Why Taxpayers Should Support the Liberal Arts

I’m writing in response to Yevgeniy Feyman’s challenging comments to my conservative defense of liberal education:

We see more and more libertarian nudging in higher education.  Consider the proposal, coming out of Florida, to incentivize students to choose the most demonstratively productive majors.  They are, of course, the STEM majors–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Tuition for these majors at state schools should be lower.  Intelligent students should be nudged in productive directions, and there’s nothing wrong the taxpayers subsidizing their acquisition of useful skills.  There’s also the thought, of course, that these fields are all about real–as opposed to ideological–learning.  One piece of evidence of these fields’ seriousness is their resistance to grade inflation.  Their tests assess the acquisition of skills and facts rather than one’s ability to spout opinion.  Answers are right or wrong. This is one of the many reasons why trained engineers are in such great demand and graduates in the various “studies” majors are pretty much undesirable.

No libertarian would deny that students should remain free to choose history or literature. However, a good libertarian could argue that humanities students should be charged differently for their extravagant preferences.  Though liberal arts professors might argue that their offerings should actually cost less because their salaries are low and there’s generally no need for equipment, libertarians could respond that students should be discouraged from wasting time and money on classes that would prevent them from becoming productive members of society. 

Our society makes it possible to live as a bourgeois bohemian–to balance productivity and “the art of living.”  As libertarians constantly remind us, though, anyone who thinks that being bourgeois doesn’t come first is a fool.  Making money requires brains, skills, and discipline, while the art of living is easy.

We conservatives respond that making money is easy, but living well with it is hard.  Even with better skills, productive habits, and thus a lot more money, those girls on HBO’s Girls would remain pretty clueless.  The main character’s social ineptitude has little to do with her poverty and everything to do with the emotional isolation that comes from her wounded, narcissistic soul.

It’s hard to know how to spend your money in a way worthy of who you are; it’s just as hard to know how to spend your “unproductive” time well.  There’s no reason why our taxpayers shouldn’t be concerned with preserving the whole truth about human nature.  They have good reason to support critical thinking about the conditions for the flourishing of free and responsible men and women.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

3 thoughts on “Why Taxpayers Should Support the Liberal Arts

  1. “There’s no reason why our taxpayers shouldn’t be concerned with preserving the whole truth about human nature.”
    Would be happy to. But that’s not what the Liberal Arts are doing, not even on average.

  2. Once we have pushed all the good students into STEM fields, who is going to teach them to read and write well enough to communicate with one another?

  3. One great question I have is:
    Are good state run/funded Universities remotely compatible with a modern secular state?
    It seems the answer may be “no”. In which case we should leave *all* education up to religious authorities and non governmental foundations, most likely until we get to a time that we have a better government.

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