Little wonder why the Oxford-style Summit Debate “A Liberal Arts Education is a Waste of Time and Money” was arguably one of the most striking sessions of day one of the HT Leadership Summit. It was about winning over an overwhelming majority audience who were already against the motion.
So, as moderator Jonathan Freedland pointed out at the outset, those in favour of the motion and their ilk had their task cut out. How to render liberal arts education a useless relic of the past?
The debate saw the distinguished panelists press logic and reason with wit and satire to make their points. Of the four panelists, Jeremy O’Grady, editor-in-chief of The Week, and Forbes columnist Michael Ellsberg spoke for the motion. Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and film-maker Baroness Beeban Kidron opposed them to the hilt.
O’Grady, like a true-blue Englishman, invoked Oliver Cromwell, the great British military leader: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be wrong?”
O’Grady argued that he didn’t agree with the tilt that liberal arts education had gained over the years. “When we say liberal…the implication is that anything else is illiberal.”
O’Grady said liberal arts education had become too much of a “class thing”.
Ellsberg lent him handy support. He struck a chord with audience when he picked on Seldon repeatedly, for the sake of effect, saying Seldon’s college charged a fortune to teach what is freely available in the ancient temples of India: pure wisdom.
Kidron said a liberal arts education was important, she said rhetorically, because engineering could tell you “how to build road”, but not “where the road was leading to”? Seldom agreed and summed up the big picture: “We need both. Throughout history, liberal arts education included math and the sciences.” A concluding vote saw the audience vote overwhelmingly against the motion.