The Liberal Arts Are in Trouble - Should We Celebrate?

Peter Wood

This symposium originally appeared in two parts on Minding the Campus on April 8 and 9, 2014 (see Part 1 and Part 2).

As students and their families rethink the value of the liberal arts, defenders of traditional education are understandably ambivalent. On the one hand, the diminished stature of the liberal arts seems long overdue, and this critical reevaluation might lead to thoughtful reform. On the other, this reevaluation might doom the liberal arts to irrelevance. To that end, Minding the Campus asked a list of distinguished thinkers a straightforward question: should we be unhappy that the liberal arts are going down? Here are responses from Heather Mac Donald, Thomas Lindsay, Samuel Goldman, Patrick Deneen, Peter Wood, and Peter Lawler.


Heather Mac DonaldManhattan Institute

We shouldn't only be unhappy if the liberal arts are "going down." We should be ashamed. Our highest duty as a civilization is to keep alive those works from the past that gave birth to our present freedoms and that constitute the most profound expressions of what it means to be human.

I see no evidence that a "critical evaluation" of the liberal arts is underway, beyond an ignorant flight on the part of some college students towards more allegedly marketable majors.  This idea of a job-ready major is a fallacy; outside of vocational training and some select STEM fields, few majors, whether economics or philosophy, have a direct connection to most jobs. 

But while the marketable major is an illusion, there is no question that the conceit is driving many students away from humanistic study.  The irony is that colleges are themselves wholly responsible for endangering those fields that were once their very raison d'être.  For it is their sky-high tuitions that are fueling this migration into purportedly more bankable fields and their adolescent politicization of the humanities that is failing to give students a reason to look back. 

Tuition levels are the result of universities' own decision-making—above all, their insatiable drive to expand their student services bureaucracy.  No branch of that endlessly growing bureaucracy is more senseless and self-indulgent than the diversity superstructure, founded as it is on a demonstrable lie: that colleges are bastions of discrimination against minorities and females. 

Colleges could eviscerate the "I can't afford to be a literature major" argument overnight by eliminating their wasteful bureaucracies and slashing their tuitions by half.  In the meantime, the humanities should fight back against attrition with their strongest suit.  Forget the "we teach critical thinking" gambit, and other mealy-mouthed efforts at asserting a vacuous, process-oriented relevance.  No, the humanities should step up and proudly proclaim:  "We are the purveyors of beauty more lethal than you may possibly be able to bear and knowledge more profound than you can yet fathom.  We are your vehicle into the past and into the minds of other human beings.  Within our precincts are works of unparalleled eloquence, wit, and imagination; to die without having experienced them is to have led a life shortchanged."

Obviously, the humanities themselves have rendered such arguments off-limits with their plunge into narcissistic identity politics.  Such terms as "beauty" and "knowledge" are deeply "contested," as they say in High Theory, if not egregiously embarrassing.  But if all that a liberal arts degree can offer students is another tour of oppression and victimhood, there's no reason not to major in sociology.  If the humanities go down, the loss will be universal, but they will have only themselves to blame.  

Thomas LindsayTexas Public Policy Foundation

No one should be happy that the liberal arts are going down. Properly understood, the liberal arts constitute the core of the examined life defended in Socrates' famous statement, "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." In our secular age, the liberal arts represent the last, best hope of ennobling democracy, of liberating us from absorption in the present, of raising our gaze above ourselves, without which we risk sinking below the level of the beasts.

When we understand the liberal arts as indispensable to freeing us from unconscious thralldom to the unexamined assumptions that form our and every culture, we see that they are not "going down."

They went down some fifty years ago. Beginning with the near-wholesale abandonment by our colleges and universities of a required core curriculum, which was replaced by its present-day impostors—"general education" and "distribution requirements"—our universities have become "multi-versities," where courses are dished out in nearly as indiscriminate fashion as lunch choices at the campus cafeteria.

Going deeper, what brought down the liberal arts was the denial on the part of universities that there are absolute truths toward which the liberal arts might lead us and therewith liberate us from the unexamined life. In taking down the liberal arts, relativism simultaneously has toppled the authority of the defense of limited government and individual liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the U.S. Constitution. And this simultaneous takedown is no accident: The American experiment in self-government, like the liberal arts, stands or falls with the power of human reason to discover truth.

In this light, "market pressures" are not the chief factor driving the current, "critical reevaluation of the liberal arts." More precisely, market pressures on the liberal arts are hardly new--Tocqueville's time spent here in the 1830s led him to observe that democracy in America favors an education in what is useful toward securing comfortable self-preservation. But while market forces are not new, American society has of late come more and more to realize that the liberal arts, as currently impoverished by relativism, are of less and less value.

Further, the more impoverished the liberal arts become, the greater the ferocity with which they seek no longer to educate but rather to indoctrinate students into relativism's willfully unexamined assumptions. On this latter point, no less than Harvard's recent report on the humanities, "Mapping the Future," agrees. The primary concern of "Mapping" is students exiting the humanities. Since 1966, humanities majors have dropped from 14 to 7 percent of degrees nationwide. In examining the reasons for the exodus, Harvard confesses to driving off independent-minded students repelled by the intolerance too often taught and practiced in the humanities. "Mapping" acknowledges, "We sometimes alienate" humanities students who get the message "that some ideas are unspeakable."

Another factor often neglected amid our current concern over the fall of liberal arts study is the rise of the societal goal that nearly all should go to college. This educational romanticism fatally neglects the fact that mastery of a coherent, rigorous liberal arts curriculum is achievable by but a fraction of the great numbers now attending college thanks to the college-for-all orthodoxy. Thus, "Mapping's" concern over the percentage-drop in humanities majors is likely overwrought, because, if the liberal arts are not for everybody, sending ever-more students to college should only be expected to reduce the percentage of humanities majors relative to the now-larger pool.  The college-for-all agenda also has played no small role in diluting the rigor of what does remain of the liberal arts, thereby contributing to the popular perception that they lack intellectual respectability.

As to whether or not the critical reevaluation of the liberal arts will lead to their thoughtful reform or doom them to irrelevance, my point in this piece is that the pervasive relativism and concomitant intolerance currently found in the liberal arts already has doomed them in the deepest, most meaningful sense. We can and must, of course, hope that a reevaluation will produce thoughtful reform, but that does not answer the question, "From where and whom will reform come?" From the market? The liberal arts properly constituted were always looked to as a guide to rescue a purely market-oriented focus from falling guilty to the charge that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  From politicians? They have feared and likely will continue to fear pushback from those chiefly responsible for dooming the liberal arts, the higher-education establishment, which enjoys an organized, well-funded lobbying effort in both Washington, D.C., and the state capitols—whereas the people lack both the intensity and the organization required to threaten politicians' electoral imperative.

This is far from saying that we should not hope that a critical reevaluation yields thoughtful reform. But hope is not a strategy. The fundamental question is this: Who will educate the educators? Any successful strategy must entail no less than a refounding of the American academy, which is to say, must entail restoring the quest for wisdom as the highest human possibility. Absent this, the most fundamental of human revolutions, one is hard-pressed to expect anything other than a continued descent into misology, intolerance, and barbarism.

Samuel GoldmanGeorge Washington University

The phrase "going down" is too general. Rather than a single entity, "the liberal arts" designates a far-flung constellation of activities and institutions. In order to assess the fate of the liberal arts, these dimensions have to be distinguished. Here are a few key elements of liberal arts, with some thoughts on challenges and prospects for each:

Liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges are in big trouble. According to a 2012 article in the journal Liberal Education there were 212 liberal arts colleges (LACs) in the United States in 1990. Today, there are only 130.               
Arguments about the higher education bubble would lead one to expect that the colleges that dropped off the list went bust. That's not the case: only a few of the missing LACs actually closed. Instead, they changed their curricula, emphasizing pre-professional or vocational education.

This trend has affected remaining LACs, too. According to Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp, only 10 residential liberal arts colleges in the country offer no vocational majors whatsoever.  And at 55% of LACs, only about half the students graduate with liberal arts. In sum, there are many fewer liberal arts colleges than there used to be. And those that survive aren't as humanistic as they used to be.

The weak job market almost certainly discourages students from enrolling in LACs or, if they do,  majoring in the humanities. But the real problem is the abandonment of the justification for the LAC. Having rejected many of their traditional religious, civic, and moral responsibilities in the 1970s, LACs now have trouble explaining what they're for. No wonder students prefer options that seem more likely to lead to employment and often cost less.

More serious teaching and learning goes on at liberal arts colleges than conservative critics sometimes suggest. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that they will recommit as institutions to traditional ideals. As result, they will likely continue to die out, whether through actual closure or vocationalization. In a few decades, the only survivors may be elite LACs, which offer valuable branding as well as the small-scale setting in which some students thrive, and religious colleges which retain the sense of vocation that inspired the founders of American high education.

Undergraduate EducationThe picture here isn't quite so dire. Recent reports have trumpeted the finding that number of degrees conferred in liberal arts subjects has dropped precipitously since the 1960s. It turns out, however, that most of the drop occurred in the 1970s—long before the current economic crisis or the culture wars of the 1990s. So the challenge to undergraduate enrollments doesn't seem to be either new market pressures or recent intellectual developments. In fact, much of the drop is attributable to women entering non-humanities fields as their professional opportunities expanded.

But this interpretation offers no cause for self-congratulation. The fact remains that the liberal arts hemorrhaged students in the 1970s--and have done nothing to win them back since. At elite universities, moreover, the number of humanities majors at elite universities has dropped in the last decade. The social sciences appear to be the main beneficiaries of the shift.

Unlike the crisis of liberal colleges, this problem has a solution. Professors and departments of the liberal arts don't need major institutional commitments to attract more students. They do need to offer better courses. "Better" means two things: First, effective humanities courses need to focus on serious content of enduring importance rather than specialist research or pop culture ephemera. Second, they must include rigorous reading and writing requirements, which equip students with the flexible skills that employers value more than specific job training.

Offering better courses won't be easy, but it's certainly possible. For that reason, I'm relatively optimistic about the prospects for liberal arts education within larger universities. The liberal arts will probably not recover the central role they enjoyed in the golden age of American higher education after World War II. But they don't have to accept irrelevance.

Graduate Education. This subject is almost too depressing to discuss. For mostly self-serving reasons, departments of liberal arts subjects continue to admit far more Ph.D. students than they could ever hope to place in jobs. That wouldn't be so bad if these students were honestly informed of their prospects and provided with adequate funding. Too often, however, they're led to believe that chances of employment are much better than they really are and used as cheap labor to staff the classes that tenured faculty don't want to teach.

The future of the graduate system is murky. For mysterious reasons, enrollment in doctoral programs in the arts and humanities actually increased by 7.7% in 2013. On the other hand, good (meaning pessimistic) information about the risks and rewards of graduate school in the humanities is much easier to find than in the past. So if more people are going forth to the slaughter, they can be expected to know what awaits them.  

The Life of the MindBut liberal education can't be reduced to colleges, course offerings, or graduate program. As Leo Strauss suggested, these are organized settings for a certain kind of experience: the experience of things that the Greeks described as kalon—the fine, the beautiful, the noble. Do the liberal arts today offer this experience?

It seems to me that this question can't be answered on the systematic level. The experience of the beautiful is something that happens to and among individuals engaged in study and discussion with and about great works and great minds. All the humanities majors in the world wouldn't guarantee it. And the economic pressures and intellectual fads can't preclude it.  

So in the long run, I'm optimistic. The traditional objects of liberal arts study--the intellectual and artistic products of Western civilization—are too rich and too rewarding to go down permanently. Plato will still be Plato, Augustine will still be Augustine, Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare in fifty years, or a hundred, or a thousand. Barring social or environmental cataclysm, they will always find readers. And some of those readers will organize themselves for purposes of serious learning and teaching. Perhaps that will occur within universities, perhaps outside them. Either way, the liberal arts will survive.

Patrick DeneenNotre Dame

We should be unhappy that the liberal arts are "going down" in theory but not in fact.  Because the liberal arts, of course, have already "gone down;" indeed, the remnant of what was once called "the liberal arts" on most of today's college campuses hardly deserves that name.  

On most campuses there is barely any semblance of a curriculum shaped around a coherent understanding of the liberal arts, and most of the focal disciplines responsible for trusteeship of the liberal arts long ago gave up their role to serve as conservators of a fragile tradition.  Instead, faculty in those fields became hostile in general to the thing they taught—the Western tradition—and used the tools of their disciplines to undermine the legitimacy of what they taught.  Most books were either understood to be repositories of backwards thinking—sexism, classism, colonialism, racism, heteronormativity, ableism—or tools for their defeat.  In other words, the works from which it had been once widely understood were read because every generation was entitled to learn anew from them—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and so on—could no longer "teach" us anything that we didn't already know.  Such authors and their books were simply props for confirming our progressed views.  No wonder people on both sides of the lectern lost an interest in reading and teaching classic works, increasingly substituting them for "cultural studies" that confirmed prevailing orthodoxies.

Those who today most loudly denounce the decline of the liberal arts - rightly recognizing that higher education is coming under pressure to conform both to market as well as bureaucratic "assessment" pressures—largely have themselves to blame for the inability to mount a persuasive defense of the liberal arts.  They claim that they have a special ability to teach "critical thinking," but there is no reason whatsoever to think that such a goal is particularly the domain of "the liberal arts."  If all one aims to teach is "critical thinking," the conclusion many tuition-paying "customers" have reached is that students may as well learn a marketable skill while purportedly picking up such an amorphous skill.

Both amusingly and pathetically, there have even been laments for the shortage of "conservative" voices like that of Allan Bloom aimed at criticizing the displacement of the liberal arts for more marketable disciplines.  Such laments conveniently overlook the vicious attacks that Bloom sustained at the time of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind from most scholars in the liberal arts, and that the composition of faculty in the liberal arts disciplines has been significantly remade in order to ensure than no-one like Bloom is among them.  The people who once might have been counted on to defend the liberal arts as constituting the heart of a coherent humanist curriculum (not a potpourri of options) largely ceased to be hired on most campuses years ago.

Instead, the remaining conservative and liberal critiques of the liberal arts are likely to stress their irrelevancy and promote more practical disciplines and overall reduction of the study of politicized disciplines (recall that not just economic libertarian "conservatives," but President Obama has questioned the value of disciplines like Art History).  While I don't agree with these aims, I can't disagree with their dismissiveness of much of what passes for the liberal arts on today's campuses.  I will defend to my last breath the liberal arts, but not what passes for the liberal arts on most campuses today.  Efforts to "reform" them have failed, and having betrayed the essence of the liberal arts - an education in ordered liberty - thereby assured their own demise.

A renascence is and will continue to happen outside the mainstream universities, which on the whole will continue to become more focused on STEM and career-preparation.  That renewal is happening mostly in institutions with religious affiliations, either new ones that have arisen with the decline of religious commitment of the Protestant and elite Catholic (especially Jesuit) traditions (e.g., Thomas Aquinas College), ones that have maintained their religious tradition (e.g., University of Dallas, Grove City College), or well-established institutions that are reviving their religious commitments (e.g., Providence College).  The vast majority of American parents, shaped by a utilitarian culture and fearful about a winner-take-all economy, today want to ensure that their children receive a practical education, free from political indoctrination, in return for exorbitant tuition dollars - and who can blame them?  But at least a remnant of parents are committed to the ongoing humanistic formation of their children - understanding that to be fully human, one must avoid reducing the end of education to narrowly economic goals, and that the complete life is finally one in which one is liberally educated, i.e., free in the fullest sense of being liberated from a disordered soul. 

These parents and students will constitute the "market" for the ongoing renewal of the liberal arts, off the beaten track of the mainstream of higher education.  Like the monasteries of old they will be the life rafts in which western civilization will be preserved by a small creative minority until the current Dark Ages pass.

Peter WoodNational Association of Scholars

The liberal arts today are a broad, snow-covered hillside—a splendid place for tobogganing, but not so good as a venue for reading Plato. 

Let's not underestimate the thrill of a fast ride down the mountain, whizzing past boulders and ice-bejeweled aspens.  The exuberance of the contemporary take-anything-you-want curriculum is a force to be reckoned with.  Take "Cultural Difference and Crime Film" this semester, or maybe "Modern Western Prostitutes." Next semester comes "Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Eastern Europe."  By senior year, you might work in "Advanced Topics in Environmental Philosophy." 

Those course titles come from my deep mine of examples, Bowdoin College.  I cite Bowdoin because it is always better to have concrete evidence.  But if "all is whirl" at Bowdoin, it is because all is whirl in liberal arts education at large. 

Since the 1960s, broad courses and courses with prerequisites at Bowdoin have declined precipitously.  In their place came an explosion of narrow and often colorfully-named "topics" courses.  The college now offers an abundance of semi-specialized studies minus any governing context. 

The liberal arts, once centered on Western civilization, have been successfully "de-centered." Their unified purpose these days is the need to alienate students from American ideals.  As a New York Times columnist enthusiastically put it, "Education means enlightening our children's minds with the uncensored scientific and artistic truth of the world.  If that means making our own sons and daughters strangers to us, then so be it." 

The making of strangers—estrangement—requires more than a gleeful toboggan run down the slippery slope of a postmodern curriculum.  It also requires shaping students' social attitudes, behavior, and ethics—in a word, their character.  Liberal arts education used to embrace character formation as a way of preparing students to be leaders in American civic life. This meant fostering self-restraint, commitment to national ideals, hard work, a willingness to sacrifice, and nobility of spirit.  The effort sometimes failed, but the liberal arts played an outsized role in preparing many generations of Americans to rise to the challenge of making our instruments of self-government work.

All of this has become excess baggage for today's liberal arts college.  The emphasis on "estrangement" is in play in this context as well.  Bowdoin, though it has no required academic courses, requires new students to sit through a 45-minute play that propagandizes in favor of sexual experimentation governed by only one consideration:  mutual consent.  The college favors becoming a "citizen of the world" over consideration of American citizenship. Multiculturalism, verging on worship of the exotic, saturates extracurricular life. Freedom of expression bows down to political correctness. The campus is hostile to traditional religion. Bowdoin students are overscheduled with activities but spend roughly half the time studying outside class--sixteen hours per week on average--than students did forty years ago.

The loss of the older liberal arts tradition is grievous.  That loss deprives students, even if they don't know it, of the better part of their education, and deprives the nation of a class of men and women suited by knowledge and temper to lead our country. 

The growing disaffection of Americans with what is now (falsely) called liberal arts education, however, should be welcomed and encouraged.  Let the snow melt away from that toboggan slope. In its decline lies the possibility of a renaissance of real learning. The marketplace will supply practical training; and after a painful transition, colleges will rediscover the real terrain of the liberal arts.

Peter Lawler, Berry College

If liberal education has been defeated, it's because capitalism has won.  And if that's true, we conservatives have to come to realize that capitalism unbounded can be as unfriendly to the truth about human liberty and dignity as collectivism was.  We're going to have to become more aggressive about thinking outside the individualism vs. collectivism box.

According to the libertarian/capitalist critique (see Glenn Reynolds and Tyler Cowen), the arguments for liberal education are founded in aristocratic prejudices. From this view, liberal education favored manners over the productivity of individuals.  To these critics, education must now be all about acquiring and marketing flexible skills to a dynamic market. 

There's a downside, Cowen admits.  A free and cosmopolitan people—one that has properly absorbed the relativistic degradation of liberal education—will care only about consuming, not producing, culture. Despite all our money and technology, we're stuck with just enjoying Gothic cathedrals or pyramids.  We're stuck with being unable to generate such outstanding cultural artifacts for ourselves.  We don't live in any particular culture; we're producers and consumers—and so we're tourists—deep down.

If you think about it, what the destruction of liberal education presupposes is that everything we are as persons can be expressed in terms of production and commodification.  We're not really citizens or creatures or even parents or children; we're not really part of a particular people with customs and conventions inhabiting a particular part of the world.

The way back for liberal education is to begin by saying loudly and proudly that the capitalist or libertarian argument that outs liberal education as an illusion is itself based upon the illusion that free and relational persons born to love and die could possibly flourish in a post-political, post-cultural, post-religious, post-familial, and even post-biological environment.


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