Beyond Utility

A scientist arrives on the scene and asks, “What’s causing this problem?” — and starts running tests. An engineer arrives and asks, “How can we solve this problem?” — and starts drawing plans. An economist arrives and asks, “How much will it cost to solve this problem?” — and starts doing calculations. They all sit at a table and get to work.

An hour later, a liberal arts major arrives and asks, "Did you folks order a pizza?"

I am an English teacher. I love to tell this joke, not at the expense of the liberal arts, but as a parody of modern myopia. The three STEM workers in the joke employ all of the 21st- century skills: They are problem solvers, critical thinkers, interdisciplinary collaborators.1 But they never bother to define the nature of the problem that confronts them. No one wonders why it is a problem, or for whom; they ask only about its material causes and effects. No one asks what the problem reveals about us (as a team, a company, a nation, or a species). No one asks whether solving this problem would be good for us: what habits and attitudes the solution would promote, what values or moral principles it would take for granted, what questions or perspectives it would exclude. No one wonders about good or evil at all.

All of the questions that the liberal arts pose — questions about ends, not means; about virtues, not success; about beauty, not utility — have been excluded from the conversation. The person who first told me this joke was trying to mock the uselessness of the liberal arts, suggesting that my lessons in prosody would get my students nothing but jobs as pizza deliverers. What the joke actually reveals, however, is the narrowness of thought that persists in any environment that excludes humane learning.

This utilitarian narrowness plagues the American pedagogical conversation, and our persistent promotion of so-called 21st-century skills has made the problem worse. Much of what passes for curricular reform nowadays is really nothing more than a continuation of bad habits and a shoring up of false assumptions. We decry the narrow-mindedness of the industrial-factory model of education. Instead of interrogating the assumption that the demands of the marketplace should drive educational practice, we have rushed to impose new economic models — global, 21st-century ones — on our classrooms. Many educational progressives make the same mistake that the scientist, engineer, and economist made in the joke: They are so busy solving a problem, so captivated by data and method, that they have failed to pose any of the fundamental questions that might lead to self-knowledge.

Proponents of curricular reform would likely reply that their emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and character education actually promotes humane learning, and that their advocacy for an increased focus on STEM has always been moderated by an insistence on broad, interdisciplinary education in literature, history, and the arts. Some reformers — notably Ken Robinson — have argued that artistic creativity will be the sine qua non of 21st-century success. The economy of the future, the argument goes, will reward creativity, flexibility, collaboration, and analytical acumen; and the liberal and fine arts promote such skills. Reading novels boosts people’s emotional intelligence, which is an essential skill set for any leader.2 Educational research further proves that students who cultivate their artistic talents are psychologically healthier and better able to cope with strenuous academic requirements than those who have no such opportunities.3 The humanities and the arts help students to think outside the box and to bring unique perspectives to bear on complex problems. In the 21st-century, when nearly every rote job will be done by machines, the uniquely human capacities of creativity and empathy will be more in demand than ever.4

Outside the field of educational reform, prominent defenders of the humanities have employed similar arguments. Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria claims that the humanities are necessary both for America’s global competitiveness and for the health of our political process.5 Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, emphasizes the civic benefits of the liberal and fine arts, which she claims are necessary for successful participation in 21st-century global culture and politics.6 Writer Steve Neumann makes a strong case for the teaching of philosophy in grades K–12. He defines philosophy as “that discipline of the humanities concerned with clarifying and analyzing concepts and arguments relating to the big questions of life.”7 According to Neumann, democratic society thrives when its citizens are well trained in such disciplines of critical thinking and are therefore inured to demagoguery and unscrupulous marketing.

Such arguments are obviously unimpeachable. Of course, everyone of every age should study literature, history, philosophy, and the arts; of course, such studies can and should support economic productivity, global competitiveness, and good citizenship. Only the most egregious and willful historical ignorance could lead anyone to question the liberal arts’ utility. For, as novelist Marilynne Robinson points out, the study of literature, philosophy, and the arts stood “at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization.”8

The glory of the European Renaissance was a close affinity and dynamic tension between humane learning and experimental science. Each of these disciplines thrived in mutually beneficial conversation with the other. Francis Bacon was a novelist, Leonardo da Vinci an engineer. The same mutual support can be observed in almost any great civilization: growth in economic and political power, and in scientific and technological sophistication, always coincides with great feats of artistry and humane scholarship. The few exceptions — Sparta, Nazi Germany, Daesh — prove the rule. Ignorance or suspicion of the liberal arts, wedded to technical and political power, is both an anomaly and a great evil in any place or time.9

Nevertheless, with all due respect to Zakaria and Nussbaum, I find their strategy weak and counterproductive. In the name of saving liberal learning for future generations, such arguments actually undermine the nature and purpose of the humanities themselves. Literature, music, and sculpture are not tools to be employed in the service of economic or political gain. No job, no political constitution, indeed no problem (whether national or global) is important enough or fundamental enough either to validate or to deprecate humane learning. To put it more bluntly: Dante’s The Divine Comedy is more important and longer lasting than the 114th Congress or my 401(k). To justify the study of poetry in terms of economic utility is to concede defeat before the battle has even begun. We do not study poetry and painting simply because they provide useful skills for future jobs, or because they promote politically expedient attitudes and habits. We study poetry and painting because they are beautiful.

Every serious thinker and educator must define his or her work in terms of a hierarchy of goods. Some aims are higher than others, and we seek lower goods for the sake of higher ones. For example, we desire money, not for its own sake, but in order to buy things; and we want those things, not for their own sakes, but because they provide health, comfort, and pleasure. Money, then, is a servile good. Political power and stability are also servile. We desire them only insofar as they support our pursuit of justice, peace, beauty, love, and happiness. When a political arrangement fails to provide these higher goods, we seek to change it.10

The failure to observe these distinctions is a vice. Seeking money or power for its own sake is called greed. The fact that we use the term “greed” — and that we generally agree about its meaning — proves that we also agree about the hierarchy of goods that I have sketched above.

Thus, it makes little sense to organize our educational practice around the pursuit of money (jobs, opportunity, success) or political expediency (“confronting 21st-century challenges” or “participation in democracy”). These lower goods are means, not ends. We desire beauty for its own sake, not because we get something else from it, but because our experience of beauty is, in itself, a kind of happiness or well-being. Likewise, all of the virtues — courage, generosity, humility, and piety, to name a few — are goods of this higher order. I do not deny their instrumental or utilitarian benefits; of course, courage is useful in battle or in nonviolent civic action; and of course, the beauty of an artifact can make money for an artist. But we love courage and beauty first of all for their intrinsic goodness, not for their good effects. If you think this distinction is merely semantic, consider the fact that we give Medals of Honor to soldiers who have already died and whose missions have failed, or consider the difference between a Japanese tea ceremony and a programmable coffeemaker. We rightly honor courage more than success and beauty more than efficiency. Not to do so is a disorder and a vice.

If we educators do not begin here, by discerning what we are aiming at, and why, then we are doomed to repeat the error of the three problem solvers in the joke. We need not only a physics but also a metaphysics; not only a scientific and economic anthropology but also an ethical and aesthetic theory of human thriving. The liberal and fine arts investigate such questions. The applied sciences do not. Thus, the humanities must be foundational to all our discussions of curriculum. They are not tools for success in the global economy; they offer no return on investment; and they will not fit into a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, they are our only means of knowing what success is, or what we mean by “cost” or “benefit.” We must treat the liberal arts as foundational or our teaching efforts can only be thin, diffuse, and aimless — “like the chaff, which the wind driveth away.”11

Let us resist the temptation to justify our study of the liberal and fine arts by appealing to the narrow categories of problem-solving, job preparation, and marketability. Whenever we cite an executive from Apple or Google who reassures us that the arts are profitable— that a software design company or a marketing department has use for our quirky little sketchers and painters — we reduce the highest aspirations of the human spirit to mere data points in a risk management study.12 Of course a few of our less talented artists will make a great deal of money in the 21st-century by designing the next iPhone or founding the next Facebook; and of course, we will be proud of those accomplishments. But we should aim to train the next Dale Chihuly and Rabindranath Tagore, not the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, European educational theorists distinguished three categories of “arts”: the liberal arts, the fine arts, and the servile (or utilitarian) arts.13 We would do well to recover this theory of education and learn from its wisdom, rather than modeling our curricula on the fads of our own feverish century. The servile arts — carpentry, engineering, plumbing, computer programming, ditch digging, accounting, and open-heart surgery, to name a few — produce practical and marketable artifacts that we desire for their usefulness. The fine arts — painting, architecture, music, drama, dance, literature, and sculpture — produce artifacts that we love for their intrinsic beauty or wisdom. Their value transcends utility; the artist and the audience love them for their own sake. Because every society needs both kinds of artifact, in a democracy — where everyone has equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness — everyone should study both. Indeed, the fine arts should receive at least as much funding, and should occupy at least as much time and space in our required and core curricula, as the servile arts do. Every student should learn to read music and to dance. Every student should paint or sculpt — not for one semester, or on odd days of the week, but every day, throughout their academic careers, whether they plan to become creative artists or not. The usefulness of such skills is beside the point: To live full human lives, children need to learn what is good, not only what works. They should learn to make both useful things and beautiful things.

Everyone should study the liberal arts, as well, though the liberal arts produce no such artifacts. They bring form and beauty, not to material objects, but to the human mind. They do not make the world a better place; they make us better people. By studying the liberal arts, we learn to distinguish means from ends, higher goods from lower ones, virtues from vices. We learn what it means to be human.

“Liberal” means “free,” but it also means “freeing.” Only the liberal arts can make a person free. Free from what? From political compulsion, to be sure, but also from the passions, preoccupations, and presuppositions of a given place and time (like 21st-century America). The servile arts, and sometimes even the fine arts, are subject to the whims of the era in which they are produced. The liberal arts have no such constraint. They investigate and evaluate the ends for which the servile and fine arts exist. They are the first and the last, the foundational and the peak, the governing and the propaedeutic arts. They are not “useful” in the sense that coffee-making and marketing logistics are useful. They are the means by which we understand and evaluate all such activities.

We study history, not so that we can avoid repeating past mistakes and not so that we can follow the example of great leaders of previous eras. We study history because self-knowledge, including knowledge of one’s own past, is good.

Philosophy is not a set of logical or rhetorical tools that we use to dismantle a politician’s fallacious arguments. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. We love wisdom for itself, for its own internal goods — not only because it is politically or economically useful.

To subject any of these disciplines to the quotidian demands of economic or political necessity, or to justify their study by pointing to their future usefulness, is to deny their essential nature. Teachers in all disciplines should stop claiming that the liberal and creative arts will be useful in the 21st-century economy. Of course they will; they are useful at all times, in all situations. It is the nature of the liberal arts to pose and answer questions that undergird and justify all other human endeavors. The liberal arts are fundamental. All other arts are derivative.

It matters that we get the order right.


1. Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (San Francisco: Wiley, 2009); Charles Fadel, “21st Century Competencies,” Independent School (Winter 2016); Robert Witt and Jean Orvis, eds., Making the Case for Schools of the Future (NAIS Commission on Accreditation, September 2010).

2. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science (2013), accessed March 28, 2016. See also Kyle Vaughn’s excellent article “Poetry and Emotional Intelligence: A Radical Call,” English Journal (March 2015): 15–20.

3. The importance of arts education for student achievement is one of several strong points made by Ken Robinson in his now-canonical TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (February 2006). See also Sandra S. Ruppert, Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2006),

4. Michael B. Horn, “Change Education to Attack Technology-Driven Unemployment,” Clayton Christensen Institute for DisruptiveInnovation, June 25, 2015, See also “Open Letter on the Digital Economy,”

5. In Defense of a Liberal Education (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).

6. Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, 2010). See also Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998).

7. “The Case for Philosophy in K–12 Classrooms,” STIR, September 19, 2015,; “Why Kids — Now More than Ever — Need to Learn Philosophy. Yes, Philosophy,” The Answer Sheet Blog, ed. Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, February 3, 2016,

8. Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015): 3. The essays in this splendid volume provide a much more eloquent demonstration and defense of liberal learning than I am capable of.

9. While investigating the causes of radicalization in Tunisia, George Packer interviewed an editor of the Arab Weekly named Oussama Romdhani, who told him that “in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought.” See “Exporting Jihad,” New Yorker, March 28, 2016.

10. My favorite explications of the hierarchy of goods are Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. A helpful summary, meant for modern teachers of the liberal arts, can be found in Sister Miriam Joseph’s The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, ed. Marguerite McGlinn (Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002): 3–11. Philosophically minded readers may want to consult Michael J. Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last updated December 24, 2014, or Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Third Edition(Notre Dame, 2007).

11. Psalm 1.4.

12. See, for example, Vivek Wadwha, “Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right— Bill or Steve?” Tech Crunch, March 21, 2011,; and George Anders, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” Forbes, July 29, 2015,

13. Miriam Joseph, The Trivium, 3–8.  

Christopher D. Schmidt

Christopher D. Schmidt is the subject-area coordinator for upper school English at Parish Episcopal School (Texas).