Loosely defined, the phrase “liberal arts” refers to courses in Western philosophy, theology, literature, art, and history, with science and foreign languages playing a real but secondary role. For the ancient Greeks and many modern Westerners, the liberal arts have been thought necessary to cultivate good citizenship in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
At the beginning of my professorial career, I was asked to teach seminars in a Great Books program. Such a program is, by nature, multi-disciplinary and thus forced me out of the narrow confines of my chosen discipline. I continued to teach in that program for two decades; in fact, without a doubt, I learned more as a Great Books teacher than I did in my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral studies combined.
What must a student be expected to know? Put simply: the greats. Certainly the great thinkers and great books that have shaped our own Western civilization, but also some of the great thinkers and books arising from other civilizations and cultures.
Why bother with the great books? Why study literature, philosophy, and history? We teach the liberal arts because we know that we—as human beings—are fallible. We must recognize the magnitude of our errancy. The only infallible society is that of heaven. Even Homer “nods,” as the saying goes. And if Homer nods, we certainly will.
Likewise, if we as individuals are fallible, so is society at large, along with its army of social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals.
Persons who cannot grasp the imperfection and frailty of human nature often envision a future utopia. Conservative intellectual Thomas Sowell was right to argue that utopian aspirations are always, in the end, disastrous for society and culture. “Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades,” Sowell wrote, “has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. In area after area—crime, education, housing, race relations—the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.”
Sowell argued that society needed to recover the “tragic vision” of humanity promoted in the biblical and classical tradition, a vision that understood that evil lurks in the human heart. Against the progressive “utopian vision,” in which society needs to cast off norms and raze oppressive institutions, the sober-minded person should see true freedom as one that is rightly ordered by constraint. Sowell argued that external constraints—moral norms, institutions, traditions, religions, and even nations—are necessary to constrain evil and foster human flourishing.
In the United States, these norms and traditions include an emphasis on the individual’s dignity and responsibility, on human rights and freedoms, on the significance of human associations and institutions, and on the political sphere’s need for checks and balances.
This is why, as a society, we must stand on the shoulders of “The Greats” and the great tradition of Western thought by promoting liberal arts degrees in our colleges and universities.
However, while we must recover the liberal arts, as it turns out, the liberal arts are on the way out. The warm fire of the liberal arts has slowly been extinguished, smothered by academic frivolity, by ahistorical politics, and by the subversion of “high culture” generally.
One problem is that colleges are in crisis, and especially in a financial crisis, with career and job training acquiring more significance and urgency than liberal arts instruction; students are looking for a guaranteed job and the type of financial security they think will be assured by studying science, technology, or medicine rather than history, English, or philosophy. Yet, as entrepreneur Mark Cuban has argued, a liberal arts education prepares students for 21st-century jobs better than other types of education.
Another problem is that our nation has developed an examination culture, one in which SATs and other standardized tests are the keys to future education and (supposedly) a successful life. Similarly, and in spite of the increased emphasis on critical thinking, high school students are scoring lower and lower on the standardized tests, which bodes even worse for the type of analysis and evaluation needed to be successful in the liberal arts.
Exam culture focuses on the “quick response” intelligence. But good work in the liberal arts includes countless hours of reading, analysis, deliberation, evaluation. Slow, painstaking thought. A long obedience in the same direction.
Many universities focus more on research than teaching. This undermines the liberal arts in at least two ways, as I see it. First, this places the focus more on disciplines that produce visible progress, such as the STEM disciplines. Second, it undermines one of the main activities of the liberal arts, which is the careful, attentive, respectful teaching and reception of great books.
Everything has been politicized. And with the long-time ascendance of the left, the liberal arts have been politicized by the left’s obsession with race, sex, gender, and social class.
Thus, American education leans away from the liberal arts and more toward vocational training. Away from foundational courses on how to think and learn, and more on special-interest courses which confirm biases and reinforce existing preferences. And away from serious electives on classical works toward unserious electives of fleeting significance. Consider, for example, courses such as “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” or degree tracks in “Fermentation Science” (i.e. beer-making).
There are some exceptions to this virtual disappearance of the liberal arts. A handful of colleges have constructed their curriculum such that, in one way or another, the great books and thinkers are foundational. I think of St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD) and The College at Southeastern (Wake Forest, NC). Three cheers for these colleges, along with private school systems and home school networks that still rely on a classical liberal arts curriculum.
The slow death of liberal arts education will seriously hurt our nation. Without it, our society will continue to lose its ability to identify true intellectual and artistic achievements; the replacement of authoritative judgments with willy-nilly opinions; the celebration of third-rate art and politics; the likelihood that our society will slouch toward Gomorrah without ever noticing that it has.
Parents, educators, and policymakers, therefore, should support and advocate a liberal arts education that contemplates the great books and grand subjects. Doing so will elevate students from their parochial backgrounds into a realm of thought that prepares them for the “real world” rather than a politically correct fantasy.
Bruce Riley Ashford is senior fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre and author of Letters to an American Christian.