Liberal education is the practice of teaching students a little something from each of the major scholastic fields, giving them a solid grounding in all disciplines. This practice dates back at least to the times of ancient Greece where the citizens concerned themselves with philosophy, the arts, and maintaining physical perfection. The manual labor of the period was performed by the slave caste who did not need an education to carry out their tasks. Today, that same tradition has been passed down to the American education system where, throughout their school career, students are expected to master an astonishing array of topics.
As human beings, we need to stimulate all aspects of our being, and our lives should include a full spectrum of knowledge and experiences. Liberal education is not so much about teaching a specific set of topics as about giving each student a way to express themselves, both in school and throughout the rest of their lives. Children should not be expected to know what they want to be when they grow up because they have not had time to explore all of the possibilities that are available to them. Even most college students have not yet found their niche and need more experience before deciding on a career. Liberal education gives students a chance to explore the world around them and discover how they are exceptional.
Liberal education can be a waste of scarce resources, spending time and energy teaching topics which the students will never use once they have graduated. Social workers do not need to know higher math, physicists should not have to learn to paint, and a gymnast has no need to take writing classes. If the goal of education is to produce useful and intelligent citizens, this can be accomplished without spending so much effort on skills that will lay forgotten as soon as they are learned. One of the secrets to the success of our modern society is specialization, which allows each person to focus on a single skill or task. Liberal education takes the opposite tact by encouraging everyone to become a generalist. Our education system would be better off if students picked a vocation and were able to focus on it without distraction.
Public education is designed to give each student a chance to grow into their greatest potential. Providing a liberal education to students in their younger years gives children options that their personal life experiences may not have prepared them for. When I was in kindergarten, my view of the world was fairly limited, and it was my dream to grow up and become a mail lady, driving around in that sweet little car and delivering letters. As I grew older, I was exposed to the rest of the wide, wide world out there and left my dreams of being a postal worker far behind. Once a student has reached a certain point in their education, they have a fair idea of what they are good at, and in what scholastic direction they want to pursue. Once this decision is reached, the student should be allowed to skip out on the advanced topics that are of no interest or relevancy to their future careers. The current public education system keeps a focus on liberal education far beyond the point where it is useful and necessary.
Both sides of this argument are concerned with giving students the best education possible. This can be achieved by moving beyond liberal education, and allowing students to steer their own futures.