In a speech delivered at the 1894 dedication of the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, which was founded to provide technical education for African Americans, Frederick Douglass argued that learning and liberty went hand in hand. He underlined the importance of education as part of a process of realizing human potential, furthering justice, and achieving freedom: "Education…means emancipation," he said. "It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free. To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature."
As a former slave, Douglass well understood the weight of chains and the yearning to break free; he also believed in the value of vocational training that increased students’ economic potential. Yet, as Douglass demonstrated, the emancipation that comes from education is not confined to economic empowerment. Douglass’s own life testified to the ability of the liberal arts—fields such as literature, philosophy, the physical sciences, and social sciences—to inspire internal emancipation as well.
Douglass’s example offers a helpful corrective to the tendency of contemporary education debates to fixate on economic questions. On both sides of the aisle, many policymakers assume that public education’s principal goal is to teach students marketable skills so that they can become productive economic actors. This assumption helps explain the widespread celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and de facto mockery of many liberal-arts degrees—especially those infamous art-history majors. The Obama administration, too, often frames education policy as an economic issue. Just look at the White House’s website on education: "To prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and help restore middle-class security," it reads, "we have to out-educate the world and that starts with a strong school system." In a similar vein, states across the country are deliberating over whether the liberal arts still have a role in education; a debate recently erupted in Wisconsin, for example, after a gubernatorial budget proposal (whether mistakenly or not) called for the public university system to forfeit "the search for truth" as an official purpose and instead focus solely on training students for in-demand jobs.