Defending a Debased Version of the Liberal Arts

Peter Wood

Two college associations are purporting to defend the liberal arts, the areas of study that undergird higher education in Western history and educate society about universal principles essential for a free person to know to participate in civic life.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) issued a joint online statement on May 31 that allows individuals to add their names in support. But before you rush to add your name to the list, you should pay some attention to what the AAUP and the AAC&U mean by the “liberal arts.”

They are definitely not defending the ideals of disinterested inquiry in the core subjects of the humanities. The “liberal arts” in the AAUP and the AAC&U version are, to the contrary, those fields that have been thoroughly hollowed out by professors intent on promoting their anti-Western political agendas.

The term “liberal arts” itself has become what my colleague Ashley Thorne and I once called an “antagonym,” i.e., a word that means both one thing and its opposite. Think of a word such as “sanction” which can mean either support for an action or penalty. The “liberal arts” now can mean education for responsible liberty or indoctrination in illiberal ideology.

The gist of the brief statement from the AAUP and the AAC&U is that the liberal arts have lost ground with students and the public because of the demand for “narrow vocational training.” The two organizations joined forces to argue that “all college students” should have “opportunities” to study the liberal arts because they are “a critical part” of education. The statement also characterizes the liberal arts as “central to the ideal of academic freedom” and important for fostering “intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled.”

Cutting Programs

What occasions this thunderclap of obviousness from the AAUP and AAC&U is that several colleges and universities have recently said they would cut some liberal arts programs. Among the most widely reported is the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, which is seeking to close a $4.5 million deficit by eliminating American studies, Art, English, French, Geography, Geoscience, German, History, Music Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, and Spanish.

In April, the University of Central Missouri announced similar cuts. In September 2017, Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, floated the idea of shuttering some academic programs in which there are few jobs for graduates. Bevin mentioned “interpretive dance” but was widely understood to be referring to a broader range of liberal arts programs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s report, “Should Colleges Let Ailing Majors Die or Revamp Them?” described the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s decision to salvage liberal arts majors by “combining them with computer science.” The Chronicle story also details how Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts dealt with declining enrollment by cutting art history, classics, geography, French, Italian, and studio art.

The cuts, real and proposed, come in the context of serious financial difficulties for colleges and universities. Last year The Wall Street Journal reported that “More than one-third of colleges with full-time enrollments below 3,000 students had operating deficits in fiscal 2016, according to a Moody’s report, up from 20% in fiscal 2013.” The problem has spread to large public university systems which are heavily dependent on tuition income. Overall college enrollment declined from more than 21 million in 2011 to 18.8 million in fall 2017.

The Bottom Drops Out

These enrollment declines were not what higher education expected. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education issued Projections of Education Statistics to 2018which offered three “alternative projections for college enrollments in 2018: 21.3 million at the high end; 20.6 million in the middle; and 19.9 million at the low end. The Department of Education gave it another try in 2014 with its Projections of Education Statistics to 2022. It came up with an estimate of 22.5 million by fall 2018. We won’t know the actual figure until this fall, but it will almost certainly be far below 22.5 million, most likely in the neighborhood of 18.5 million.

Admissions directors understand the new picture. According to a 2017 survey of admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed, “A majority of admissions directors said they were very concerned about meeting their institution’s enrollment goals for the coming academic year.” Moreover, “Eighty-four percent of admissions directors strongly agree or agree their institution is very likely to increase their efforts to recruit full-time undergraduates.”

The plummeting number of college applicants is partly a matter of demographics. Fewer babies born in 2001 means fewer students applying to college in 2018.

But there is more going on. A major factor is that college is now priced at a level that discourages applicants. As Inside Higher Ed reported, “Eight in 10 admissions directors say they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about student debt, including 89 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and 71 percent at public colleges.” Add to this the growing awareness on the left as well as the right that the “lifetimes earning bonus” for many college graduates is illusory, and the pool of potential college enrollees shrinks still further. Perhaps more unsettling, the number of straight white men applying to four-year colleges has plummeted to an all-time low. By 2026, 57% of all college students will be women, according to the U.S. Education Department. An article in The Atlantic says men consider college a hostile environment.

These matters are central to the crisis in the liberal arts. And they go completely unmentioned in the AAUP’s and AAC&U’s Joint Statement. Why is that?

Practical Americans

I would guess it is because they do not fit the story that the AAUP and AAC&U want to tell. Their story is that a bunch of anti-intellectual, short-sighted, vocationally-oriented philistines disdain the liberal arts and are undermining them by withdrawing financial support. They withdraw that support by cutting state-funded programs and urging their sons and daughters to enroll in vocational programs instead.

That picture has some mustard seeds of truth. Americans have always been practical, and many politicians know how to appeal to that character trait. Families determine how to spend their limited resources wisely and come out on the side of an accounting degree or a nursing program as more practical than an anthropology degree. This is borne out in Princeton Review’s top ten college majors for 2018, which includes only two liberal arts program – English and Psychology.

The case for liberal arts education has always been fragile. In each generation, people have to be convinced anew of its importance. After all, most of our public colleges and universities grew out of programs to teach farmers, mechanics, and school teachers. But the old arguments don’t necessarily convince in new situations.


The real problem with the Joint Statement Is that it assumes the term “liberal arts” as though it means now what it used to mean, according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary: “the studies in college or university that are presumed to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason or judgment) as opposed to professional, vocational, or technical studies.” I would add the idea that the liberal arts presume the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Knowing is better than not knowing.

The loss of that spirit is what the late sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) called The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Along with the evaporation of this ideal came a confusion about how the parts of a liberal education relate to one another—what another great sociologist Edward Shils (1910-1995) called The Order of Learning. Not all ideas are created equal, nor all subjects to be approached at random. Knowledge has a hierarchy, whether we like it or not.

With the expulsion of “Western civilization” as the governing idea of the liberal arts curriculum came the great flood of multicultural triviality. A few years ago in The Vanishing West, the National Association of Scholars documented the long, slow, withdrawing roar of Western civilization as the infrastructure of the liberal arts curriculum. With its disappearance also went the sense that a liberally educated American student would be an adult with a pretty firm grasp of the nature of the American republic.

The AAUP and AAC&U’s Joint Statement uses the term “liberal arts” not as the scaffolding of a literate civilization or a conception of a life of intellectual and cultural aspiration. They mean by it the thoroughly politicized heap of courses that dwell on race, class, gender, and sundry forms of oppression and that treat Western civilization as the font of all social injustice. As David Burge memorably puts it, the left identifies a respected institution; kills it; guts it; and then wears its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.

The Worried Campus Left

The “liberal arts” as a skin suit for the left’s domination of the humanities and social sciences commands no real respect from the American public, including that very substantial portion of the public that does respect the real liberal arts. At this point, those who respect the real liberal arts will not be fooled by the taxidermy. It is not that we favor the idea that college should be nothing but vocational specialization. It is that we know that the body snatchers have taken over the departments of English, philosophy, American Studies, and so on.

The liberal arts are in serious trouble. It just isn’t the trouble diagnosed in the Joint Statement. The barbarians who would destroy the liberal arts are not the politicians, parents, and practically-minded students; nor the business community; nor the college presidents drowning in deficits. The barbarians are the radical faculty members who, in so many colleges and universities, have destroyed the liberal arts from within.

This article was originally published by Minding the Campus on June 5, 2018.

Photo: The Course of an Empire: Destruction (1836), by Thomas Cole // Public Domain

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