal, for instance, got rich early on by exploiting the people and resources of the new world but were falling behind the rest of Europe by 1750. Put another way, Diamond’s story tells us why the hockey stick bent initially but not why it kept surging upward from the 1750s onward.

So, what propelled this upward growth? The answer economic historians put forth is productivity, i.e. using resources in new and more efficient ways. This is where the liberal arts again come into the picture.

Timing of the bend: 1776 and the Wealth of Nations

How did this increased productivity happen? There are a variety of explanations that emphasize different factors (e.g. the spread of literacy, changes in societal values) but the short version is that the bend in the hockey stick was a product of the Enlightenment, in general, and of the scientific revolution, in particular, which grew out of it. The Enlightenment elevated reason and gloried in the power of human beings to comprehend and alter the worlds of art, science, and politics. This spurred innovation in many areas of life including science and technology.

Here I want to highlight an argument made by Joel Mokyr, an economic historian from Northwestern University. Mokyr argues that the scientific enlightenment of the 16th and 17th century took root and spread in places such as England and Holland which then generated the industrial enlightenment in the 18th and 19th century.

What was needed, in other words, was the spread of the liberal arts, especially ideas developed in philosophy, politics, natural science, and a variety of areas we today would label social science.

Thus, Adam Smith conceived of “The Wealth of Nations” when he did because that’s when the hockey stick was bending, and the stick was bending because the fruits of the spread of the liberal arts were bursting out everywhere he looked and generating huge improvements in the wealth of nations. He felt compelled to explore this astonishing transformation.

How does this relate to today and our ongoing debates about higher education? Some politicians dismiss the liberal arts with comments such as, “The state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.” Others ask, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” My answer is that intellectual curiosity and the liberal arts are vital interests because they help produce citizens equipped to live in a free society and because they drive the wealth of nations. Countries that suppress the arts and humanities, underfund basic scientific research, or mock the social sciences as codified common sense are the ones that find themselves growing more slowly or slipping into stagnation (see, for example, this piece by Mokyr.)

This is where Phi Beta Kappa and other strong supporters of the liberal arts come in. To quote the great philosopher Stanley Martin Lieber (aka Stan Lee), “With great power comes great responsibility.” We must be advocates for the liberal arts, for intellectual curiosity, for enlightenment because they are the mainspring of human betterment culturally, philosophically, and economically.

If someone asks, “Do we really need more English majors?” you should answer, “YES!” If someone asks, “Isn’t it better to study something practical like chemical engineering instead of chemistry or electrical engineering instead of physics,” you should answer, “NO, we need both.”

Just remember the hockey stick.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/01/2015 - 09:13 am.

    “Do we really need more English majors?”

    Let the market decide.

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 06/01/2015 - 01:52 pm.

      Adam Smith

      Thought you might like this quote from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”:
      “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/01/2015 - 09:29 am.

    The tie between enlightenment and the decline of the power of religion cannot be dismissed. The core of enlightenment was that people could study, analyze and experiment within the world AND affect outcomes–it was not all pre-determined. The importance of this factor is clearly demonstrated by the anti-enlightenment and re-institution of religion as paramount that forms the basis of so much conflict these days.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/01/2015 - 10:18 am.

    An excellent article and response by Mr. Rovick

    Without the liberal arts, and I have both a BA and an MS, we don’t have an understanding that there can be another way to do things.

    As for English majors while some of us delight in delving into something like Adam Smith’s work others would get an interesting view of the British economic system by reading Pride and Prejudice and seeing even in a fictional context what the impact of that system was on wealth and income. Dumas’ Three Musketeers is also as much a product of its time and a reflection of the injustice and superficiality of the period. If you are well read you have a greater insight into the impact of systems on people and economic policies in context.

  4. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 11:49 am.

    everything is relative

    Personally, I’d like to see a comparison between the value added to US economic growth since 1776 from individuals learning about English literature and that from taking land from Native Americans and setting African slaves to working it. I suspect the latter would have had a greater effect.

  5. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 11:56 am.

    …and another thing

    It’s a bit invidious to compare the US and Western Europe with the colonial areas both exploited well into the 20th Century and conclude that an appreciation for the liberal arts explains any substantial portion of the differences in their current GDPs per capita.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/01/2015 - 11:58 am.


    Kudos to Professor Johnston. This is a viewpoint that’s put out there far too seldom. I’ll just add my endorsement to the comments of Neal Rovick and Jody Rooney.

    It’s not that questions of “how” and “why” are unimportant – they’re extremely important, and the basis for most of what we view as science. What’s often lacking, however is a third question: “To what end?” That’s the liberal arts question, and one often addressed by English majors, as well as the occasional aging, retired history major…

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/01/2015 - 12:42 pm.

    Mr. Tester seems to think that the crowning achievements of the enlightenment were that:

    “the value of everything can be determine in pounds and pence”,

    and “the less the cost, the better the bargain.”

    Markets and commerce are infinitely conformable–they form to the shape of each society, from the most repressive to the most anarchic, from the most pious to the most libertine. There is always some form of markets and commerce, but there are many places that do not value the founding ideas of the enlightenment.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/01/2015 - 02:49 pm.

    Increasingly, people are being trained, not educated

    They are being encouraged to major in fields that lead straight to a job, fields in which knowing the “right” answer is more important than looking for a better way. They are being trained to fit into corporate slots and to be mindless consumers of whatever the mass media dish up, which includes a lot of anti-intellectualism.

    This makes them easy marks for the commercial and political and religious hucksters, because they have no intellectual ammunition when someone tries to beguile them with a fake quotation from Benjamin Franklin or Winston Churchill. They have no intellectual ammunition when someone tells lies about other countries. They have no intellectual ammunition when someone uses a logical fallacy. They have no intellectual ammunition when someone tells them lies about other ethnic groups or religions. They have no intellectual ammunition when some celebrity endorses a dangerous diet or medical fad.

    They are easily bored, because the commercial media have told them that everything except the commercial media is “boring.” Anything that requires more than a little time to understand is “boring.” Movies without explosions and car chases are “boring.” Non-commercial music is “boring.” Art is “boring.” Live theater is “boring.” Non-formulaic fiction is “boring.” Non-fiction that contains facts instead of polemic is “boring.” Documentaries about history, geography, and nature are “boring.”

    Everything that is outside the middle class suburban bubble is scary. Dark-skinned people are scary. Downtown is scary. Public transit is scary. Non-affluent neighborhoods are scary. Foreigners are scary. Indeed, foreign countries are scary unless you go in a group tour with other Americans or an inclusive resort and never interact with the local people. Anything you don’t understand that isn’t “boring” is “scary.”

    It’s no wonder that right-wing governments, from the U.S. to Britain to Japan propose to downgrade or even eliminate study of the liberal arts.

    By the way, I’m old enough to remember when companies hired liberal arts graduates and trained them in-house. No one considered them useless then.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/01/2015 - 09:19 pm.

    On target

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ms. Sandness! Insisting that schools, whether K-12, undergrad or graduate, train people for specific jobs is a fool’s errand. Not many jobs in 2015 are what they were in 1990, and many of today’s jobs didn’t exist 25 years ago. Meanwhile, a good many jobs that DID exist 25 years ago have disappeared, or been transformed in the interim. Businesses ought to train their own workers, and then retrain them when necessary. Many a small (and large) business does just that. That it costs them something on the bottom line is simply a cost of doing business.

    Education ought to be preparation for citizenship in a democratic society, not preparation for making widgets, ordering supplies, or selling something.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/02/2015 - 11:16 am.

      As one who made a midlife career change, I

      can attest to the fact that all the liberal arts learning I did in my younger days helped tremendously.

      I went from teaching Japanese on the college level to working as a free-lance translator who cannot predict what subject matter expertise will be required from one day to the next.

      I’ve known people whose career transitions were downright extreme, but they managed it, thanks to their broad intellectual background.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/02/2015 - 01:15 pm.

      Bingo!….We have a winner!

      “Education ought to be preparation for citizenship in a democratic society, not preparation for making widgets, ordering supplies, or selling something.” Well stated, Ray.

      Let me add this to the mix…

      To have much learning, to be skillful in handicraft, well-trained in discipline, and to be of good speech — this is the greatest blessing.
      – Buddha

  10. Submitted by Dean Knudson on 06/01/2015 - 09:55 pm.

    Teaching critical thought takes less than a semester, and much of what is taught in a liberal arts curriculum does not seem to reinforce that skill. Many of the anti vaccination zealots I encounter in my medical practice hold advanced degrees….in liberal arts.

    I agree with the first comment. The market will decide.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/02/2015 - 08:59 am.

      “Less than a semester”

      I would be interested in seeing the reasoning behind that claim.

      Critical thought is not a skill you pick up in a few weeks (“Critical Thinking for Dummies”), but is a long-term practice.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/02/2015 - 11:04 am.

        And critical thought is a lot easier if you have

        some facts to back up your thinking.

        You can think completely logically, but if your starting premise is false, you end up with nonsense.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/02/2015 - 01:25 pm.

      Critical thought

      Could you point out the textbook for that class?

  11. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 06/04/2015 - 01:55 pm.

    Engaging the creative mind

    As an English major from St. John’s, where these remarks were delivered, who graduated some 40 years ago, I look around and see my classmates engage in a very wide variety of occupations. Several, like me, have ended in the law. Others in teaching. But a remarkable number having ended up very successful in businesses, often related to the service and tech economies.

    I think the notion that someone following a curiosity or passion in college, if you have that opportunity, truly does put into place the habits of pursuit and curiosity that account for success later in life. I went to school initially thinking I would be a science major, and I have never lost my
    love of learning about science and history, even though neither were ever, technically, my “major”.

    Training engineers is good. Training engineers who are well grounded in culture and who love to learn in and outside their fields is better.

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